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    Freedom, the Village, and the Internet (rerun)

    Posted by David Foster on 7th February 2017 (All posts by )

    (Hearing in a town this size, by John Prine and Delores Keane, reminded me of this 2013 post–rerun here, with some edits and a special musical bonus added at the end.)

    I’ve reviewed two books by German writer Hans Fallada: Little Man, What Now?, and Wolf Among Wolves (the links go to the reviews), both of which were excellent. I’ve also read his novel Every Man Dies Alone, which is centered on a couple who become anti-Nazi activists after their son Ottochen is killed in the war…it was inspired by, and is loosely based on, the true story of  a real-life couple who distributed anti-Nazi postcards and were executed for it.

    I thought this book was also excellent…the present post, though, is not a book review, but rather a development of some thoughts inspired by a particular passage in the story.

    Trudel, who was Ottochen’s fiancee, is a sweet and intelligent girl who is strongly anti-Nazi..and unlike Ottochen’s parents, she became an activist prior to being struck by personal tragedy: she is a member of a resistance cell at the factory where she works.  But she finds that she cannot stand the unending psychological strain of underground work–made even worse by the rigid and doctrinaire man (apparently a Communist) who is leader of the cell–and she drops out. Another member of the cell, who has long been in love with her, also finds that he is not built for such work, and drops out also.

    After they marry and Trudel becomes pregnant, they decide to leave the politically hysterical environment of Berlin for a small town where–they believe–life will be freer and calmer.

    Like many city dwellers, they’d had the mistaken belief that spying was only really bad in Berlin and that decency still prevailed in small towns. And like many city dwellers, they had made the painful discovery that recrimination, eavesdropping, and informing were ten times worse in small towns than in the big city. In a small town, everyone was fully exposed, you couldn’t ever disappear in the crowd. Personal circumstances were quickly ascertained, conversations with neighbors were practically unavoidable, and the way  such conversations could be twisted was something they had already experienced in their own lives, to their chagrin.

    Reading the above passage, I was struck by the thought that if we are now living in an “electronic village”…even a “global village,” as Marshall McLuhan put it several decades ago…then perhaps that also means we are facing some of the unpleasant characteristics that–as Fallada notes–can be a part of village life. And these characteristics aren’t something that appears only in eras of insane totalitarianism such as existed in Germany during the Nazi era. Peter Drucker, in Managing in the Next Society, wrote about the tension between liberty and community:

    Rural society has been romanticized for millenia, especially in the West, where rural communities have usually been portrayed as idylic. However, the community in rural society is actually both compulsory and coercive…And that explains why, for millenia, the dream of rural people was to escape into the city. Stadluft macht frei (city air frees) says an old German proverb dating back to the eleventh or twelfth century.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Media, Tech | 15 Comments »

    Two Very Poor Analyses

    Posted by David Foster on 3rd February 2017 (All posts by )

    Forbes ran an article with the headline “Solar employs more people in US electricity generation than oil, coal, and gas combined” and goes on to say “It’s a welcome statistic for those seeking to refute Donald Trump’s assertion that green energy projects are bad news for the American economy.”

    Unmentioned in this article is the point that energy production is not done for the purpose of energy production; it is done for the purpose of energy use…and production modes which are more expensive tend to cost jobs downstream.  If an excessive emphasis on solar and wind cause electricity prices to rise significantly, the negative impact will fall on those who work in manufacturing and other fields that are energy-intensive.

    To take an extreme case, one could easily create millions and millions of jobs in energy generation by requiring that all electricity be generated by human beings turning cranks connected to generators.  It is silly to look at job-creation as a good thing in isolation, without considering factors other than the number of people hired.  The Forbes article also neglects to mention the point that in most technologies, and certainly in electricity generation, the construction phase of a plant generally requires a lot more labor than does the ongoing operation of that plant.

    An even lower depth of mediocrity is reached in this International Monetary Fund article:  Counting the cost of energy subsidies.  This study considers traffic congestion and vehicle accidents as ‘externalities’ from fossil fuel usage.  In reality, of course, the replacement of all gasoline-and-diesel-powered vehicles with electric vehicles recharged from solar/wind…or even their replacement by unicorn-powered vehicles requiring no other energy source whatsoever…would by itself have no effect whatsoever on traffic congestion and vehicle accidents.  And while the elimination of automobiles and trucks completely would certainly eliminate traffic congestion, it would also lead to delays in travel which would greatly exceed the magnitude of the congestion-caused delays.

    Putting lots of math in a study is not a substitute for common sense.

    Posted in Energy & Power Generation, Environment | 12 Comments »

    Uncle Henry, Charlie Kellstadt, and Donald Trump

    Posted by David Foster on 24th January 2017 (All posts by )

    As President Trump has focused on persuading certain specific companies to increase their US employment (or at least to refrain from decreasing it as much as originally planned), concerns have been raised about his ability to operate above the level of the single case and to think in terms of framing general policies.  I do share this concern to a certain extent.

    But I’m also reminded of Peter Drucker’s story about two old-line merchants.

    The first of these, called “Uncle Henry” by those who knew him, was the founder and owner of a large and succesful department store. When Drucker met him, he was already in his eighties. Uncle Henry was a businessman who did things by intuition more than by formal analysis, and his own son Irving, a Harvard B-School graduate, was appalled at “the unsystematic and unscientific way the store was being run.”

    Drucker remembers his conversations with Uncle Henry. “He would tell stories constantly, always to do with a late consignment of ladies’ hats, or a shipment of mismatched umbrellas, or the notions counter. His stories would drive me up the wall. But gradually I learned to listen, at least with one ear. For surprisingly enough he always leaped to a generalization from the farrago of anecdotes and stocking sizes and color promotions in lieu of markdowns for mismatched umbrellas.”

    Drucker also knew another leading merchant, Charles Kellstadt (who had once run Sears.) Kellstadt and Drucker served together on a Department of Defense advisory board (on procurement policy), and Kellstadt told “the same kind of stories Uncle Henry had told.” Drucker says that his fellow board members “suffered greatly from his interminable and apparently pointless anecdotes.”

    On one occasion, a “whiz kid” (this was during the McNamara era) was presenting a proposal for a radically new approach to defense pricing policy. Kellstadt “began to tell a story of the bargain basement in the store in Chillicothe, Ohio, where he had held his first managerial job, and of some problem there with the cup sizes of women’s bras. he would stop every few sentences and ask the bewildered Assistant Secretary a quesion about bras, then go on. Finally, the Assistant Secretary said, “You don’t understand Mr. Kellstadt; I’m talking about concepts.” “So am I,” said Charlie, quite indignant, and went on. Ten minutes later all of us on the board realized that he had demolished the entire proposal by showing us that it was far too complex, made far too many assumptions, and contains far too many ifs, buts, and whens.” After the meeting, another board member (dean of a major engineering school) said admiringly, “Charlie, that was a virtuoso performance. but why did you have to drag in the cup sizes of the bras in your bargain basement forty years ago?” Drucker reports that Charlie was surprised by the question: “How else can I see a problem in my mind’s eye?”

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, Deep Thoughts, Management, Trump | 6 Comments »

    The Ballpoint Pen as an Economic Case Study

    Posted by David Foster on 20th January 2017 (All posts by )

    Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has lamented China’s inability to “make ballpoint pens with a smooth writing function.” After five years of research, a state-owned steel company now says it can.

    WSJ notes that 80% of the world’s ballpoint pens are made in China…but that thus far, China has not been making all of the pen’s components.  Specifically:

    The tip of a high-quality ballpoint demands metal work involving high-precision machinery and very hard, ultrathin steel plates. So 90% of pens made in China have imported tips. China’s leaders want “self-sufficiency,” in pens as in semiconductors. Now they claim they’ll have it.

    This little story is interesting from at least three angles.

    First–as the WSJ story points out, China’s desire to control the entire ballpoint pen supply chain indicates that their leaders still value economic autarky, and that Chinese leadership denunciation of President Trump on grounds of his insufficient respect for free trade carry more than a whiff of hypocrisy.

    Second–the ballpoint pen example makes the point that the apparent simplicity of a product does not necessarily reflect the complexity or lack thereof involved in manufacturing it.  American economic commentators often fail to grasp this point when they assert that America’s future must lie in producing “advanced high-technology products.”

    Third–the example should also clarify the point that the highest value in a product supply chain does not necessarily lie in the assembly of the final product.  The final product assembly is usually the most visible part of the supply chain, but very often the creation of components that go into that chain involves more complexity and requires more skill than the final assembly process itself.  It’s considerably more difficult to make integrated circuits, for example, than to assemble those chips onto circuit boards and to assemble the boards into a plastic or metal case.

    Posted in Business, China, Economics & Finance, Tech, USA | 44 Comments »

    Lex on Leadership

    Posted by David Foster on 16th January 2017 (All posts by )

    Neptunus Lex wrote about his “youngster” cruise as a Midshipman attending the Naval Academy.  This is the first of two cruises that a Midshipman takes: during the second cruise, your activities are those of an officer…

    But during youngster year, you sail as a Sailor. You wear dungarees, chip paint, sweep passageways and stand enlisted watches. You sleep in enlisted berthing, eat in the enlisted mess and attempt to get some sense of the men you are supposed to lead in three year’s time, and the lives they live. ..You are tempted to believe that this work is beneath you. You are a Naval Academy midshipman, the cream of the crop. You are special.

    and

    You spend some time in the engineering plant – in a gas turbine ship, an amazingly clean and quiet space. Totally incomprehensible. It resembles nothing at all like the wiring diagrams in your thermodynamics textbooks.

    But there’s a 23 year old Sailor who didn’t go to college, never read Thoreau, and who nevertheless understands it all. He patiently tries to teach you how it works. He speaks to you like one would speak to an elderly person in a nursing home, slowly, simply. You feel patronized, and worse: You realize that you do not entirely understand.

    You are beginning to learn – not about engineering. But about Sailors.

    and

    You’re heading home. Bridge watches now, under the tutelage of 20 year old quartermaster’s mates. Men from small towns that you’ve never hear of, in states you remember dimly from your grade school geography. From farming families, where no one went to college, and no one was expected to. Men who could fix your position to a hundred yards moving at 20 knots across the endless sea using only the stars, a stopwatch and a sextant. Men who could debate the finer points of Strauss and Engels. Men who play classical guitar to an appreciative audience in the 80 man berthing during their time off duty. Who have dreams of their own that they will tell you about, when no one else is listening. Men who would risk their lives to save yours in the midst of a flaming inferno, without hesitating for a moment to reckon the cost, to tally the odds. Men who would die for you, if they had to.

    And you begin to realize that you’re not special because of who you are, the grades you got in high school or where you’re going to college. You’re special because of who you’ve been selected to lead, when your time comes.

    And that, my friends, is the beginning of wisdom.

    Definitely read the whole thing.

    There was a general…can’t remember who it was…who remarked that you will can never be a good officer unless you like Soldiers. (And you can’t fake it for long, he added.) I think it is pretty clear that Lex liked Sailors.

    One way of evaluating any leader…military, political, business executive..is his attitude toward those he leads or wants to lead.

    Posted in Management, Military Affairs, USA | 9 Comments »

    An Odd Couple, or a Match Made in Heaven?

    Posted by David Foster on 13th January 2017 (All posts by )

    It is interesting that there is such a high overlap of political opinion between College Professors and Entertainers…the latter category not being known for their intellectual or scholarly tastes, on the average.

    Significance, if any?

    Posted in Academia, Film, Politics, USA | 33 Comments »

    Jargon, Proverbs, and Memes

    Posted by David Foster on 7th January 2017 (All posts by )

    Texan99, writing at Grim’s Hall, discusses the ‘thick fog of buzzwords’ that pervades the educational arena in this country. My comment is that buzzwords and jargon are worst in education, government, and the ‘nonprofit’ world, but increasingly are also pervading the world of business and having a malign effect therein. Many of the posts I see on LinkedIn, for example, represent attempts by people who have never had a creative idea or insight in their lives to posture a deep thinkers and business intellectuals by maximizing their use of the buzzwords du jour.

    Sarah Hoyt draws a distinction between memes and proverbs:

    Of all the ways people have come up with to avoid thinking, I like memes the most.  They are so ridiculously easy to fall into.  You see the words, you see the picture and you go “ah ah, that’s so true.” Even when on a minute’s reflection it makes no sense whatsoever…I think in a way it follows the same pattern that proverbs followed in more ancient cultures…While proverbs were ways not to have to think or short cuts around thinking, they weren’t, by themselves, pernicious…Proverbs are in a way, the encoding of societal wisdom into short cuts to lead people into ways that have worked before…Memes are similar, but you have to remove societal wisdom and put in “the commanding forces of culture and mass media”.  RTWT

    Andre Beaufre, who in 1940 was a young captain on the French General Staff (later a general, he commanded the French contingent in the Suez attack) commented on his impressions when he first breathed the refined air at the General Staff level:

    I saw very quickly that our seniors were primarily concerned with forms of drafting. Every memorandum had to be perfect, written in a concise, impersonal style, and conforming to a logical and faultless plan–but so abstract that it had to be read several times before one could find out what it was about…”I have the honour to inform you that I have decided…I envisage…I attach some importance to the fact that…” Actually no one decided more than the barest minimum, and what indeed was decided was pretty trivial.

    Entirely consistent with Beaufre’s observation was a interchange between the artists Picasso and Matisse which took place in the midst of the collapse of 1940:

    Matisse: But what about our generals, what are they doing?

    Picasso:  Our generals? They’re the masters at the Ecole des Beaux Arts!

    …ie, men possessed by the same rote formulae and absence of observation and obsessive traditionalism as the academic artists.

    The decline in clarity of writing and speaking presages nothing good.  Confucius pointed out that “If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.”

    See my earlier post When Formalism Kills and the ensuing discussion thread.

    Posted in Academia, Business, Deep Thoughts | 5 Comments »

    Night Carrier Operations

    Posted by David Foster on 7th January 2017 (All posts by )

    Neptunus Lex puts you in the cockpit.  It’s a long series…you can always pull the Eject lever–but I don’t think you’re going to want to.

    Part I

    Part II

    Part III

     

    Thanks to Bill Brandt for locating and posting this.

    Posted in Aviation, Military Affairs, War and Peace | Comments Off on Night Carrier Operations

    What are the Limits of the Alexander Analysis?

    Posted by David Foster on 3rd January 2017 (All posts by )

    Edward Porter Alexander, who was Lee’s artillery commander at Gettysburg, became a railroad president after the war. His experiences in running a major transportation system probably had something to do with the evolution of his thoughts regarding state’s rights:

    Well that (state’s rights) was the issue of the war; & as we were defeated that right was surrendered & a limit put on state sovereignty. And the South is now entirely satisfied with that result. And the reason of it is very simple. State sovereignty was doubtless a wise political instution for the condition of this vast country in the last century. But the railroad, and the steamboat & the telegraph began to transform things early in this century & have gradually made what may almost be called a new planet of it… Our political institutions have had to change… Briefly we had the right to fight, but our fight was against what might be called a Darwinian development – or an adaptation to changed & changing conditions – so we need not greatly regret defeat.

    I think a lot of the belief in unlimited globalization is implicitly driven by an extension of Alexander’s argument, with the jet plane, the container ship, and the Internet taking the place of the railroad, steamboat, and telegraph.

    How far does this extension make sense?  If the ability of locomotives could pull trains across the United States in three days meant that full sovereignty for individual states was obsolete, does the ability of jet airplanes to carry passengers and freight anywhere in the world in less than one day similarly imply that full sovereignty for nations is obsolete?

    I suspect that most people at this site will not agree with a transportation-based argument for the elimination of national sovereignty.  So, what is valid and what is invalid about Alexander’s analysis, and what are the limits for the extension of its geographical scope?  Discuss.

    Posted in Deep Thoughts, History, Political Philosophy, Tech, Transportation, USA | 22 Comments »

    This is Why We Can’t Make Nice Things

    Posted by David Foster on 30th December 2016 (All posts by )

    A positive review of General Electric stock points out that the company is less exposed to the oil market than it was prior to the Baker Hughes spinoff…and then goes on to say:

    Gone too is the iconic firm’s appliances business, which was sold to Chinese firm Haier. This is really a progression of the economic cycle. While folks like President-elect Donald Trump and financial provocateur Peter Schiff lament that Americans just don’t make stuff anymore, at a certain point, advanced economies should outsource physical work to less-advanced countries. It’s not so much a matter of ability as it is financial efficiency.

    Does this writer believe that GE should also divest the jet engine business, the power generation business, and the transportation (locomotive) business?  All of these businesses make physical things, and make substantial amounts of those physical things in the US.

    The idea that manufacturing is devoid of intellectual content and hence unworthy of advanced economies is fallacious and has done serious harm–see my post Faux Manufacturing Nostalgia.  Happily, this attitude has turned around substantially since I wrote the linked post..to the point that manufacturing is being practically over-romanticized…but islands of the “who needs it?” view still exist.

    GE’s reasoning for divesting Appliance seems to have been centered on a desire to focus the company on business-to-business markets rather than consumer markets and, and also, I think, on a perception that there was not sufficient room in the appliance world for product differentiation and a technology edge.  “Technology edge,” rightly understood, includes the complexity/difficulty of manufacturing something, not just the intellectual property embedded in the product itself.  It certainly did not reflect any conclusion that manufacturing is inherently a low-value function.

    It would be silly to argue that a computer programmer in a bank is a “knowledge worker” and a programmer in manufacturing is not.  It would be equally silly to argue that a bank branch manager is inherently performing a more highly-skilled job than a shift supervisor in a factory, or that a first-level customer service rep for Amazon is performing a more advanced kind of work than an assembly line worker, or that an operations research expert doing inventory studies for a manufacturing firm is less of a knowledge worker than his equivalent doing inventory studies for Target.  But this is implicitly the argument that many of the ‘we don’t need manufacturing here’ crew have been making.

    This dismissive attitude toward a vast and complex industry which supports millions of people represents one more example of the constellation of attitudes against which many people rebelled when choosing to vote for Donald Trump.

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Tech | 7 Comments »

    Christmas 2016

    Posted by David Foster on 24th December 2016 (All posts by )

    Newgrange is an ancient structure in Ireland so constructed that the sun, at the exact time of the winter solstice, shines directly down a long corridor and illuminates the inner chamber. More about Newgrange here and here.

    Grim has an Arthurian passage about the Solstice.

    Don Sensing has thoughts astronomical, historical, and theological about the Star of Bethlehem.

    Vienna Boys Choir, from Maggie’s Farm

    Lappland in pictures…link came from the great and much-mourned Neptunus Lex

    Snowflakes and snow crystals, from Cal Tech. Lots of great photos

    In the bleak midwinter, from King’s College Cambridge

    Rick Darby has some thoughts on the season. More here.

    A Christmas reading from Thomas Pynchon.

    The first radio broadcast of voice and music took place on Christmas Eve, 1906. (although there is debate about the historical veracity of this story)

    An air traffic control version of  The Night Before Christmas.

    Ice sculptures from the St Paul winter carnival

    O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, sung by Enya

    Gerard Manley Hopkins

    Mona Charen, who is Jewish, wonders  what’s going on with the Christians?

    Posted in Christianity, Holidays, Poetry | 2 Comments »

    Video Review: A French Village

    Posted by David Foster on 19th December 2016 (All posts by )

    I’m currently on Season 5 of this series, which ran for 6 seasons on French TV.  Set in the fictional town of Villeneuve during the years of the German occupation and directly afterwards, it is simply outstanding – one of the best television series I have ever seen.

    Daniel Larcher is a physician who also serves as deputy mayor, a largely honorary position.  When the regular mayor disappears after the German invasion, Daniel finds himself mayor for real.  His wife Hortense, a selfish and emotionally-shallow woman, is the opposite of helpful to Daniel in his efforts to protect the people of Villaneuve from the worst effects of the occupation while still carrying on his medical practice.  Daniel’s immediate superior in his role as mayor is Deputy Prefect Servier, a bureaucrat mainly concerned about his career and about ensuring that everything is done according to proper legal form.

    Daniel’s brother Marcel is a Communist.  The series accurately reflects the historical fact that the European Communist parties did not at this stage view the outcome of the war as important–it was only “the Berlin bankers versus the London bankers”…but this is a viewpoint that Marcel has a hard time accepting.

    In addition to his underground political activism, Marcel works as a foreman at the lumber mill run by a prominent local businessman, Raymond Schwartz.  A strong mutual attraction has developed between Raymond and Marie Germain, a farm wife whose husband is away with the army and is missing in action.

    Much of the movie’s action takes place at the local school, where Judith Morhange is the (Jewish) principal and Lucienne Broderie is a young teacher. Jules Beriot, the assistant principal, is in love with Lucienne, but hopelessly so, it seems.

    German characters range from Kurt, a young soldier with whom Lucienne shares a love of classical music, all the way down to the sinister sicherheitdienst officer Heinrich Mueller. The characters include several French police officers, who make differing choices about the ways in which they will handle life and work under the Occupation.

    The series does a fine job of bringing all these characters–and many more–to life.  Very well-written and well-acted, well-deserving of its long run on French television. Highly recommended.

    In French, with English subtitles that (unlike the case with many films) are actually readable.  Season 1 is available on Amazon streaming, and seasons 2-5 are available there in DVD form.  MHZ Networks is another available source for the series.  (Season 6, which I believe is now running in France, is not yet available in translation.)

    Not to be missed.

    Posted in Film, France, Germany, History, Video, War and Peace | 3 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading & Viewing

    Posted by David Foster on 15th December 2016 (All posts by )

    A USAF jet fighter pilot flies a WWII P-51 Mustang.

    An argument that China will never be as wealthy as America.  (‘Never’ is a long time, though)

    A huge database of artworks, indexed on many dimensions.

    An ethics class that has been taught for 20 years (at the University of Texas-Austin) is no longer offered.  According to the professor who taught it:

    Students clam up as soon as conversation veers close to anything controversial and one side might be viewed as politically incorrect. The open exchange of ideas that used to make courses such as Contemporary Moral Problems exciting doesn’t happen. It’s not possible to teach the course the way I used to teach it.

    At the GE blog:  Direct mind-to-airplane communication…and, maybe someday, direct mind-to-mind communication as well.  Although regarding the second possibility, SF writer Connie Willis raises some concerns.

    Also at the GE blog:  The California Duck Must Die – a very good explanation of the load-matching problems created when ‘renewable’ sources become a major element of the electrical grid. Media discussion of all the wind and solar capacity installed has tended to gloss over these issues.

    The Battle of the Bulge, December 1944 – January 1945.

    Posted in Academia, Aviation, China, Deep Thoughts, Economics & Finance, Education, Energy & Power Generation, History, War and Peace | 3 Comments »

    Technology and Offshoring

    Posted by David Foster on 9th December 2016 (All posts by )

    Thought question: If Henry Ford had been able to have the Model T manufactured in Mexico by people making 50 cents a day…and with no need for the assembly line and related productivity-improving technology…would that have been equivalent, in terms of its economic, social, and political consequences, to making it in Detroit on the assembly line with workers making $5.00/day and a 10:1 reduction in unit labor content?

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Tech | 28 Comments »

    An Interesting Story About Government Funding

    Posted by David Foster on 5th December 2016 (All posts by )

    If the government wants to give money to your organization, that’s a good thing, right?

    Here’s a letter to the editor that recently appeared in the Financial Times:

    Sir, I was raised in a Catholic orphanage, along with 800 boys and girls, pre-kindergarten through high school. It was established in 1883. I experienced none of the “abuse, neglect and trafficking” JK Rowling talks about (“Rowling shines a light on the false incentives distorting aid”, Gillian Tett, November 19). That is, until the orphanage began accepting funds from the state rather than via charitable donations from religious organisations.

    Once government money began flowing in, the orphanage had to adhere to all the latest politically correct modalities then in vogue: no more dormitories, only small “cottages” of 10 with live-in grievance counsellors rather than nuns; no more in-residence classrooms — the kids now had to be bussed to the nearest school; no more football and basketball teams — everybody had to get a trophy; and no more need to work on that 850-acre farm, or to work in the kitchen, in the bakery, in the dairy, in the powerhouse shovelling coal, or in the shoe and carpenter shops — these things would be provided by state subsidies.

    Knock on the door of any one of its graduates and you would find that person a veteran of the second world war, the Korean war, Vietnam, the Gulf war, simply working in the corporate world as a productive member of our society. Now, its graduates are wards of the state.

    In time, the orphanage dwindled from 800 children to 80 — the rapacious after-effects of public funding. Most recently it became entangled in equal rights abuses, the legal costs absorbing scare funds for upkeep and maintenance, before finally sinking into insolvency and closure. That orphanage out on the Illinois prairie is now surely one of Rowling’s “fairy tales”.

    Jeremiah Norris (Hudson Institute)

    As Rose Wilder Lane wrote, a long time ago:

    Nobody can plan the actions of even a thousand living persons, separately. Anyone attempting to control millions must divide them into classes, and make a plan applying to these classes. But these classes do not exist. No two persons are alike. No two are in the same circumstances; no two have the same abilities; beyond getting the barest necessities of life, no two have the same desires.

    She was talking about individuals, but a similar point could be made about organizations.

    The people who talk so much about ‘diversity’ rarely seem to understand (or at least to care) that top-down government management is a destroyer, not an enabler, of true diversity.

    Posted in Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Political Philosophy | 8 Comments »

    The American Virtual Civil War

    Posted by David Foster on 29th November 2016 (All posts by )

    Musings on Cirque des Crazi, at Ricochet, was inspired by two long-time (since childhood) friends of the author and his wife…one a senior nun and the other a retired IRS manager…who have “been looney, angry, mean and distempered crazies before, during and since the election”…”Yes, they are Hilaryites. They are the scourge of (his wife’s) Facebook, showing no mercy or measure of humanity. Both use language that would make Trump blush.  Many people on Ricochet have reported similar insanity and we all watch the media created Cirque Des Crazi on the streets of blue cities and the academic child care centers formerly known as Higher Education.

    Read and discuss.

    Posted in Leftism, Politics, Trump, USA | 40 Comments »

    Book Review: The Road Back, by Erich Maria Remarque (rerun)

    Posted by David Foster on 20th November 2016 (All posts by )

    The Road Back by Erich Maria Remarque

    —-

    (I had intended to rerun this post during the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, which took place from July 1 to November 18, 1916…missed that window, but of course the war lasted for two more years after the Somme)

    The narrator is a young German who served in the First World War. The war is finally over, and Ernst, together with his surviving comrades, has returned to the high school from which they departed in 1914. The Principal is delivering a “welcome home” speech, and it is a speech in the old oratorical style:

    “But especially we would remember those fallen sons of our foundation, who hastened joyfully to the defence of their homeland and who have remained upon the field of honour. Twenty-one comrades are with us no more; twenty-one warriors have met the glorious death of arms; twenty-one heroes have found rest from the clamour of battle under foreign soil and sleep the long sleep beneath the green grasses..”

    There is suddden, booming laughter. The Principal stops short in pained perplexity. The laughter comes from Willy standing there, big and gaunt, like an immense wardrobe. His face is red as a turkey’s, he is so furious.

    “Green grasses!–green grasses!” he stutters, “long sleep?” In the mud of shell-holes they are lying, knocked rotten. ripped in pieces, gone down into the bog–Green grasses! This is not a singing lesson!” His arms are whirling like a windmill in a gale. “Hero’s death! And what sort of thing do you suppose that was, I wonder?–Would you like to know how young Hoyer died? All day long he lay in the wire screaming. and his guts hanging out of his belly like macaroni. Then a bit of shell took off his fingers and a couple of hours later another chunk off his leg; and still he lived; and with his other hand he kept trying to pack back his intestines, and when night fell at last he was done. And when it was dark we went out to get him and he was as full of holes as a nutmeg grater.—Now, you go and tell his mother how he died–if you have so much courage.”

    Not only Willy, but several other student/soldiers rise to challenge the tone of the Principal’s speech:

    “But gentlemen,” cries the Old Man almost imploringly, “there is a misunderstanding–a most painful misunderstanding—”

    But he does not finish. He is interrupted by Helmuth Reinersmann, who carried his brother back through a bombardment on the Yser, only to put him down dead at the dressing-station.

    “Killed,” he says savagely, “They were not killed for you to make speeches about them. They were our comrades. Enough! Let’s have no more wind-bagging about it.”

    The assembly dissolves into angry confusion.

    Then suddenly comes a lull in the tumult. Ludwig Breyer has stepped out to the front. “Mr Principal,” says Ludwig in a clear voice. “You have seen the war after your fashion—with flying banners, martial music, and with glamour. But you saw it only to the railway station from which we set off. We do not mean to blame you. We, too, thought as you did. But we have seen the other side since then, and against that the heroics of 1914 soon wilted to nothing. Yet we went through with it–we went through with it because here was something deeper that held us together, something that only showed up out there, a responsibility perhaps, but at any rate something of which you know nothing and of which there can be no speeches.”

    Ludwig pauses a moment, gazing vacantly ahead. He passes a hand over his forehead and continues. “We have not come to ask a reckoning–that would be foolish; nobody knew then what was coming.–But we do require that you shall not again try to prescribe what we shall think of these things. We went out full of enthusiasm, the name of the ‘Fatherland’ on our lips–and we have returned in silence,. but with the thing, the Fatherland, in our hearts. And now we ask you to be silent too. Have done with fine phrases. They are not fitting. Nor are they fitting to our dead comrades. We saw them die. And the memory of it is still too near that we can abide to hear them talked of as you are doing. They died for more than that.”

    Now everywhere it is quiet. The Principal has his hands clasped together. “But Breyer,” he says gently. “I–I did not mean it so.”

    Ludwig Breyer’s words: “We do require that you shall not again try to prescribe what we shall think of these things…Have done with fine phrases” capture well the break which the Great War caused in the relationship between generations, and even in the use of language. It is a disconnect with which we are still living.

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    Posted in Book Notes, Deep Thoughts, Europe, Germany, History, War and Peace | 7 Comments »

    Attack of the Job-Killing Robots, Part 2

    Posted by David Foster on 15th November 2016 (All posts by )

    In my previous post of this series, I remarked that most discussion of the employment effects of robotics/artificial intelligence/etc seems to be lacking in historical perspective…quite a few people seem to believe that the replacement of human labor by machinery is a new thing.

    This post will attempt to provide some historical perspective on today’s automation technologies by sketching out some of the past innovations in the mechanization of work,  focusing on “robots,” broadly-defined…ie, on technologies which to some degree involve the replacement or augmentation of human mind/eye/hand, rather than those that are primarily concerned with the replacement of human and animal muscular energy…and will discuss some of the political debate that took place on mechanization & jobs in the 1920s through 1940s.

    Throughout most of history, the production of yarn for cloth was an extremely labor-intensive process, done with a device called a distaff, almost always employed by women, and requiring many hours per day to generate a little bit of product.  (There even exists a medieval miniature of a woman spinning with the distaff while having sex…whether this is a comment on the burdensomeness of the yarn-making process, or a slam at the love-making skills of medieval men, I’m not sure—-probably both.)  Eventually, probably around 1400-1500 in most places in Europe, the spinning wheel came into use, improving the productivity of yarn-making by a factor estimated from 3:1 to as much as ten or more to one.

    Gutenberg’s printing press was invented somewhere around 1440.  I haven’t seen any estimates of its effect on labor productivity, compared with the then-prevailing method of hand copying of manuscripts, but surely it was at least 1000 to 1 or more.

    The era from 1700-1850 was marked by tremendous increases in the productivity of the textile trades.  The flying shuttle and other advances greatly improved the weaving process; this created a bottleneck in the supply of yarn, which was partly addressed by the invention of the Spinning Jenny–a foot-powered device that could improve the yarn production of one person by 5:1 or better. Power spinning and power looms yielded considerable additional productivity improvements.

    An especially interesting device was the Jacquard Loom (1802), which used punched cards to direct the weaving of patterned fabrics.  In its initial incarnation, the Jacquard was a hand loom: its productivity did not come from the application of mechanical power but rather from the automation of the complex thread-selection operations previously carried out by a “Draw Boy.”

    Turning now to woodworking:  in 1818, Blanchard’s Copying Lathe automated the production of complex shape–a prototype was automatically traced and copied. It was originally intended for making gunstocks, but also served in producing lasts for shoemakers, and I believe also chair and table legs.

    Another major advancement in the clothing field was the sewing machine.  French inventory Barthelemy Thimonnier invented a machine in 1830, but was driven out of the country by enraged tailors and political instability.  The first commercially-successful machines were invented/marketed by Americans Walter Hunt, Elias Howe, and Isaac Singer, and were in common use by the 1850s.

    By the late Victorian period the sewing machine had been hailed as the most useful invention of the century releasing women from the drudgery of endless hours of sewing by hand. Factories sprung up in almost every country in the world to feed the insatiable demand for the sewing machine. Germany had over 300 factories some working 24 hours a day producing countless numbers of sewing machines. 

    The beginnings of data communications could be seen in gold ticker and stock ticker systems created by Edison and others (circa 1870) , which relayed prices almost instantaneously and eliminated the jobs of the messenger boys who had previously been the distribution channel for this information.  Practical calculating machines also appeared in the 1870s.  But the big step forward in mechanized calculation was Hollerith’s punched card system (quite likely inspired in part by the Jacquard), introduced in 1890 and used for the tabulation of that year’s census.  These systems were quickly adopted for accounting and record keeping purposes in a whole range of industries and government functions.

    Professor Amy Sue Bix, in her book Inventing Ourselves out of Jobs?, describes the fear of technological unemployment as silent movies were replaced by the ‘talkies’. “Through the early 1920s…local theaters had employed live musicians to provide accompaniment for silent pictures.  Small houses featured only a pianist or violinist, but glamorous ‘movie places’ engaged full orchestras.”  All these jobs were threatened when Warner Brothers introduced its Vitaphone technology, with prerecorded disks synchronized to projectors.  “Unlike other big studios, Warner did not operate its own theater chains and so had to convince local owners to screen their productions. Theater managers would be eager to show sound movies, Harry Warner hoped, since they could save the expense of hiring musicians.”

    The American Federation of Musicians mounted a major PR campaign in an attempt to convince the public that ‘living music’ was better than ‘canned sound.’  A Music Defense League was established, with membership reaching 3 million…but the ‘talkies’ remained popular, and the AFM had to admit defeat.  A lot of musicians did lose their jobs.

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    Posted in Book Notes, Business, Capitalism, Deep Thoughts, Economics & Finance, History, Tech, USA | 47 Comments »

    Attack of the Job-Killing Robots

    Posted by David Foster on 12th November 2016 (All posts by )

    Here’s a new factory for making automobile frames, specifically designed to minimize the need for human labor.  The CEO of the company that built it actually said, “We set out to build automobile frames without people.”

    At the start of the process, rough steel plates are inspected by electronic sensors, automatically pushing aside any that deviate from tolerances.  Conveyors take the plates through punching, pressing, assembling, and nailing machines, as well as a machine that can insert 60 rivets simultaneously in each frame.  A set of finishing machines then rinse, dry, spray-paint, and cool the frames.  Aside from a few men moving frames between conveyor belts, the floor routine of the plant requires almost no hand labor.

    And today’s robotics and artificial-intelligence advances go far beyond automating routine manufacturing labor and take over the kind of cognitive functions once thought to be exclusive to human beings. Here, for example, is a new AI-based system that displaces much of the thought-work which has been required of the people operating railway switch and signal installations:

    The NX control machine is in effect the “brain” of the system. It automatically selects the best optional route if the preferred route is occupied.  It will allow no conflicting routes to be set up. It eliminates individual lever control of each switch and signal.

    Pretty scary from the standpoint of maintaining anything like full employment, don’t you think?

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    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Tech | 12 Comments »

    Don Beaudreaux Supports Government by Experts

    Posted by David Foster on 10th November 2016 (All posts by )

    …which doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means

    Similar points are made in Sarah Hoyt’s post makeup, mate choice, and political philosophy

    Posted in Deep Thoughts, Economics & Finance, Political Philosophy | Comments Off on Don Beaudreaux Supports Government by Experts

    Sell Your Soul or Lose Your Livelihood

    Posted by David Foster on 5th November 2016 (All posts by )

    Sebastian Haffner, whose memoir I reviewed here, describes what happened to his father–a civil servant under both Weimar and the Kaiser–following the Nazi takeover.  The elder Haffner, long-since retired, had considerable accomplishments to his credit:  There had been great pieces of legislation in his administrative area, on which he had worked closely. They were important, daring, thoughtful, intellectual achievements, the fruits of decades of experience and years of intense, meticulous analysis and dedicated refinement”–and it was extremely painful to him to see this work ruthlessly trashed by the new government.  But worse was to come.

    One day Mr Haffner received an official letter. It required him to list all of the political parties, organizations, and associations to which he had ever belonged in his life and to sign a declaration that he ‘stood behind the government of national uprising without reservations.’ Failure to sign would mean the loss of his pension, which he had earned through 45 years of devoted service.

    After agonizing about it for several days, he finally filled out the form, signed the declaration, and took it to the mailbox before he could change his mind.

    “He had hardly sat down at his desk again when he jumped up and began to vomit convulsively. For two or three days he was unable to eat or keep down any food. It was the beginning of a hunger strike by his body, which killed him cruelly and painfully two years later.”

    Haffner Senior was retired; he would surely have no chance for other employment if he crossed the new regime.  He could either violate his convictions and sign the document, or sentence his wife and himself to total impoverishment and possibly actual starvation.

    As recently as 10 years ago, it would have seemed unlikely that any American would have to face Mr Haffner’s dilemma.  But things have changed.  If current trends continue, it is very likely that YOU will have to foreswear your beliefs or face career and financial devastation.

    Plenty of markers along this dark path are already visible.  Things are worst in academia, it seems.  At Yale, lecturer Erika Christakis resigned after being vitriolically attacked for suggesting that people not get all stressed up about Halloween costumes.  Her husband, Nicholas, has also resigned from Yale.  Ms Christakis says that many of those were intellectually supportive of the couple were afraid to make their support public:  “Numerous professors, including those at Yale’s top-rated law school, contacted us personally to say that it was too risky to speak their minds. Others who generously supported us publicly were admonished by colleagues for vouching for our characters.”

    Just the other day, I ran across this article, which uncomfortably parallels the Haffner story.

    (Iowa State University) students are told that they must abide by the school’s policy against “harassment” of anyone in the university community. Students must complete a “training program” consisting of 118 slides online, covering the university’s non-harassment policies and procedures, and then pledge never to violate them.

    But what if a student thinks that the ISU policy goes way beyond preventing true harassment and amounts to an abridgement of his rights under the First Amendment?

    In that case, ISU reserves the right to withhold the student’s degree. So either the student agrees to abide by the policy even though it may well keep him from speaking out as he’d like to, or have his academic work go for naught. 

    Iowa State is going beyond ‘only’ requiring you to shut up about your opinions and will also require you to positively affirm beliefs which you may not share.

    The attack on individuals’ careers and finances due to their political/philosophical beliefs is by no means limited to academia.  There is the case of Brendan Eich, who was pushed out as CEO of Mozilla because of his personal support (in 2008) of a law which banned same-sex marriage in California.  There are multiple cases of small businesspeople subjected to large fines because of their refusal to violate their convictions by baking a cake or providing other services for a same-sex wedding.

    And don’t think that just because you support gay marriage…even if you support what you think is 100% of the ‘progressive’ worldview–that you are safe.  Deviationism can always be found, as the Old Bolsheviks discovered during the time of Stalin.  Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis, herself a self-defined feminist, was investigated by the university after complaints were made about an essay she published under the title “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academia.”  Kipnis writes:

    A tenured professor on my campus wrote about lying awake at night worrying that some stray remark of hers might lead to student complaints, social-media campaigns, eventual job loss, and her being unable to support her child. I’d thought she was exaggerating, but that was before I learned about the Title IX complaints against me.

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    Posted in Civil Liberties, Elections, Germany, History, USA | 6 Comments »

    The Inner Ring

    Posted by David Foster on 4th November 2016 (All posts by )

    The behavior of the network of people surrounding the Clintons, as detailed in recent revelations, reminds me of a talk that C S Lewis gave at King’s College, University of London, in 1944.

    And the prophecy I make is this. To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”—and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something “we always do.”

    And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face—turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.

    The full text of the talk is here:  The Inner Ring

    Posted in Deep Thoughts, Human Behavior, Politics | 5 Comments »

    Human Emotions and the Nuclear Codes

    Posted by David Foster on 3rd November 2016 (All posts by )

    Two stories about Hillary Clinton:

    1–Yossi Tzur, who lost his son, Assaf, in a terror bus bombing in Israel, described the meetings with a number of American officials that he participated in when he came to this country as part of a delegation including other families of terror victims:

    “We were welcomed with warmth, with empathy, all heard us and gave us their attention, well, almost everybody.”

    Tzur went on to describe the delegation’s meeting with Rudy Giuliani. “You could feel the warmth of the man, his humanity, his care,” he wrote. “You could see tears in his eyes when he told the stories. The meeting was scheduled for an hour, it took almost two hours and then he stood with us patiently taking photos with each and every one.”

    From New York, the delegation went to Washington for a series of meetings, one of them was in the Senate with NY Senator Hilary Clinton. Tzur recalled that “we arrived at her office in the Senate and were shown into a small meeting room, it could hardly fit all of us, it was dark, crowded, it didn’t even had water on the table. So we waited.

    “Time went by, 15 minutes, 30, an hour. Her aides were embarrassed saying she is coming any minute now. After an hour and a half Clinton arrived. 

    “She looked as us seeing the group in the room, we could see she is not really there with us, we felt she was impatient and just looking to finish it and go. We felt really uncomfortable… Even before we could speak she said, you probably want a photo, come let’s go out, leading us to the stairs. There she asked us to stand on the stairs and one of her aides took the photo. We still wanted to talk to her, people came ready to tell her their story, she didn’t intend to hear, it looked she didn’t want to hear. With inhuman coldness she went out amongst us all and disappeared in one of the corridors leaving us shocked and disappointed.”

    2–Linda Tripp, White House secretary during the Bill Clinton administration, describes the reactions of Vince Foster and Hillary Clinton while watching the horrible Waco “law-enforcement operation” (in which 76 people died, including many children) unfold on television:

    “A special bulletin came on [CNN] showing the atrocity at Waco and the children. And his face, his whole body slumped, and his face turned white, and he was absolutely crushed knowing, knowing the part he had played. And he had played the part at Mrs. Clinton’s direction.

    Her reaction, on the other hand, was heartless. And I can only tell you what I saw.”

    Indeed, it seems obvious that Hillary Clinton does not possess the normal human complement of emotional reactions, that she is cold and robotic.  Something is definitely missing there.

    Democrats and their supporters keep arguing that Donald Trump must not be trusted with the nuclear codes.  In my view–if a decision for or against a nuclear launch must be made, I’d prefer it to be made by someone that can understand at a visceral level what it means for real people.  Which would not be Hillary Clinton, who really does not appear to see other human beings as anything other than tools in her unending power games.

    There has been much discussion lately about whether decisions in war can be entrusted to intelligent robots.  I’d rather not see the most important military decision of all time made by a human robot.

     

    Posted in Elections, Human Behavior, Politics, War and Peace | 11 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading and Watching

    Posted by David Foster on 1st November 2016 (All posts by )

    Makeup, mate choice, and political philosophy…an interesting piece by Sarah Hoyt.

    Historical ignoramuses at American universities.  A professor has been quizzing his students for 11 years concerning their knowledge of some basis fact, and the trend is not positive.

    Crybullies at Smith College…a student reports:

    During my first days at Smith, I witnessed countless conversations that consisted of one person telling the other that their opinion was wrong. The word “offensive” was almost always included in the reasoning. Within a few short weeks, members of my freshman class had quickly assimilated to this new way of non-thinking. They could soon detect a politically incorrect view and call the person out on their “mistake.” I began to voice my opinion less often to avoid being berated and judged by a community that claims to represent the free expression of ideas. I learned, along with every other student, to walk on eggshells for fear that I may say something “offensive.” That is the social norm here.

    The dark art of political intimidation.  A video by Kimberly Strassel.

    Posted in Academia, Civil Liberties, Education, Human Behavior, Political Philosophy | 1 Comment »

    Is Hillary Clinton Directly Responsible for the Execution of Sharam Amiri?

    Posted by David Foster on 31st October 2016 (All posts by )

    Sharam Amiri, an Iranian nuclear scientist, was executed by the regime on August 3 after being convicted of providing secret information to the Americans. Sharam Amiri was also discussed in emails that were found on Hillary Clinton’s unsecured server.

    Did Clinton’s negligence lead to Amiri’s execution? Possibly not: the regime was suspicious of him for other reasons, and we don’t know for certain that the Clintonmail bathroom server was hacked by the Iranians. But discussing a foreign intelligence contact on a system that is not certified for classified information can easily lead to the deaths of American agents and other individuals, whether or not it happened in this specific case..

    There is no excuse for Vox’s flippant attitude in referring to this matter as “Trump’s fake controversy.” If you take several passengers for a high-speed drive in your car while knowing that the brakes are bad, then you are doing a terrible thing, even if that particular ride does not end in disaster. If you feed someone a regular diet of poisons, and he is killed by someone else before the poisons have a chance to act, that does not let you off the hook. Clinton’s extreme irresponsibility may have led to Amiri’s execution or it may not; it may have led to the execution or murder of others of whom we were unaware. This case provides one more piece of evidence about Hillary’s utter lack of concern about the lives and well-being of actual, particular human beings.

    Posted in Elections, Iran, Media | 7 Comments »