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  • Archive for the 'Management' Category

    Worthwhile Watching

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

    …especially for Labor Day weekend

    There probably aren’t too many TV series centered around a CNC machine shop…but there’s at least one, and it’s called Titans of CNC.  The producer and central figure, Titan Gilroy–yes, that’s his real name–grew up in rough circumstances, spent some time in prison, and eventually learned machine-tool operation and CNC programming. With these skills in hand, he built a pretty substantial business, Titan America, which is focused on precision machining, mainly producing components of products being made by larger companies.

    The program is about the challenges involved in the operation of Titan America and a portrait of some of its employees and customers.  It is also a passionate argument for the importance of manufacturing in America.  Sponsors include Autodesk, IMCO Carbide Tools, Haas Automation and GoEngineer.

    The series was made for a cable channel called MATV, which is owned by Lucas Oil Products and is targeted towards car people.  It’s available on Amazon streaming, which is where I’ve been watching it.

    There’s an interview with Titan in Manufacturing & Technology News.

    Posted in Business, Management, Media, Tech, USA | 11 Comments »

    Sam Damon or Courtney Massengale?

    Posted by David Foster on 27th April 2016 (All posts by )

    The novel Once An Eagle (also made into a TV miniseries) tells the story of two American army officers, across a time span ranging from the First World War to the interwar years to World War II and beyond.  Sam Damon is a farm boy who has worked his way up in rank: he is committed to accomplishing his assigned missions and looking out for the survival and well-being of the men under his command.  Courtney Massengale is a West Point graduate with something of an upper-class background: he seeks out higher rank through political maneuvering, prefers Staff to Line assignments, and has little concern for subordinates.  The book is widely-read and highly-regarded in U.S. military circles.

    In the story’s climactic scene, Sam is commanding a division destined to participate in an attack on a Japanese-held island.  He is not thrilled to find that his division has been placed under the command of Courtney–now a three-star general and corps commander despite having spent his entire career in staff roles.  He is even less thrilled when he hears Courtney’s plan for the invasion–“PALLADIUM”–which is in Sam’s judgment far too complex to succeed in actual combat conditions.

    The Japanese launch their counterattack while Sam’s division is in a highly vulnerable state, in the midst of the turning maneuver required by the Palladium plan.  And the reserve unit which could have saved the situation has been redeployed by Courtney so that he can have the honor of being the first American general to capture a Japanese-held city intact.  While Sam is leading a desperate fight for the survival of his division, Courtney is riding in triumph through the town of Reina Blanca.

    Sam Damon and Courtney Massengale are endpoints on a spectrum, of course; few real people are as good as Sam or as bad as Courtney.  But still, it seems to be useful to ask the following question:

    What is the mix of Damon vs Massengale in each of our current presidential candidates and among other members of our national leadership?

    Posted in Book Notes, History, Human Behavior, Management, War and Peace | 33 Comments »

    TechnoProletarians?

    Posted by David Foster on 18th April 2016 (All posts by )

    Here’s a story about some Silicon Valley tech workers protesting outside a Hillary Clinton event co-hosted by a venture capitalist and George Clooney.  One might expect that these people are protesting Clinton because their political preferences lean toward the Libertarian or Conservative side.  But then, one would be wrong.

    They are mostly Sanders supporters.  And they feel oppressed by the industry that they are in, and especially by the VCs who fund the companies where they work. Here’s the complaint of a 26-year-old software engineer:

    “They sell you a dream at startups – the ping-pong, the perks – so they can pull 80 hours out of you. But in reality the venture capitalists control all the capital, all the labor, and all the decisions, so yeah, it feels great protesting one.”

    “Tech workers are workers, no matter how much money they make,” said another guy, this one a PhD student at Berkeley.

    Now, one’s first instinct when reading this story–at least my first instinct–is to feel contempt for these whiners.  Most of them are far better off financially than the average American, even after adjusting for the extremely high costs of living in the Bay area.  And no one forced any of them to work at startups, where the pressures are well-known to be extreme.  They could have chosen IT jobs at banks or retailers or manufacturing companies or government agencies in any of a considerable number of cities.

    Looked at from a broader perspective, though, the story reminded me of something Peter Drucker wrote almost 50 years ago:

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, Current Events, Deep Thoughts, Elections, Entrepreneurship, Management, Society, Tech, USA | 48 Comments »

    Another Software & Systems Debacle

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

    I’ve previously written about the failure of the “Advanced Automation System,” an FAA/IBM effort to create a new-generation system for air traffic control: the story of a software failure.  (The post excerpts the thoughts of Robert Britcher, who was deeply involved in the effort and is an excellent writer–very much worth reading.) The AAS project has been called “the greatest debacle in the history of organized work”–there are a lot of contenders for that honor, though, and here’s another one…

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, Management, Tech | 25 Comments »

    Re-reading Drucker: Concept of the Corporation

    Posted by David Foster on 17th January 2016 (All posts by )

    Concept of the Corporation, by Peter Drucker

    It’s been a long time since I read this 1946 book by Peter Drucker.  I recently pulled it down from the shelf and thought it worth a reread.  I’ll be excerpting some passages I think are particularly interesting, not necessarily in sequential order.  For starters, under the heading the corporation as a social institution:

    Americans rarely realize how completely their view of society differs from that accepted in Europe, where social philosophy for the last three hundred years has fluctuated between regarding society as God and regarding it as merely an expression of brute force.  The difference between the American view of the nature and meaning of social organization and the views of modern Europe goes back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  During that period which culminated in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) the Continent (and to a lesser degree England) broke with the traditional concept of society as a means to an ethical end–the concept that underlay the great medieval synthesis—and substituted for it either the deification or the degradation of politics.  Ever since, the only choice in Europe has been between Hegel and Machiavelli.  This country (and that part of English tradition which began with Hooker and led through Locke to Burke) refused to break with the basically Christian view of society as it was developed from the fifth to the nineteenth century and built its society on the reapplication of the old principle to new social facts and new social needs.  

    To this social philosophy the United States owes that character of being at the same time both the most materialistic and the most idealistic society, which has baffled so many observers…The American who regards social institutions and material goods as ethically valuable because they are the means to an ethical goal is neither an idealist nor a naturalist, he is a dualist.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Business, Europe, Management, Political Philosophy, USA | 10 Comments »

    Another Software Debacle

    Posted by David Foster on 10th November 2015 (All posts by )

    The project to computerize immigration documentation is not going well…after $1 billion in expenditures and and a new estimated total cost of $3.5 billion—the original estimate having been for half a billion.  (via Marginal Revolution)

    And, of course, we’re all aware of the problems with the Obamacare website and supporting back-end systems.

    Back in 2006, I wrote about the failure of the FAA/IBM project to develop the “Advanced Automation System” for air traffic control: The story of a software failure, based on the writing of Robert Britcher, who was involved in the project.

    The problems with the ATC project were to my mind somewhat more excusable than the ones with the current immigration project:  the “Advanced Automation System” was required to operate with extreme reliability and availability with stringent real-time response criteria, to interface with radar systems, and to support a complex and safety-critical user interface.  The immigration system sounds like basically a large database and workflow system.

    Posted in Big Government, Management, Tech | 18 Comments »

    Organizational Culture, Improvisation, Success, and Failure

    Posted by David Foster on 24th October 2015 (All posts by )

    Maggie’s Farm reminds us that October 21 was the 210th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.  (JMW Turner painting of the battle at the link)  I am reminded of a thoughtful document written in 1797 by a Spanish naval official, Don Domingo Perez de Grandallana, on the general subject “why do we keep losing to the British, and what can we do about it?”  His thoughts were inspired by his observations while with the Spanish fleet off Cape St Vincent,  in a battle which was a significant defeat for Spain, and are relevant to a question which is very relevant to us today:  

    What attributes of an organization make it possible for that organization to accomplish its mission in an environment of uncertainty, rapid change, and high stress?

    Here are de Grandallana’s key points:

    An Englishman enters a naval action with the firm conviction that his duty is to hurt his enemies and help his friends and allies without looking out for directions in the midst of the fight; and while he thus clears his mind of all subsidiary distractions, he rests in confidence on the certainty that his comrades, actuated by the same principles as himself, will be bound by the sacred and priceless principle of mutual support.

    Accordingly, both he and his fellows fix their minds on acting with zeal and judgement upon the spur of the moment, and with the certainty that they will not be deserted. Experience shows, on the contrary, that a Frenchman or a Spaniard, working under a system which leans to formality and strict order being maintained in battle, has no feeling for mutual support, and goes into battle with hesitation, preoccupied with the anxiety of seeing or hearing the commander-in-chief’s signals for such and such manoeures…

    Thus they can never make up their minds to seize any favourable opportunity that may present itself. They are fettered by the strict rule to keep station which is enforced upon then in both navies, and the usual result is that in one place ten of their ships may be firing on four, while in another four of their comrades may be receiving the fire of ten of the enemy. Worst of all they are denied the confidence inspired by mutual support, which is as surely maintained by the English as it is neglected by us, who will not learn from them.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Anglosphere, Book Notes, Britain, France, History, Human Behavior, Management, Military Affairs, Society, War and Peace | 4 Comments »

    Book Review: Rockets and People, by Boris E Chertok

    Posted by David Foster on 4th October 2015 (All posts by )

    (Today marks the 58th anniversary of the Sputnik launch, making it an appropriate time to rerun this review, which I originally posted in February of this year)

    Rockets and People, by Boris E Chertok

    Boris Chertok’s career in the Russian aerospace industry spanned many decades, encompassing both space exploration and military missile programs. His four-volume memoir is an unusual document–partly, it reads like a high school annual or inside company history edited by someone who wants to be sure no one feels left out and that all the events and tragedies and inside jokes are appropriately recorded. Partly, it is a technological history of rocket development, and partly, it is a study in the practicalities of managing large programs in environments of technical uncertainty and extreme time pressure. Readers should include those interested in: management theory and practice, Russian/Soviet history, life under totalitarianism, the Cold War period, and missile/space technology. Because of the great length of these memoirs, those who read the whole thing will probably be those who are interested in all (or at least most) of the above subject areas. I found the series quite readable; overly-detailed in many places, but always interesting. In his review American astronaut Thomas Stafford said “The Russians are great storytellers, and many of the tales about their space program are riveting. But Boris Chertok is one of the greatest storytellers of them all.”  In this series, Chertok really does suck you into his world.

    Chertok was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1912: his mother had been forced to flee Russia because of her revolutionary (Menshevik) sympathies. The family returned to Russia on the outbreak of the First World War, and some of Chertok’s earliest memories were of the streets filled with red-flag-waving demonstrators in 1917. He grew up on the Moscow River, in what was then a quasi-rural area, and had a pretty good childhood–“we, of course, played “Reds and Whites,” rather than “Cowboys and Indians””–swimming and rowing in the river and developing an early interest in radio and aviation–both an airfield and a wireless station were located nearby. He also enjoyed reading–“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn met with the greatest success, while Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin gave rise to aggressive moods–‘Hey–after the revolution in Europe, we’ll deal with the American slaveholders!” His cousin introduced him to science fiction, and he was especially fond of Aelita (book and silent film), featuring the eponymous Martian beauty.

    Chertok remembers his school years fondly–there were field trips to study art history and architectural styles, plus a military program with firing of both rifles and machine guns–but notes “We studied neither Russian nor world history….Instead we had two years of social science, during which we studied the history of Communist ideas…Our clever social sciences teacher conducted lessons so that, along with the history of the French Revolution and the Paris Commune, we became familiar with the history of the European peoples from Ancient Rome to World War I, and while studying the Decembrist movement and 1905 Revolution in detail we were forced to investigate the history of Russia.” Chertok purused his growing interest in electronics, developing a new radio-receiver circuit which earned him a journal publication and an inventor’s certificate. There was also time for skating and dating–“In those strict, puritanical times it was considered inappropriate for a young man of fourteen or fifteen to walk arm in arm with a young woman. But while skating, you could put your arm around a girl’s waist, whirl around with her on the ice to the point of utter exhaustion, and then accompany her home without the least fear of reproach.”

    Chertok wanted to attend university, but “entrance exams were not the only barrier to admission.” There was a quota system, based on social class, and  “according to the ‘social lineage’ chart, I was the son of a white collar worker and had virtually no hope of being accepted the first time around.” He applied anyhow, hoping that his journal publication and inventor’s certificate in electronics would get him in.” It didn’t–he was told, “Work about three years and come back. We’ll accept you as a worker, but not as the son of a white-collar worker.”

    So Chertok took a job as electrician in a brick factory…not much fun, but he was soon able to transfer to an aircraft factory across the river. He made such a good impression that he was asked to take a Komsomol leadership position, which gave him an opportunity to learn a great deal about manufacturing. The plant environment was a combination of genuinely enlightened management–worker involvement in process improvement, financial decentralization–colliding with rigid policies and political interference. There were problems with absenteeism caused by new workers straight off the farm; these led to a government edict: anyone late to work by 20 minutes or more was to be fired, and very likely prosecuted. There was a young worker named Igor who had real inventive talent; he proposed an improved linkage for engine and propeller control systems, which worked out well. But when Igor overslept (the morning after he got married), no exception could be made. He was fired, and “we lost a man who really had a divine spark.”  Zero tolerance!

    Chertok himself wound up in trouble when he was denounced to the Party for having concealed the truth about his parents–that his father was a bookkeeper in a private enterprise and his mother was a Menshevik. He was expelled from the Komsomol and demoted to a lower-level position.  Later in his career, he would also wind up in difficulties because of his Jewish heritage.

    The memoir includes dozens of memorable characters, including:

    *Lidiya Petrovna Kozlovskaya, a bandit queen turned factory supervisor who became Chertok’s superior after his first demotion.

    *Yakov Alksnis, commander of the Red Air Force–a strong leader who foresaw the danger of a surprise attack wiping out the planes on the ground. He was not to survive the Stalin era.

    *Olga Mitkevich, sent by the regime to become “Central Committee Party organizer” at the factory where Chertok was working…did not make a good first impression (“had the aura of a strict school matron–the terror of girls’ preparatory schools”)..but actually proved to be very helpful to getting work done and later became director of what was then the largest aircraft factory in Europe, which job she performed well. She apparently had too much integrity for the times, and her letters to Stalin on behalf of people unjustly accused resulted in her own arrest and execution.

    *Frau Groettrup, wife of a German rocket scientist, one of the many the Russians took in custody after occupying their sector of Germany. Her demands on the victors were rather unbelievable, what’s more unbelievable is that the Russians actually yielded to most of them.

    *Dmitry Ustinov, a rising star in the Soviet hierarchy–according to Chertok an excellent and visionary executive who had much to do with Soviet successes in missiles and space. (Much later, he would become Defense Minister, in which role he was a strong proponent of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.)

    *Valeriya Golubtsova, wife of the powerful Politburo member Georgiy Malenkov, who was Stalin’s immediate successor. Chertok knew her from school–she was an engineer who became an important government executive–and the connection turned out to be very useful. Chertok respected her professional skills, liked her very much, and devotes several pages to her.

    *Yuri Gagarin, first man to fly in space, and Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman.

    *Overshadowing all the other characters is Sergei Korolev, now considered to be the father of the Soviet space program although anonymous during his lifetime.  Korolev spent 6 years in labor camps, having been arrested when his early rocket experiments didn’t pan out; he was released in 1944.  A good leader, in Chertok’s view, though with a bad temper and given to making threats that he never actually carried out.  His imprisonment must have left deep scars–writing about a field trip to a submarine to observe the firing of a ballistic missile, Chertok says that the celebration dinner with the sub’s officers was the only time he ever saw Korolev really happy.

    Chertok’s memoir encompasses the pre-WWII development of the Soviet aircraft industry…early experiments with a rocket-powered interceptor…the evacuation of factories from the Moscow area in the face of the German invasion…a post-war mission to Germany to acquire as much German rocket technology as possible…the development of a Soviet ballistic missile capability…Sputnik…reconnaissance and communications satellites…the Cuban missile crisis…and the race to the moon.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Aviation, Big Government, Biography, Book Notes, Leftism, Management, Military Affairs, Russia, Society, Space, Tech, Transportation | 7 Comments »

    Manufacturing Day

    Posted by David Foster on 2nd October 2015 (All posts by )

    Today, October 2, is Manufacturing Day…”a celebration of modern manufacturing meant to inspire the next generation of manufacturers.”  There are opportunities for plant visits all over the country, many open to the public and some limited to school tours, etc.

    There’s a lot more manufacturing going on in the US than most people seem to realize, but not as much as there should be.

    See my related post faux manufacturing nostalgia, also  myths of the knowledge society and “protocols” and wealth creation.

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Management, Tech, USA | 2 Comments »

    The Map is Not the Territory

    Posted by David Foster on 3rd September 2015 (All posts by )

    I was reminded of this old saying, from  Alfred Korzybski, by an article about an LNG plant in Qatar and the ships that serve it…in particular, the following passage:

    Miroslav Ahmetovic, the chief officer, spends much of his workday in a room below the bridge monitoring the L.N.G. cargo on screens that display indicators like pressure and volume. Every few hours he dons hard hat, gloves, goggles and protective clothing and goes out on the sweltering deck to see that nothing is amiss.

    “I want to make sure my video game conforms to reality,” Mr. Ahmetovic said…

    Very well put, Mr Ahmetovic.  And in an era of obsession with “big data” and “analytics” systems, the users of these systems in organizations of all types would do well to remember that the output of such systems…whether presented in the form of a “dashboard” or a spreadsheet or some form of elegant 3-D graphics…is not the reality, but merely a necessarily partial representation thereof.  The output of the information system is not a substitute for going to the Gemba, to use the Lean management phraseology.

    Related post: management mentalities

    Posted in Management, Tech | 16 Comments »

    Something Positive and Inspirational, For a Change

    Posted by David Foster on 19th July 2015 (All posts by )

    If you’re flying an airplane at 30,000 feet, in the clouds, communicating with Chicago Air Traffic Control Center, here’s something you really don’t want to hear over your headset:

    Chicago Center is evacuating.  Radar service is terminated….Good luck.

    But that’s what numerous pilots heard on the early morning of September 26, 2014, after a fire was set by a saboteur in the equipment racks at Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center.

    Flying Magazine has a story about how controllers and tech staff faced with this situation worked rapidly, flexibly, and creatively to avoid accidents and minimize the disruption to traffic.  Other organizations should take note.

    Posted in Aviation, Management, Transportation | 4 Comments »

    Preview declaration

    Posted by L. C. Rees on 5th July 2015 (All posts by )

    [marked up by Lynn C. Rees]

    The States General of the United Provinces of the Low Countries, to all whom it may concern, do by these Presents send greeting:

    As it is apparent to all that a prince is constituted by God to be ruler of a people, to defend them from oppression and violence as the shepherd his sheep; and whereas God did not create the people slaves to their prince, to obey his commands, whether right or wrong, but rather the prince for the sake of the subjects (without which he could be no prince), to govern them according to equity, to love and support them as a father his children or a shepherd his flock, and even at the hazard of life to defend and preserve them. And when he does not behave thus, but, on the contrary, oppresses them, seeking opportunities to infringe their ancient customs and privileges, exacting from them slavish compliance, then he is no longer a prince, but a tyrant, and the subjects are to consider him in no other view. And particularly when this is done deliberately, unauthorized by the states, they may not only disallow his authority, but legally proceed to the choice of another prince for their defense. This is the only method left for subjects whose humble petitions and remonstrances could never soften their prince or dissuade him from his tyrannical proceedings; and this is what the law of nature dictates for the defense of liberty, which we ought to transmit to posterity, even at the hazard of our lives. And this we have seen done frequently in several countries upon the like occasion, whereof there are notorious instances, and more justifiable in our land, which has been always governed according to their ancient privileges, which are expressed in the oath taken by the prince at his admission to the government; for most of the Provinces receive their prince upon certain conditions, which he swears to maintain, which, if the prince violates, he is no longer sovereign.

    Now thus it was that the king of Spain after the demise of the emperor, his father, Charles the Fifth, of the glorious memory (of whom he received all these provinces), forgetting the services done by the subjects of these countries, both to his father and himself, by whose valor he got so glorious and memorable victories over his enemies that his name and power became famous and dreaded over all the world, forgetting also the advice of his said imperial majesty, made to him before to the contrary, did rather hearken to the counsel of those Spaniards about him, who had conceived a secret hatred to this land and to its liberty, because they could not enjoy posts of honor and high employments here under the states as in Naples, Sicily, Milan and the Indies, and other countries under the king’s dominion. Thus allured by the riches of the said provinces, wherewith many of them were well acquainted, the said counselors, we say, or the principal of them, frequently remonstrated to the king that it was more for his Majesty’s reputation and grandeur to subdue the Low Countries a second time, and to make himself absolute (by which they mean to tyrannize at pleasure), than to govern according to the restrictions he had accepted, and at his admission sworn to observe. From that time forward the king of Spain, following these evil counselors, sought by all means possible to reduce this country (stripping them of their ancient privileges) to slavery, under the government of Spaniards having first, under the mask of religion, endeavored to settle new bishops in the largest and principal cities, endowing and incorporating them with the richest abbeys, assigning to each bishop nine canons to assist him as counselors, three whereof should superintend the inquisition.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in History, Holidays, Management | 7 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading & Viewing

    Posted by David Foster on 1st July 2015 (All posts by )

    Propaganda:  turning human beings into automatically responding machines

    Victor Davis Hanson:  Progressive mass hysteria, enabled by the Internet

    Sarah Hoyt thinks we are suffering from  the political equivalent of an autoimmune disease

    Tolerance for ambiguity can be an important career asset

    It seems that color movie film was often used in early cinema, going back to the 1890s

    If  railroads are a gauge of a society’s health, then it sounds like Sweden is in serious trouble.  See also  railway socialism and safety

    The story of  Pyrex

    A visit to the Le Creuset factory

    Virtual reality for football training

    Once there was a “know-nothing” movement in America;   today, we have the “know-betters”

    Why we should study the ancient Greeks

    Posted in Anti-Americanism, Big Government, Business, Civil Society, Film, History, Human Behavior, Internet, Leftism, Management, Society, Tech, Transportation | 15 Comments »

    Service Sector Productivity

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 28th June 2015 (All posts by )

    Recently I went on a diet and began ordering specific drinks ordered a specific way – generally gin with a “splash” of tonic (because tonic has carbs and I want to minimize carbs, but need something to cut against the alcohol). This order, however, has become a running joke among my friends because no matter what I order I usually get the same drink every time – which is a “standard” gin and tonic (see below, the wrong order per usual).

    Unlike most people who would shrug it off or get angry, to me this is really an economics issue and not just a “bad order”. When you work with bars and restaurants and other similar industries, if you do anything “outside the norm” your odds of getting it “right” are often less than 50/50. Which leads us to the title of this post…

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, Chicagoania, Economics & Finance, Management | 20 Comments »

    Stanley McChrystal

    Posted by Michael Kennedy on 13th June 2015 (All posts by )

    Hugh Hewitt interviewed General Stanley McCrystal on his radio show yesterday and the interview is pretty interesting. McCrystal has a memoir out called My Share of the Task and a new book on leadership called, Team of Teams.

    The discussion is pretty interesting. First of all, McCrystal was fired by Obama after a reporter printed a story about McCrystal’s officers disrespecting Obama.

    In a statement expressing praise for McChrystal yet certainty he had to go, Obama said he did not make the decision over any disagreement in policy or “out of any sense of personal insult.” Flanked by Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the Rose Garden, he said: “War is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general, or a president.”

    Of course, it was Obama’s petulance and sense of outrage that anyone would think him less than competent.

    In the magazine article, McChrystal called the period last fall when the president was deciding whether to approve more troops “painful” and said the president appeared ready to hand him an “unsellable” position. McChrystal also said he was “betrayed” by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, the man the White House chose to be his diplomatic partner in Afghanistan.
    He accused Eikenberry of raising doubts about Karzai only to give himself cover in case the U.S. effort failed. “Now, if we fail, they can say ‘I told you so,'” McChrystal told the magazine. And he was quoted mocking Vice President Joe Biden.

    McCrystal has emerged looking better and better and is obviously a great leader and general. Some of the interview’s insights into his leadership are worth repeating. I plan to read both books.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan, Book Notes, Iran, Iraq, Management, Middle East, Military Affairs, Obama | 6 Comments »

    Automation and Safety

    Posted by David Foster on 19th May 2015 (All posts by )

    Since the recent Amtrak crash, I’ve seen people in several places…including here…suggesting that engineers should be eliminated and trains operated entirely by automatic control. Here is a cautionary tale about such automation, which I originally posted about a year ago under the title Blood on the Tracks. I’ve added a few thoughts at the end.

    Kevin Meyer has a thought-provoking post (referencing, among other things, the Asiana Flight 214 crash) on achieving the right balance between manual and automatic control of systems.  His post reminded me of something that has been lurking in my queue of things-to-blog-about for a long time.

    On January 6, 1996, Washington Metrorail train T-111 departed the Rockville (MD) station northbound.  Operating under automatic control as was standard practice, the train accelerated to a speed of 75 mph, and then began slowing for a station stop at Shady Grove. The speed was still too great for the icy rail conditions, however, and T-111 slid into a stopped train at the station, killing the driver.

    What happened?  I think the answer to this question is relevant not only to the specific topics of mass transit and railroad safety, but also to the more general issues of manual and automatic operation in system design, and perhaps even to the architecture of organizations and political systems.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Aviation, Human Behavior, Management, Tech, Transportation | 15 Comments »

    Book Review: God is an Englishman

    Posted by David Foster on 27th March 2015 (All posts by )

    The Swann family saga, by R F Delderfield:

    God Is an Englishman

    Theirs Was the Kingdom

    Give Us This Day

    In 1850, Adam Swann returned from India to his native England, having decided that a career in military service (especially in what he now viewed as basically a mercenary force, the East India Company’s army) was not for him.  He had in his possession a valuable cache of jewelry which he had acquired on a battlefield and (probably illegally) kept for himself.  While in India he had kept abreast of events in England by reading several-month-old newspapers, and was intrigued with the possibilities unleashed by industrial expansion. His original intention was to sell the jewelry and invest the proceeds in railway stock or in actually building a railroad branch line somewhere–but was dissuaded by a chance meeting with a railroad official, who advised him that railway building was in a bubble and that most of the lines now being constructed would prove uneconomic.  The official had, however, an alternative suggestion: put the money on the horses.  But not in the usual way.

    There’s more future in horse-transport than the Cleverdicks would have you believe.  The railroads can solve all the big problems but none of the small ones…If I were you, Mr Swann–and I wish to God I were and starting all over again–I would spend the next week studying the blank areas of that map there.  Then travel about and take a look at the goods yards of the most successful companies, and see merchandise piled in the rain on all their loading bays for want of a good dispersal system.

    Swann takes the man’s advice and sets off on a cross-country ride to evaluate the prospects for a new horse-drawn freight transportation business.  On the way, he meets Henrietta, who is fleeing a prospective marriage arranged by her father, a coarse and greedy mill owner.  It is Henrietta who proposes for the projected transport company the name Swann-on-Wheels and the wheeled-swan logo that will soon adorn the sides of hundreds of wagons rolling throughout Britain.

    The series is the story of Swann-on-Wheels, of Adam and Henrietta’s marriage and family, and of British society in the time period 1850-1914.  Unlike most historical novels covering this period, the aristocracy plays a very minor part, to the point of being almost completely irrelevant to the story, other than as a source of status markers:

    In the England into which he had been born, blood and breeding were still paramount and continued to call the national tune. Ancient wealth was still the legislator and determiner of the national destiny.  But all this had changed when he was still a lad.  By then the man of brass and the man of iron had come into their own, elbowing their way forward and demanding, at the top of their voices to be heard and heeded…Adam, who sometimes conjured with these abstracts, saw the process as a second Reformation, a phase of history repeating itself, with inventors, engineers, and their sponsors matching the hard-faced adventurers of Tudor times…For his part, he welcomed the transformation.  To him it was a cleansing tide, notwithstanding the mountains of muck and rubble it left behind…(but) it seemed to him that the wives and daughters of the men of brass took no pride in their menfolk’s astounding victory.  All they wanted, it appeared, was to replace their former masters without deviation by so much as a single inch from their ways of life, or discarding a single one of their prejudices.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Britain, Business, History, Management, Tech | 6 Comments »

    Fishing Only in the Heavily-Fished Pools

    Posted by David Foster on 8th February 2015 (All posts by )

    …probably won’t lead to great results.

    Virginia Postrel  notes that “elite investment banks, law firms and management consulting firms often hire almost exclusively from a handful of schools,” citing  research by sociologist Lauren Rivera:  “So-called ‘public Ivies’ such as University of Michigan and Berkeley were not considered elite or even prestigious.”

    Virginia argues that “If everyone you interview comes from the same few schools, the same social networks, the same previous employers or the same geographic regions, you aren’t really fighting for talent.”

    What she is saying here is similar to my point in the recent post  “Top-tier university graduates only.”

    Of course, for the industries Virginia mentions–law, investment banking, management consulting–people are being hired not only for their ability to do the job, but also for the advertising value of their credentials in attracting potential business.

    Posted in Academia, Business, Management, Society | 2 Comments »

    Could This Company Have Been Saved?

    Posted by David Foster on 7th February 2015 (All posts by )

    If you had been elected as CEO of Radio Shack, let’s say 5 years ago, what would you have done?  Was there a viable strategy for a long-term future for this company, or would it have been best to wind it up in an orderly manner?

    Posted in Business, Management, Tech | 35 Comments »

    Book Review: Rockets and People

    Posted by David Foster on 3rd February 2015 (All posts by )

    Rockets and People, by Boris E Chertok

    Boris Chertok’s career in the Russian aerospace industry spanned many decades, encompassing both space exploration and military missile programs. His four-volume memoir is an unusual document–partly, it reads like a high school annual or inside company history edited by someone who wants to be sure no one feels left out and that all the events and tragedies and inside jokes are appropriately recorded. Partly, it is a technological history of rocket development, and partly, it is a study in the practicalities of managing large programs in environments of technical uncertainty and extreme time pressure. Readers should include those interested in: management theory and practice, Russian/Soviet history, life under totalitarianism, the Cold War period, and missile/space technology. Because of the great length of these memoirs, those who read the whole thing will probably be those who are interested in all (or at least most) of the above subject areas. I found the series quite readable; overly-detailed in many places, but always interesting. In his review American astronaut Thomas Stafford said “The Russians are great storytellers, and many of the tales about their space program are riveting. But Boris Chertok is one of the greatest storytellers of them all.”  In this series, Chertok really does suck you into his world.

    Chertok was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1912: his mother had been forced to flee Russia because of her revolutionary (Menshevik) sympathies. The family returned to Russia on the outbreak of the First World War, and some of Chertok’s earliest memories were of the streets filled with red-flag-waving demonstrators in 1917. He grew up on the Moscow River, in what was then a quasi-rural area, and had a pretty good childhood–“we, of course, played “Reds and Whites,” rather than “Cowboys and Indians””–swimming and rowing in the river and developing an early interest in radio and aviation–both an airfield and a wireless station were located nearby. He also enjoyed reading–“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn met with the greatest success, while Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin gave rise to aggressive moods–‘Hey–after the revolution in Europe, we’ll deal with the American slaveholders!” His cousin introduced him to science fiction, and he was especially fond of Aelita (book and silent film), featuring the eponymous Martian beauty.

    Chertok remembers his school years fondly–there were field trips to study art history and architectural styles, plus a military program with firing of both rifles and machine guns–but notes “We studied neither Russian nor world history….Instead we had two years of social science, during which we studied the history of Communist ideas…Our clever social sciences teacher conducted lessons so that, along with the history of the French Revolution and the Paris Commune, we became familiar with the history of the European peoples from Ancient Rome to World War I, and while studying the Decembrist movement and 1905 Revolution in detail we were forced to investigate the history of Russia.” Chertok purused his growing interest in electronics, developing a new radio-receiver circuit which earned him a journal publication and an inventor’s certificate. There was also time for skating and dating–“In those strict, puritanical times it was considered inappropriate for a young man of fourteen or fifteen to walk arm in arm with a young woman. But while skating, you could put your arm around a girl’s waist, whirl around with her on the ice to the point of utter exhaustion, and then accompany her home without the least fear of reproach.”

    Chertok wanted to attend university, but “entrance exams were not the only barrier to admission.” There was a quota system, based on social class, and  “according to the ‘social lineage’ chart, I was the son of a white collar worker and had virtually no hope of being accepted the first time around.” He applied anyhow, hoping that his journal publication and inventor’s certificate in electronics would get him in.” It didn’t–he was told, “Work about three years and come back. We’ll accept you as a worker, but not as the son of a white-collar worker.”

    So Chertok took a job as electrician in a brick factory…not much fun, but he was soon able to transfer to an aircraft factory across the river. He made such a good impression that he was asked to take a Komsomol leadership position, which gave him an opportunity to learn a great deal about manufacturing. The plant environment was a combination of genuinely enlightened management–worker involvement in process improvement, financial decentralization–colliding with rigid policies and political interference. There were problems with absenteeism caused by new workers straight off the farm; these led to a government edict: anyone late to work by 20 minutes or more was to be fired, and very likely prosecuted. There was a young worker named Igor who had real inventive talent; he proposed an improved linkage for engine and propeller control systems, which worked out well. But when Igor overslept (the morning after he got married), no exception could be made. He was fired, and “we lost a man who really had a divine spark.”  Zero tolerance!

    Chertok himself wound up in trouble when he was denounced to the Party for having concealed the truth about his parents–that his father was a bookkeeper in a private enterprise and his mother was a Menshevik. He was expelled from the Komsomol and demoted to a lower-level position.  Later in his career, he would also wind up in difficulties because of his Jewish heritage.

    The memoir includes dozens of memorable characters, including:

    *Lidiya Petrovna Kozlovskaya, a bandit queen turned factory supervisor who became Chertok’s superior after his first demotion.

    *Yakov Alksnis, commander of the Red Air Force–a strong leader who foresaw the danger of a surprise attack wiping out the planes on the ground. He was not to survive the Stalin era.

    *Olga Mitkevich, sent by the regime to become “Central Committee Party organizer” at the factory where Chertok was working…did not make a good first impression (“had the aura of a strict school matron–the terror of girls’ preparatory schools”)..but actually proved to be very helpful to getting work done and later became director of what was then the largest aircraft factory in Europe, which job she performed well. She apparently had too much integrity for the times, and her letters to Stalin on behalf of people unjustly accused resulted in her own arrest and execution.

    *Frau Groettrup, wife of a German rocket scientist, one of the many the Russians took in custody after occupying their sector of Germany. Her demands on the victors were rather unbelievable, what’s more unbelievable is that the Russians actually yielded to most of them.

    *Dmitry Ustinov, a rising star in the Soviet hierarchy–according to Chertok an excellent and visionary executive who had much to do with Soviet successes in missiles and space. (Much later, he would become Defense Minister, in which role he was a strong proponent of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.)

    *Valeriya Golubtsova, wife of the powerful Politburo member Georgiy Malenkov, who was Stalin’s immediate successor. Chertok knew her from school–she was an engineer who became an important government executive–and the connection turned out to be very useful. Chertok respected her professional skills, liked her very much, and devotes several pages to her.

    *Yuri Gagarin, first man to fly in space, and Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman.

    *Overshadowing all the other characters is Sergei Korolev, now considered to be the father of the Soviet space program although anonymous during his lifetime.  Korolev spent 6 years in labor camps, having been arrested when his early rocket experiments didn’t pan out; he was released in 1944.  A good leader, in Chertok’s view, though with a bad temper and given to making threats that he never actually carried out.  His imprisonment must have left deep scars–writing about a field trip to a submarine to observe the firing of a ballistic missile, Chertok says that the celebration dinner with the sub’s officers was the only time he ever saw Korolev really happy.

    Chertok’s memoir encompasses the pre-WWII development of the Soviet aircraft industry…early experiments with a rocket-powered interceptor…the evacuation of factories from the Moscow area in the face of the German invasion…a post-war mission to Germany to acquire as much German rocket technology as possible…the development of a Soviet ballistic missile capability…Sputnik…reconnaissance and communications satellites…the Cuban missile crisis…and the race to the moon.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Aviation, Big Government, Biography, Book Notes, Leftism, Management, Military Affairs, Russia, Society, Space, Tech, Transportation | 5 Comments »

    Conformity Kills

    Posted by David Foster on 31st January 2015 (All posts by )

    (Last Wednesday was chosen by NASA as a Day of Remembrance for the astronauts lost in the 1967 Apollo fire, the 1986 Challenger explosion, and the 2003 crash of the shuttle Columbia.  The occasion reminded me of my 2003 post which appears below, with the links fixed.)

    What does a space shuttle disaster have to do with the current troubling situation in the teaching of the humanities? Strange as it may seem, I believe that there is a connection.

    Most observers believe that the Columbia disaster was caused, to a substantial degree, by the unwillingness of key individuals to speak up forcefully enough about their safety concerns. This is often phrased as a “culture issue” or a “climate issue”–but, however you phrase it, it seems that a significant number of people didn’t raise their concerns–or at least didn’t raise them forcefully enough–because of worries about the implications for their own careers. (This also seems to have been a key factor in the earlier Challenger disaster.)

    And in today’s university humanities departments, there are many senior professors who understand that much of what is now being taught is nonsense, and who are heartsick about the “posturing and lies.” But, as Erin O’Connor says: “…an older generation of “dinosaurs” looks on, seeing it all, and saying nothing. They do this to minimize the open displays of contempt for their traditional ways that they have learned to expect as their due.”

    Now, here is an interesting point. There are very few people in American who have more job security than a civil servant or a university tenured professor. But this security seems to have little payoff when it’s time to speak up about something important and truly controversial. Perhaps jobs that offer high security tend to attract people who are not risk-takers. Or perhaps concerns about being liked by one’s peers trump job-security issues per se. In any event, it does not seem that systems with a high degree of employee protection really yield the expected benefits in terms of outspoken employee behavior.

    I’m sure there are some NASA employees who had and have the courage to speak out, just as I am sure that such courage exists among some senior professors of the humanities. But it seems that such people are too few in number, at both institutions, to make a real difference.

    No set of organizational policies, however well-designed, can substitute for human character. It takes many virtues, including the virtue of courage, to make an organization perform effectively. That’s true whether the organization is a university, a corporation, or a government agency.

     

    Posted in Academia, Human Behavior, Management, Space, Tech | 4 Comments »

    “Top-Tier University Graduates Only”

    Posted by David Foster on 28th January 2015 (All posts by )

    Here’s a LinkedIn post from a young woman who doesn’t like the way certain companies are specifying “degree from a top-tier university required” in certain of their job postings. I think she makes some good points.

    From the standpoint of the individual company or other organization, absolutely requiring a degree from a “top-tier university” (whatever the individual’s other experience and capabilities) reduces the size of the talent pool and quite likely increases costs without commensurate benefit. From the standpoint of the overall society, this practice wastes human resources and creates damaging inhibitors to social mobility. (And in most cases, “top-tier university” is defined based only on the perception of that university’s “brand”…very few HR organizations or hiring managers conduct serious research on the actual quality of different universities from an educational perspective…and the perceived quality may be years or even decades out of date.)

    I think we as a society have delegated far too much influence to the admissions officers of various Ivy League universities, and also to whoever constructs the metrics for the US News & World Report college ratings. When discussing “inequality” and declining social mobility..and less-than-stellar economic growth…the role of credentialism in all these things needs to be seriously considered.

    Related: the five-pound butterfly revisited

    Posted in Academia, Business, Education, Human Behavior, Management | 30 Comments »

    Book Reviews – 2014 Summary

    Posted by David Foster on 12th January 2015 (All posts by )

    Last year I reviewed quite a few books, including several that IMO are extremely important and well-written.  Here’s the list:

    The Caine Mutiny.  The movie, which just about everyone has seen, is very good.  The book is even better.  I cited the 1952 Commentary review, which has interesting thoughts on intellectuals and the responsibilities of power.

    To the Last Salute.  Captain von Trapp, best known as the father in “The Sound of Music,” wrote this memoir of his service as an Austrian submarine commander in the First World War–Austria of course being one of the Central Powers and hence an enemy to Britain, France, and the United States.  An interesting and pretty well-written book, and a useful reminder that there are enemies, and then there are enemies.

    That Hideous Strength.  An important and intriguing novel by C S Lewis. As I said in the review, there is something in this book to offend almost everybody.  So, by the standards now becoming current in most American universities, the book–and even my review of it–should by read by no one at all.

    The Cruel Coast.  A German submarine, damaged after an encounter with a British destroyer, puts in at a remote Irish island for repairs.  Most of the islanders, with inherited anti-British attitudes, tend toward sympathy with the German:  one woman, though, has a clearer understanding of the real issues in the war.

    Nice Work.  At Chicago Boyz, we’ve often discussed the shortage of novels that deal realistically with work.  This is such a novel: an expert in 19th-century British industrial novels–who is a professor, a feminist, and a deconstructionist–finds herself in an actual factory.  Very well done.

    Menace in Europe.  Now more than ever, Claire Berlinski’s analysis of the problems in today’s Europe needs to be widely read.

    A Time of Gifts.  In late 1933, Patrick Fermor–then 18 years old–undertook to travel from the Holland to Istanbul, on foot. The story of his journey is told in three books, of which this is the first.  This is not just travel writing, it is the record of what was still to a considerable extent the Old Europe–with horsedrawn wagons, woodcutters, barons and castles, Gypsies and Jews in considerable numbers–shortly before it was to largely disappear.

    The Year of the French.  The writer, commentator, and former soldier Ralph Peters calls this book “the finest historical novel written in English, at least in the twentieth century.”

    Posted in Academia, Biography, Book Notes, Britain, Business, Christianity, Deep Thoughts, Europe, Germany, Ireland, Islam, Management, Morality and Philosphy, Philosophy, Terrorism | 7 Comments »

    “Promotion Jobs”

    Posted by David Foster on 11th December 2014 (All posts by )

    (I came across this while going through some old Photon Courier posts…originally from 2005)

    I recently read The U-Boat Peril, by Captain Reginald Whinney, RN, a British destroyer commander during WWII. In the late 1920s, Capt Whinney attended the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. He was not very impressed with the place, and his retrospective analysis is interesting:

    What was really wrong with Dartmouth then? Well, my answer is cynical. The jobs of captain in command of the college and of his second-in-command, the commander, were ‘promotion jobs’; and, in those days, the incumbent in a promotion job had only to do the same as his predecessor had done and he could hardly fail to be promoted. Further, these same captains and commanders had, while at Dartmouth…usually themselves been Cadet Captains. What was good enough for them…The requirement was to keep the sausage machine going.

    I have no idea how accurate Capt Whinney’s assessment of Dartmouth is…surely, they must have been doing something right, given the Royal Navy’s performance in the war. But his analysis of the “promotion job” is an interesting one, with its applicability by no means limited to military organizations.

    It’s almost tautological…if you put people in jobs where all they have to do to get promoted is to remain in the job for a few years, then they are unlikely to do anything but remain in the job for a few years. You’re certainly unlikely to see much in the way of innovation or of risk-taking behavior.

    So, if you are an executive, you might ask yourself whether your organization includes anything that looks like a “promotion job”–and, if so, restructure it; that is, unless you actually like drones and time-servers as subordinate managers.

    And what about the realm of education? It strikes me that, as things are now, the role of being a college student has been largely structured as a “promotion job.” The student is incented to go through his 4 years or more, avoid taking any classes that might be difficult enough to unduly threaten his GPA, and avoid antagonizing any faculty members in a way that might harm the GPA or the letters of recommendation. Because the objective is, too often, not to accomplish things during the time spent on the job (in this case, to learn things), but rather to spend the requisite amount of time so that the much-desired certification can be obtained. That’s a “promotion job” in Whinney’s sense.

    This is less true, of course, in the hard sciences and in engineering, where it’s obvious that after graduation you’re actually going to need to know what Young’s Modulus is (or whatever)…but across wide swaths of American higher education, the concept of the “promotion job” seems highly applicable.

    Posted in Britain, Education, History, Management | 8 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading & Viewing

    Posted by David Foster on 25th November 2014 (All posts by )

    A special Russia-focused issue of National Geographic, in 1914

    Does automation make people dumb?

    Strategies for dealing with randomness in business

    Labor market fluidity in the US seems to be declining

    There are very different reactions to the waving of an Isis flag and the waving of an Israeli flag at Berkeley

    Strategies for dealing with toxic people

    Czars as political officers

    Two princes:  Machievelli’s Il Principe and Antoine de St-Exupery’s Le Petit Prince

    “Speaking Truth to Power.”  A great post by Sarah Hoyt on the way this expression is being used:

    One of the most fascinating conceits of our ruling powerful elites — be they in entertainment, politics, governance, jurisprudence or news reporting — is the often repeated assertion of being some kind of underdog “speaking truth to power.” This comes with the concomitant illusion that anyone opposing them is paid by powerful interests.

     

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Book Notes, Business, History, Human Behavior, Management, Politics, Russia, Tech | 13 Comments »