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  • Archive for the 'Tech' Category

    A Cool Startup Story, Revisited

    Posted by David Foster on 18th October 2014 (All posts by )

    In 2005, I posted about a company called Theranos, as part of the “cool startup story” series at Photon Courier.  The company was founded by Elizabeth Holmes, who left Stanford at age 19 in order to pursue her idea for a quantum improvement in blood testing.  The original focus was on the detection of adverse drug reactions and the analysis of drug effectiveness on a more-individualized basis.

    My, how this little company has grown up.  Theranos now has 500 employees and a valuation of about $9 billion.  They can currently perform 200 of the most commonly-ordered blood diagnostic tests, and can do it without a syringe–only a few drops of blood are necessary, and these are obtained from a finger prick using “a patented method that minimizes even the minor discomfort involved with that procedure.” (The Fortune writer tried it, and said “to me, it felt more like a tap than a puncture.”)  Theranos now has a deal with Walgreens, initially making its service available in stores in California and Arizona and with plans to roll the service out to all 8200 Walgreens stores nationwide.

    Holmes:

    There are a billion tests done every year in the United States, but too many of them are done in the emergency room. If you were able to do some of those tests before a person gets checked into the ER, you’d start to see problems earlier; you’d have time to intervene before a patient needed to go to the hospital. If you remove the biggest barriers to these tests, you’ll see them used in smarter ways.

    and

    Phlebotomy is such a huge inhibitor to people getting tested. Some studies say that a substantive percentage of patients who get a lab requisition don’t follow through, because they’re scared of needles or they’re afraid of worrying, waiting to hear that something is wrong. We wanted to make this service convenient, to bring it to places close to people’s homes, and to offer rapid results.

    From a 2005 Daily Duck post about Theranos:

    …in how many nations of the world could A TEENAGE GIRL get a serious audience, and then MILLIONS OF DOLLARS in VC funding, to develop her idea ?!?

    There are many unpleasant consequences to American society being perpetually adolescent, a bit shallow and thrill-seeking, with an attention deficit and a naive optimism born of ignorance about the odds, but this type of thing is one of the UPSIDES of being that way.

    In America, if you can do, the odds are pretty good that you’ll be allowed to do, regardless of your shortcomings and quirks. We’re flexible and goal-driven, not so much wedded to process.

    Posted in Business, Entrepreneurship, Health Care, Tech, USA | 15 Comments »

    The Great Lightbulb Conspiracy

    Posted by Grurray on 15th October 2014 (All posts by )

    This year has seen many historical anniversaries, and one that has gotten some recent notoriety is the 90 year anniversary of the planned obsolescence of the light bulb by an industry cartel.

    How exactly did the cartel pull off this engineering feat? It wasn’t just a matter of making an inferior or sloppy product; anybody could have done that. But to create one that reliably failed after an agreed-upon 1,000 hours took some doing over a number of years. The household lightbulb in 1924 was already technologically sophisticated: The light yield was considerable; the burning time was easily 2,500 hours or more. By striving for something less, the cartel would systematically reverse decades of progress.

    It’s even more notable because last week three pioneers in LED technology just won the Nobel Prize.

    We all know about the efficiency standards for light bulbs that are effectively banning incandescent bulbs in slow motion. I’ve noticed during my usual stops at the home improvement stores that the choices for the vintage bulbs are fewer and farther between, and the prices for what’s left are creeping up.

    The promise of the new standards is that the new LED lighting is far superior. While it’s much more expensive, the steady drumbeat of the diffusion of technology is supposed to reduce the costs, eventually putting them within reach of the common household.

    The costs have indeed dropped exponentially, but that’s undoubtedly been helped by government aid and deliberate shortages of the old technology. Besides the federal standards, every state has some sort of efficient lighting rebate program that artificially decreases the price. Tax breaks and other incentives have encouraged manufacturers like GE to expand production in the US and create a few hundred jobs, which, although nice, don’t quite make up for the thousands they shipped to China during the Great Light Bulb Leap Forward. How much of the price gains can be attributed to Moore’s Law type improvements and how much to government supports is a legitimate concern.

    Now there’s some question about how long prices are going to keep falling going forward.

    In stark contrast to the promised dynamics that the technology is supposed to follow, LED prices actually rose considerably last month.

    In contrast, 40W equiv. LED bulb prices were up 14.3% in the U.S. market. Manufacturers including Cree, Philips, GE and other renowned brands have raised prices for certain products in the U.S. market.

    Because of industry consolidation, the top ten LED manufacturers now control 61% of the market. That much control brings pricing power over the market, and they are apparently now using it.

    With green energy executive orders on Obama’s agenda and the unelected EPA issuing mandates, the oligopoly is sure to get worse with permanently higher cost per lumens the possible result.

    The LED industry, taking a page from the incandescent bulb industry so many years ago, is discovering the key to the rent seekers’ success – competition is for losers, and unfortunately sometimes so is progress.

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Energy & Power Generation, Politics, Tech | 21 Comments »

    Peter Thiel and George Gilder debate on “The Prospects for Technology and Economic Growth”

    Posted by Lexington Green on 26th September 2014 (All posts by )

    This is an excellent dialogue between George Gilder and Peter Thiel, from 2012, regarding two different versions of what the future will look like.

    It is a little over an hour, and I highly recommend you listen to it.

    Gilder is a thorough-going optimist. He sees a world where everything is good and getting better, and critiques of technological change are generally wrong-headed. That is a brutal over-simplification, of course. Gilder is a seasoned speaker, debater and writer. He makes a decent case, better than I am suggesting here.

    Theil makes a more subtle case. He says that technology, other than the technology has stalled for decades. He says that the fields of engineering that deal with “stuff” have been — and this is a strong word — “outlawed.” As a result, the only areas where technological change is happening are in finance and computing. Nuclear engineering, for example, would have been a suicidal career choice if you made it a generation ago.

    So, Theil is one hand a pessimist. He sees a decay in the rate of technological development, a decay in standards of living and real wages, a decline in optimism and expectations for a better future.

    However, he does not conclude, “so, we are doomed.”

    What he says instead is that we cannot pretend that technological progress grows on trees. He says that we need to address the obstacles to technological change which are thwarting the potential for a better future.

    All of that seems correct.

    The vision Jim Bennett and I depict in America 3.0 is one in which the excessive regulatory obstacles to technological progress, capital formation, and new business formation have been greatly reduced. Under that scenario, much of the halted progress in the world of “stuff” should resume. This is particularly the case because, as Gilder correctly notes, the extraordinary advances in computing power will enhance the potential of all of these areas. The potential for rapid development, leading to rapid economic growth and rising living standards, is within our reach. It is being held back by political and regulatory obstacles, not technical or scientific ones.

    That has to change. But, it might not. Nothing is inevitable.

    It is up to us to make it happen.

    I have not yet read Thiel’s new book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future. It is en route from Amazon as I type this, however. Here is the web page for the book.

    Posted in America 3.0, Book Notes, Business, Tech | 8 Comments »

    Catalist, “The 480,” and The Real 480

    Posted by David Foster on 23rd September 2014 (All posts by )

    There has been much discussion recently of Catalist, a database system being used by the Democratic Party to optimally target their electioneering efforts…see Jonathan’s post here.  I’m reminded of Eugene Burdick’s 1964 novel, The 480.  The book’s premise is that a group within the Republican party acquires the services of a computing company called  Simulation Enterprises, intending to apply the latest technology and social sciences research in order to get their candidate elected.  These party insiders have been inspired by the earlier work of the 1960 Kennedy campaign with a company called Simulmatics.

    Simulmatics was a real company.  It was founded by MIT professor Ithiel de Sola Pool, a pioneer in the application of computer technology to social science research. Data from 130,000 interviews was categorized into 480 demographic groups, and an IBM 704 computer was used to process this data and predict the likely effects of various alternative political tactics.  One question the company was asked to address by the 1960 Democratic campaign, in the person of Robert F Kennedy, was:  How best to deal with religion?  There was considerable concern among some parts of the electorate about the prospect of choosing a Catholic as President.  Would the JFK campaign do better by minimizing attention to this issue, or would they do better by addressing it directly and condemning as bigots those who would let Kennedy’s faith affect their vote?

    Simulmatics concluded that “Kennedy today has lost the bulk of the votes he would lose if the election campaign were to be embittered by the issue of anti-Catholicism.  The simulation shows that there has already been a serious defection from Kennedy by Protestant voters. Under these circumstances, it makes no sense to brush the religious issue under the rug.  Kennedy has already suffered the disadvantages of the issue even though it is not embittered now–and without receiving compensating advantages inherent in it.”  Quantitatively, the study predicted that Kennedy’s direct addressing of the religion issue would move eleven states, totaling 122 electoral votes, away from the Kennedy camp–but would pull six states, worth 132 electoral votes, into the Democratic column.

    It is not clear how much this study influenced actual campaign decision-making…but less than three weeks after RFK received the Simulmatics report, JFK talked about faith before a gathering of ministers in Houston.  ”I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end,”  Kennedy said,  ”where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind.” (Burdick’s novel also suggests that the Kennedy campaign used Simulmatics to assess the effects of a more-forthright posture on civil rights by the campaign, and furthermore to analyze Kennedy’s optimal personality projection during the debates–I don’t know if these assertions are historically correct, but the religion analysis clearly was indeed performed.)

    Considerable excitement was generated when, after the election, the Simulmatics project became publicly known.  A Harper’s Magazine article referred to to the Simulmatics computer as “the people machine,” and quoted Dr Harold Lasswell of Yale as saying, “This is the A-bomb of the social sciences.  The breakthrough here is comparable to what happened at Stagg Field.”  But Pierre Salinger, speaking for the Kennedy campaign, asserted that “We did not use the machine.”  (Salinger’s statement is called out as a lie in the recent book, The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns.)

    In Burdick’s novel, the prospective Republican candidate is John Thatch, head of an international engineering and construction company.  Thatch has achieved popular renown after courageously defusing a confrontation between Indians and Pakistanis over a bridge his company was building, thereby averting a probable war.  Something about Thatch’s personality has struck the public imagination, and–despite his lack of political experience–he looks to be an attractive candidate.  But initially, the Republicans see little hope of defeating the incumbent Kennedy–”the incumbent is surrounded by over four years of honorific words and rituals,” a psychologist explains.  ”He seems as though he ought to be President.  He assumes the mantle.”  This outlook is deeply disturbing to a Republican senior statesman named Bookbinder, who strongly believes that defacto 8-year terms are bad for the country…but if it is true that Kennedy is unbeatable, then the best the Republicans can hope to do is lose as well as possible.  Things change when Kennedy is assassinated and the election becomes a real contest.

    Bookbinder and Levi, another Republican senior statesman, are introduced to Simulation Enterprises by a young lawyer named Madison (Mad) Curver and his psychologist associate (quoted above), a woman named Dr Devlin.  Mad and Dr Devlin explain that what Sim Enterprises does is different from the work done by garden-variety pollsters like the one they have just met, Dr Cotter:

    “The pollster taps only a small fragment of the subject’s mind, attention, background, family influence, and habits.  The Simulations thing, just because it can consider thousands of elements influencing the subject, even things he may not know himself, gets much better results.”

    “And one further thing, Book,” Mad said.  ”Simulations Enterprises can predict what people will do in a situation which they have never heard of before.  That was the whole point of the UN in the Midwest example.  No one has gone out there and asked them to vote on whether we should get out of the UN, but Dev outlined a procedure by which you can predict how they will react…if they ever do have to vote on it.

    Again Bookbinder had the sharp sense of unreality.  Unreal people were being asked invented questions and a result came out on green, white-lined paper…and when you got around to the real people six months later with the real question they would act the way the computer had said they would.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Advertising, Book Notes, Elections, History, Human Behavior, Politics, Polls, Predictions, Tech, USA | 8 Comments »

    Don’t Panic: Against the Spirit of the Age

    Posted by Jay Manifold on 21st September 2014 (All posts by )

    Cold and misty morning, I heard a warning borne in the air
    About an age of power where no one had an hour to spare …
    – Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “Karn Evil 9, 1st Impression, Part 1

    Imagine that you just stepped out of a time machine into the mid-1930s with a case of partial historical amnesia. From your reading of history, you can still remember that the nation has been beset with economic difficulties for several years that will continue for several more. You also clearly remember that this is followed by participation in a global war, but you cannot recall just when it starts or who it’s with. A few days of newspapers and radio broadcasts, however, apprise you of obvious precursors to that conflict and various candidates for both allies and enemies.

    As mentioned several times in this forum, I adhere to a historical model, consisting either of a four-part cycle of generational temperaments (Strauss and Howe), or a related but simpler system dynamic/generational flow (Xenakis). That model posits the above scenario as a description of our current situation and a prediction of its near future: a tremendous national trial, currently consisting mostly of failing domestic institutions, is underway. It will somehow transform into a geopolitical military phase and reach a crescendo early in the next decade. It cannot be avoided, only confronted.

    Nor will it be a low-intensity conflict like the so-called “wars” of recent decades, which have had US casualty counts comparable to those of ordinary garrison duty a generation ago. Xenakis has coined the descriptive, and thoroughly alarming, term genocidal crisis war for these events. Some earlier instances in American history have killed >1% of the entire population and much larger portions of easily identifiable subsets of it. Any early-21st-century event of this type is overwhelmingly likely to kill millions of people in this country, many if not most of them noncombatants. And besides its stupendous quantitative aspect, the psychological effect will be such that the survivors (including young children) remain dedicated, for the rest of their lives, to preventing such a thing from ever happening again.

    I will nonetheless argue that no matter how firmly convinced we may be that an utterly desperate struggle, with plenty of attendant disasters, is inevitable and imminent, we must avoid both individual panic and collective overreaction.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Current Events, Environment, History, Human Behavior, Immigration, International Affairs, Islam, Latin America, Leftism, Media, Middle East, Military Affairs, National Security, Personal Narrative, Political Philosophy, Predictions, Religion, Rhetoric, Science, Systems Analysis, Tech, The Press, USA, War and Peace | 10 Comments »

    J. Christian Adams: “‘CATALIST’: Obama’s Database for Fundamentally Transforming America”

    Posted by Jonathan on 18th September 2014 (All posts by )

    This is a must-read. It describes how the Democrats have very successfully used technology to get out the vote, perhaps decisively, from far-left constituents who otherwise would not have voted. The key points are 1) an understanding that if a party can identify members of its base it is much cheaper to convince them to vote for the party’s candidates than it is to convince uncommitted moderates, 2) effective cooperation among Democratic operatives and politicians at all levels to gather and share contact and demographic data about as many voters as possible, and 3) the application of modern analysis techniques to those data, and the subsequent targeting of the most-likely Democratic voters for GOTV efforts. This is part of how Obama got himself reelected in 2012 despite his exceptionally weak record. Meanwhile Republicans have futilely attempted, at great cost in money and in support from members of their conservative base, to win over indecisive moderates.

    Posted in Obama, Politics, Tech | 13 Comments »

    Extremely Cool

    Posted by David Foster on 13th September 2014 (All posts by )

    Ships, and many private yachts, carry the Automatic Identification System (AIS), which continuously transmits position data and static vessel information for the benefit of nearby ships, and in some cases also for shore-based traffic-control authorities.

    MarineTraffic.org uses a worldwide network of volunteers to receive AIS transmissions from locations throughout the world and make this data available for display.  You can look at a location or search for a specific vessel by name.  AIS transmissions are fairly short-range, typically 15-60 miles dependent on antenna height, so there will be coverage gaps in the open ocean and in places where no volunteer receiver is nearby. Still, it looks like a significant % of the world’s coastlines and river mileage is covered.

    Posted in Tech, Transportation | 6 Comments »

    GE has sold its Appliance business

    Posted by David Foster on 9th September 2014 (All posts by )

    …to Electrolux, for $3.3 billion.

    Today’s WSJ story on the sale began with the words “General Electric, which commercialized the electric toaster and self-cleaning oven”…sounds sort of trivial  Actually, household appliances have been an important factor in the liberation of human energies and in social change.

    Owen Young, who was GE’s chairman from 1922-1939, grew up as a farm boy.  To his biographer Ida Tarbell, he described what life had been like on each Monday–wash day:

    He drew from his memory a vivid picture of its miseries: the milk coming into the house from the barn; the skimming to be done; the pans and buckets to be washed; the churn waiting attention; the wash boiler on the stove while the wash tub and its back-breaking device, the washboard, stood by; the kitchen full of steam; hungry men at the door anxious to get at the day’s work and one pale, tired, and discouraged woman in the midst of this confusion.

    Posted in Business, History, Society, Tech | 16 Comments »

    Cool Video of a CNC Machine Tool at Work

    Posted by David Foster on 23rd July 2014 (All posts by )

    Here’s a motorcycle helmet of fairly complex design being fabricated out of a single block of aluminum by a computer-numerically-controlled machine tool:

    LINK

    There’s been a lot of excitement lately about 3-D printing, and rightly so, but the hype level in some quarters may be getting a little extreme.  I think a lot of journalists lack an appropriate context into which to put this emerging technology, and, in particular, fail to understand just how much flexibility and universality is already provided by the numerically-controlled machine tools which have been in common use for the last several decades.

    See also my post on 3-D printing from 2013.

    Posted in Business, Tech | 5 Comments »

    Words and Phrases I Dislike: “Middle-Skilled Jobs”

    Posted by David Foster on 20th July 2014 (All posts by )

    WSJ has a good article about three people who have put themselves on good career trajectories without benefit of 4-year college degrees.  One is a welder, one is a nurse, and one is an owner of franchised fast-food restaurants.  Unfortunately, however, the article uncritically uses the term “middle-skilled jobs,” which is seen increasingly in articles about the job market.  These jobs are said to be those which require more than high school and less than four years of college, and typically involve some sort of technical or practical training.

    “Middle-skilled”….really?  Is the job of a toolmaker in a factory really less-skilled than the entry-level job likely to be obtained by someone with an undergraduate Sociology degree?  Is a nurse’s job less-skilled than the work likely to be assigned to someone hired on the basis of his English degree?  Does owning and operating a food truck really require less skill than the kind of tasks typically assigned to an undergraduate Business major?  Is the work of an air traffic controller less-skilled than the kind of a job likely to result from a major in Victim Studies?

    It is good that there is increasing recognition of good career paths not requiring college degrees; however, the term “Middle-Skilled Jobs” is misleading and contributes to the continuation of credential-worship.

    Posted in Academia, Business, Economics & Finance, Education, Media, Tech | 17 Comments »

    Blood on the Tracks

    Posted by David Foster on 2nd July 2014 (All posts by )

    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 Human Behavior, Management, Tech, Transportation | 19 Comments »

    Parrot AR.Drone 2.0

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 21st June 2014 (All posts by )

    Recently I had a chance to operate a Parrot AR.Drone 2.0. The drone is a “quad” helicopter with four rotors that you can control through your iPad. I was extremely impressed with the technology and had a lot of fun operating the drone. Below is a photo of the drone in flight.

    And below is a picture of the drone at rest. The “bumpers” that protect the rotors are not being used because we are operating the drone outside free of obstructions.

    The drone represents a remarkable confluence of various technological capabilities into a small and cost efficient package. The drone has its own wi-fi network that you use to connect your iPad to the device. Thus you are basically leveraging wi-fi to provide a network and this is a likely range limitation on the helicopter, although due to other more pragmatic concerns this is not as significant a problem as it may appear (the craft does not do well in modest or high winds, and only has about 12 minutes of battery time so long range flight is effectively infeasible).

    By using your iPad as a control, the manufacturing and costs of the quad helicopter have dramatically been reduced. You do not need a dedicated device with unique controls to master – simply load software onto your iPad and you are off and running. You are also able to easily upgrade the controlling software on your device (just like updating an app) as well as update the quad helicopter itself via that same method.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Diversions, Tech | 2 Comments »

    Geography and Entrepreneurship

    Posted by David Foster on 23rd May 2014 (All posts by )

    …an interesting discussion at Ricochet:

    Imagine a Republican governor slashed Pennsylvania’s regulations and taxes.  Imagine a Republican President and Congress slashed federal regulations and taxes.

    Would that do anything to ensure a tech boom in central Pennsylvania?

    No.

    Why? Go try to convince an Ivy League computer engineer to move to the near suburbs of NYC. No prob. Now try to pitch them on moving 3 hours from NYC to Amish country. Impossible. Charles Murray’s Super Zips win every time.

    Put another way: Rand Paul might be able to solicit Silicon Valley donor dollars to Kentucky, but he’ll never export Kentucky values to the Valley.

    RTWT, and the comments.

    Posted in Business, Human Behavior, Politics, Tech, USA | 45 Comments »

    Reason #497, #498, and #499 to Love Texas

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 11th May 2014 (All posts by )

    Pictorial testimony – from Saturday at the Bulverde Spring Market, in downtown Bulverde, Texas

    Even a Radio Flyer wagon gets the monster-truck treatment!

    …and the wheel-chairs are the ‘all-terrain’ model!

    And the Lions’ Club believes in recycling 50-gallon drums into a kiddie ride.

    All abooooooard!

    Posted in Civil Society, Diversions, Photos, Tech, Transportation, USA | 2 Comments »

    Of Energy and Slavery

    Posted by David Foster on 29th April 2014 (All posts by )

    Christopher Hayes, who writes at The Nation, sees a connection between human slavery–in particular, human slavery as practiced in the US prior to 1865–and the use of fossil fuels. Specifically, he argues that the reluctance of energy companies and their investors to lose the financial value of their fossil-fuel assets is directly analogous to the reluctance of pre-Civil-War southern slaveholders to lose the financial value of their human “property”…and he goes on the assert that environmentalists attacking the use of fossil fuels are in a moral and tactical position similar to that of the pre-war Abolitionists.

    His article reminded me of a few things.

    1) Sometime around 1900, a young  PR man who had recently been hired by GE in Schenectady realized that he had a problem. He had gotten his job through glowing promises about all the great press coverage he would get for the company.  But his boss had called him in and announced that he had “a terrific front-page story” about a 60,000 kilowatt turbine generator that the company had just sold to Commonwealth Edison…and the PR man accurately realized that this story would get maybe a paragraph on the financial pages.  Looking for ideas, he went to see GE’s legendary research genius, Charles Steinmetz, explaining that headlines need drama, and “there’s nothing dramatic about a generator.”

    Steinmetz picked up a pencil and did a little calculating…and quickly determined that this one rotating machine could do as much physical work as 5.4 million men. The slave population in the US on the eve of the Civil War had been 4.7 million.  To the young PR man, Steinmetz said: ”I suggest you send out a story that says we are building a single machine that, through the miracle of electricity, will each day do more work than the combined slave population of the nation at the time of the Civil War.”

    2) Frederick Douglass, himself a former slave, visited a shipyard in New Bedford shortly after obtaining his freedom.  Here are his comments on observing a cargo being unloaded:

    In a southern port, twenty or thirty hands would have been employed to do what five or six did here, with the aid of a single ox attached to the end of a fall. Main strength, unassisted by skill, is slavery’s method of labor. An old ox, worth eighty dollars, was doing, in New Bedford, what would have required fifteen thousand dollars worth of human bones and muscles to have performed in a southern port.

    3)  Speaking of GE…Owen Young was a farm boy who grew up to become Chairman of that company.  To his biographer (Ida Tarbell), he provided a vivid word-picture of what life had been like for a farm wife back in the slightly earlier times. Here, he remembers Monday–wash day:

    He drew from his memory a vivid picture of its miseries: the milk coming into the house from the barn; the skimming to be done; the pans and buckets to be washed; the churn waiting attention; the wash boiler on the stove while the wash tub and its back-breaking device, the washboard, stood by; the kitchen full of steam; hungry men at the door anxious to get at the day’s work and one pale, tired, and discouraged woman in the midst of this confusion.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Energy & Power Generation, Environment, Leftism, Tech | 31 Comments »

    Participatory Retrotech – the Concorde Flight Simulator

    Posted by David Foster on 26th April 2014 (All posts by )

    There is an airline grade simulator for the Concorde supersonic transport, located in the UK and available to the public, with instruction by former Concorde flight crew members.

    The simulator was originally built in 1975 as a full-motion simulator, with the “motion” part provided by six hydraulic rams. The view out the cockpit windows was created by moving a television camera over a large model landscape in an adjacent room. I’m not sure whether the flight dynamics calculations were done by analog, digital, or a combination of both methods. In 1987, the simulator was upgraded to replace the TV camera and the physical map with computer-generated imagery. Original cost of the simulator was £3 million, and the 1987 upgrade cost an additional £3 million.

    When Concord operations ceased in 2003, the simulator was decommissioned and re-installed at the Brooklands Museum, minus the hydraulic actuators for the motion feature. (“enabling access to a Concorde cockpit for less able visitors to the museum” is the reason stated for this decision, but I would imagine it also had something to do with the maintenance costs for the hydraulics.)  The restoration of the simulator involved the replacement of whatever electronic systems were doing the computations with modern flight simulator software, and a more modern projection system for the visuals. The flight controls and the majority of the flight instruments are connected to the simulation engine, along with some sections of the Flight Engineer’s panel.

    Simulator time is available for 165 pounds for about an hour, with 15 minutes actually at the controls, or the “Gold” package at 425 for a two-hour “flight” with 30 minutes at the controls, plus lunch and champagne.

    Posted in Aviation, Britain, History, Tech | 4 Comments »

    The Computer, as Seen from 1955

    Posted by David Foster on 22nd April 2014 (All posts by )

    Modern Mechanix has the full text of Time Magazine’s 1955 article on the emerging computer industry, centered around an adulatory interview with Tom Watson Jr of IBM.

    I mentioned the interesting backstory on this article in comments at my review of Watson Jr’s excellent autobiography. The magazine had assigned a reporter named Virginia Bennett to find out about “automation in America.” She went to see Remington Rand, whose UNIVAC product was then the epitome of computing coolness…but, “fortunately for us, they weren’t very forthcoming that day.”  Walking back to her office, she passed the IBM building, saw the “Defense Calculator”  (IBM 701) in the window, and decided to see if IBM would be interested in doing the interview. When she asked the receptionist who she could speak with, the receptionist was smart enough to say, “Well, the head of this company is Mr Watson. He isn’t in the building today, but his son Tom is the president and you can certainly see him.”

    The resulting article was very powerful publicity for IBM, and surely no help at all for Remington Rand’s relative industry standing.  If the receptionist had greeted the reporter with the all-too-typical bureaucratic approach (“The Watsons are very busy men, you’ll have to call Public Relations and make an appointment.”) the outcome would likely have been quite different.  Tom Jr notes that his father considered the receptionist position very important, and always chose those women himself.

    In comments to my review of Tom Jr’s autobiography (see link above), I quoted an Israel general who asserted that “there is no substitute for the alert and intelligent infantryman” and noted that this is also true of the alert and intelligent front-line employee.

    Posted in History, Media, Tech | 9 Comments »

    On the Internet

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 18th April 2014 (All posts by )

    Recently a few loose threads have come together on the Internet and some “old school” high tech companies.

    Yahoo! – Yahoo! (I guess I need the exclamation mark) has a value that is less than the sum of its component parts. The market capitalization of Yahoo! comes in the fact that it owns a significant portion of two Asian internet companies. Per this pithily titled article “How Is Yahoo So Worthless“:

    Yahoo is huge. It is the fourth-biggest Internet domain in the United States. It is the fourth-biggest seller of online ads in the country. It is the most popular destination for fantasy sports, controls one the most-trafficked home pages in news, and owns the eighth-most popular email client. In the last three months, it collected more than $1 billion in revenue. It’s very rich.

    It’s also totally worthless.

    Technically, it’s worse than worthless. Worthless means without worth. Worthless means $0.00. But Yahoo’s core business—mostly search and display advertising—is worth more like negative-$10 billion, according to Bloomberg View’s Matthew C. Klein.

    The math: Yahoo’s total market cap is $37 billion. Its 24 percent stake in Alibaba, the eBay of China, is worth an estimated $37 billion (Alibaba hasn’t IPO’d yet, so this figure will vary), and its 35 percent stake in Yahoo Japan is worth about $10 billion. That means its core business is valued around negative-$10 billion.

    This isn’t just a random business article; there is some actual financial science behind this analysis. At my trust fund site Yahoo! is one of the stocks I selected since I believe that their new CEO Marissa Meyer is a badass but according to the math she is still losing the battle.

    At one point in my career I worked for a public company that had $300M in cash on hand and a market value of $200M. Your business plan could be to fire everyone and drink in a bar all day and you’d be much closer to $300M than $200M (after all, how much can you drink). The market is anticipating that bad things are going to happen or that Yahoo! won’t be able to successfully sell and repatriate the cash for these investments. It is like that famous postcard my relatives in Montana had that said “If I won a million dollars I’d just keep ranching until it was all gone.” That is what the market today thinks of Yahoo! – even if they successfully extracted the cash from these investments, they’d invest it into something of less value (by $10B or so, apparently).
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    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Tech | 16 Comments »

    RetroTech: Lighted Airways and the Radio Range

    Posted by David Foster on 18th April 2014 (All posts by )

    When airplanes first started to be used for serious transportation purposes, sometime after World War I, the problems involved with flight at night and in periods of low visibility became critical. Transcontinental airmail, for example, lost much of its theoretical speed advantage if the plane carrying the mail had to stop for the night. Gyroscopic flight instruments addressed the problem of controlling the airplane without outside visual references, but there remained the problem of navigation.

    An experiment in 1921 demonstrated that airmail could be successfully flown coast-to-coast, including the overnight interval, with the aid of bonfires located along the route.  The bonfires were soon displaced by a more permanent installation based on rotating beacons. The first lighted airway extended from Chicago to Cheyenne…the idea was that pilots of coast-to-coast flights could depart from either coast in early morning and reach the lighted segment before dusk.  The airway system rapidly expanded to cover much of the country–by 1933, the Federal Airway System extended to 18,000 miles of lighted airways, encompassing 1,550 rotating beacons. The million-candlepower beacons were positioned every ten miles along the airway, and in clear weather were visible for 40 miles. Red or green course lights at each beacon flashed a Morse identifier so that the pilot could definitely identify his linear position on the airway.

    Lighted airways solved the navigation problem very well on a clear night, but were of limited value in overcast weather or heavy participation. You might be able to see the beacons through thin cloud or light rain, but a thicker cloud layer, or heavy rain/snow, might leave you without navigational guidance.

    The answer was found in radio technology. The four-course radio range transmitted signals at low frequency (below the AM broadcast band) in four quadrants. In two of the quadrants, the Morse letter N (dash dot) was transmitted continuously; in the other two quadrants, there was continuous transmission of  the Morse A (dot dash.) The line where two quadrants met formed a course that a pilot could follow by listening to the signal in his headphones: if he was exactly “on the beam,” the A and the N would interlock to form a continuous tone; if he was to one side or the other, he would begin to hear the A or N code emerging.

    The radio range stations were located every 200 miles, and were overlaid on the lighted airways, the visual beacons of which continued to be maintained. The eventual extent of the radio-range airway system is shown in this map. All that was required in the airplane was a simple AM radio with the proper frequency coverage.

    The system made reliable scheduled flying a reality, but it did have some limitations. Old-time pilot Ernest Gann described one flight:

    Beyond the cockpit windows, a few inches beyond your own nose and that of your DC-2′s, lies the night. Range signals are crisp, the air smooth enough to drink the stewardess’s lukewarm coffee without fear of spilling it…Matters are so nicely in hand you might even flip through a magazine while the copilot improves his instrument proficiency…

    Suddenly you are aware the copilot is shifting unhappily in his seat. “I’ve lost the range. Nothing.”

    You deposit the Saturday Evening Post in the aluminum bin which already holds the metal logbook and skid your headphones back in place…There are no signals of any kind or the rap of distance voices from anywhere in the night below. There is only a gentle hissing in your headphones as if some wag were playing a recording of ocean waves singing on a beach.

    You reach for a switch above your head and flip on the landing lights. Suspicion confirmed. Out of the night trillions of white lines are landing toward your eyes. Snow. Apparently the finer the flakes the more effective. It has isolated you and all aboard from the nether world. The total effect suggests you might have become a passenger in Captain Nemo’s fancy submarine.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Aviation, History, Tech, Transportation, USA | 18 Comments »

    Book Review: Father, Son, & Co., by Thomas Watson Jr and Peter Petre (rerun)

    Posted by David Foster on 8th April 2014 (All posts by )

    (Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the announcement of the IBM System/360 series (original press release here)…seems like a good time to rerun this book review, which I originally posted in 2011)

    Buy the book: Father, Son & Co.

    —-

    When Tom Watson Jr was 10 years old, his father came home and proudly announced that he had changed the name of his company. The business that had been known as the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company would now be known by the grand name International Business Machines.

    That little outfit?” thought young Tom to himself, picturing the company’s rather random-seeming collection of products, which included time clocks, coffee grinders, and scales, and the “cigar-chomping guys” who sold them. This was in 1924.

    This is the best business autobiography I’ve read. It’s about Watson Jr, his difficult relationship with his father, the company they built, and the emergence of the computing industry. It is an emotional, reflective, and self-critical book, without the kind of “here’s how brilliant I was” tone that afflicts too many executive autobiographies. With today being IBM’s 100th anniversary (counting from the incorporation of CTR), I thought it would be a good time to finally get this review finished and posted.

    Watson’s relationship with his father was never an easy one. From an early age, he sensed a parental expectation that he would follow his father into IBM, despite both his parents assuring him that this was not the case and he could do whatever he wanted. This feeling that his life course was defined in advance, combined with fear that he would never be able to measure up to his increasingly-famous father, was likely a factor in the episodes of severe depression which afflicted him from 13 to 19. In college Watson was an indifferent student and something of a playboy. His most significant accomplishment during this period was learning to fly airplanes—-”I’d finally discovered something I was good at”–a skill that would have great influence on his future. His first job at IBM, as a trainee salesman, did little to boost his self-confidence or his sense of independence: he was aware that local IBM managers were handing him easy accounts, wanting to ensure success for the chief executive’s son. It was only when Watson joined the Army Air Force during WWII–he flew B-24s and was based in Russia, assisting General Follett Bradley in the organization of supply shipments to the Soviet Union–that he proved to himself that he could succeed without special treatment. As the war wound down, he set his sights on becoming an airline pilot–General Bradley expressed surprise, saying “Really? I always thought you’d go back and run the IBM company.” This expression of confidence, from a man he greatly respected, helped influence Watson to give IBM another try.

    The products that Watson had been selling, as a junior salesman, were punched card systems. Although these were not computers in the modern sense of the word, they could be used to implement some pretty comprehensive information systems. Punched card systems were an important enabler of the increasing dominance of larger organizations in both business and government: the Social Security Act of 1935 was hugely beneficial to IBM both because of the systems they sold to the government directly and those sold to businesses needing to keep up with the required record-keeping.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Biography, Book Notes, Business, Management, Tech | 13 Comments »

    Radar Wars: a Case Study in Science and Government

    Posted by David Foster on 17th March 2014 (All posts by )

    In 1960, the British scientist/novelist C P Snow gave a lecture–later turned into a book–which was inspired by the following  thought:

    One of the most bizarre features of any advanced industrial society in our time is that the cardinal choices have to be made by a handful of men: in secret: and, at least in legal form, by men who cannot have a first-hand knowledge of what those choices depend upon or what their results may be…and when I say the “cardinal choices,” I mean those that determine in the crudest sense whether we live or die.

    Snow discusses two very cardinal cases in which he was personally if somewhat peripherally involved: the pre-WWII secret debate about air defense technologies, and the mid-war debate about strategic bombing policies. This post will focus on the first of these debates, the outcome of which quite likely determined the fate of Britain and of Europe. (Snow’s version of these events is not universally accepted, as I’ll discuss later.) Follow-on posts will discuss the strategic bombing debate and the issues of expertise, secrecy, and decision-making in our own time.

    The air defense debate had two main protagonists: Sir Henry Tizard, and Frederick Lindmann (later Lord Cherwell.) These men were similar in many ways: both were scientists, both were patriots, both were men of great  courage (involved in early and dangerous aircraft experimentation), both were serious amateur athletes. They were “close but not intimate friends” when they both lived in Berlin–Tizard was a member of a gym there which was run by a former champion lightweight boxer of England, and persuaded Lindemann to join and box with him. But Lindemann proved to be such a poor loser that Tizard refused to box with him again. “Still,” says Tizard, “we remained close friends for over twenty-five years, but after 1936 he became a bitter enemy.”

    Snow, who makes no secret of his preference for Tizard, tells of a conversation with Lindemann in which he (Snow) remarked that “the English honours system must cause far more pain than pleasure: that every January and June the pleasure to those who got awards was nothing like so great as the pain of those who did not. Miraculously Lindemann’s sombre, heavy face lit up…With a gleeful sneer he said: ‘Of course it is. It wouldn’t be any use getting an ward if one didn’t think of all the people who were miserable because they hadn’t managed it.’”

    Some people did like Lindemann, though–and one of them was Winston Churchill, who though still in the political wilderness was not without influence. Indeed, the future PM considered Lindemann (later to become Lord Cherwell) to be his most trusted advisor on matters of science. If Snow’s version of events is correct, Churchill’s trust and advocacy of Lindemann could have driven a decision resulting in Britain’s losing the war before it even started.

    During the inter-war era, the bombing plane was greatly feared–it was commonly believed that no effective defense was possible. PM Stanley Baldwin, speaking in 1932, expressed this attitude when he said “I think it is well also for the man in the street to realize that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed, whatever people may tell him. The bomber will always get through.” Indeed, the problem of air defense was very difficult–the bombers could arrive at any time, and by the time they were sighted, it would likely be too late to get fighters in the air. Maintaining standing patrols on all possible attack routes was unfeasible. The only detection devices were long horns with microphones and amplifiers, intended to pick up enemy engine noise a considerable distance away–but their value was limited to say the least.

    In early 1935, the British government set up a Committee for the Scientific Study of Air Defense, chaired by Tizard. It reported to a higher-level committee, chaired by Lord Swinton, who was the Air Minister. One member of that higher-level committee was Winston Churchill, and he insisted that his favorite scientist, Lindemann (who had been quite vocal about the need for improved air defense), should be appointed to Tizard’s working-level committee.

    Radar had only recently been invented, and was by no means operationally proven, but all of the members of that Tizard committee–with one exception–viewed it as the key to successful air defense. That exeption was Lindemann. While not hostile to radar, he believed the committee should given equal or greater attention to certain other technologies–specifically, infrared detection and parachute mines…the latter devices were to be dropped from above, and were intended to explode after getting caught on the wing or other part of the enemy bomber. He also thought there were possibilities in machines that would create a strong updraft and flip a bomber on its back.

    “Almost from the moment that Lindemann took his seat undisturbed in the committee room,” says Snow, “the meetings did not know half an hour’s harmony or work undisturbed.” Exercising his novelistic talents, Snow imagines what the meetings must have been like:

    Lindemann, Hill, and Blackett were all very tall men of distinguished physical presence…Blackett and Hill would be dressed casually, like academics. Tizard and Lindemann, who were both conventional in such things, would be wearing black coats and striped trousers, and both would come to the meetings in bowler hates. At the table Blackett and Hill, neither of them specially patient men nor overfond of listening to nonsense, sat with incredulity through diatribes by Lindemann, scornfull, contemptuous, barely audible, directed against any decision that Tizard had made, was making, or ever would make. Tizard sat it out for some time. He could be irritable, but he had great resources of temperament, and he knew that this was too serious a time to let the irritability flash. He also knew, from the first speech that Lindemann made in committee, that the friendship of years was smashed.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Britain, History, Management, Military Affairs, Tech | 10 Comments »

    About Those Smart Machines

    Posted by David Foster on 12th March 2014 (All posts by )

    Lots of talk these days about smart machines, brilliant machines, even genius machines.

    For balance, read this post about Stupid Smart Stuff.

    See also my post when humans and robots communicate.

    Posted in Aviation, Tech, Transportation | 4 Comments »

    Descent of the Chioula, and GoPro

    Posted by Dan from Madison on 27th February 2014 (All posts by )

    Last year on my annual pilgrimage to cycling valhalla in the Pyrenees I took my GoPro camera for the first time. Below is my descent of the Col du Chioula, headed back toward Ax les Thermes (best viewed in HD).

    This was probably my best descent of last year, the road surface and weather being just right. Everything fell into place. For those wondering, my top speed on this descent was 48.2 mph.

    I took an insane amount of footage with my GoPro last year, and I am glad I did. But the problem is that when you bring back these hours and hours of video, there is nowhere for you to go with it. Options are buying an external hard drive and storing them there, or uploading them to one of many websites that do this sort of thing. I am about two thirds of the way done uploading my videos to YouTube, and it takes absolutely forever. A 15 minute video takes several hours to upload. I usually start one video a night and begin the uploading process before I go to bed.

    Cross posted at LITGM.

    Posted in France, Sports, Tech, Video | 4 Comments »

    It Isn’t Nice to Kick Someone When He’s Down…

    Posted by David Foster on 6th February 2014 (All posts by )

    …but the woes at Sony Corporation remind me of a couple of my posts about the path this company has been taking.

    From March, 2005:

    The New York Times (3/13, registration required) quotes Sir Howard Stringer, the new chief executive of Sony, arguing for mutual benefit between his company’s electronics and entertainment divisions. At the Consumer Electronics Show last month, Sir Howard said, “A device without content is nothing but scrap metal.”

    Following the chain of logic he seems to be developing, we could also argue that a car without fuel is scrap metal…and therefore, auto companies need to own oil companies. Or that computers are useless without software…so all computer manufacturers need to possess large software operations.

    Randall Stoss, author of the NYT article, observes that Sir Howard’s remark is “a platitude beneath mention–unless, perhaps, one were a mite defensive about owning both a widget factory and an entertainment factory.” Stoss goes on to credit the success of the iPod (far greater than Sony’s competitive product) to the fact that Apple has not pursued synergies between device and content…

    A company thrives when it has all that it needs to make a compelling product and is undistracted by fractiousness among divisions that resent being told to make decisions based upon family obligations, not market considerations.

    From September 2012:

    In his Financial Times article Why Sony did not invent the iPod, John Kay notes that there have been many cases in which large corporations saw correctly that massive structural changes were about to hit their industries–attempted to position themselves for these changes by executing acquisitions or joint ventures–and failed utterly. As examples he cites Sony’s purchase of CBC Records and Columbia Pictures, the AT&T acquisition of NCR, and the dreadful AOL/Time Warner affair. He summarizes the reason why these things don’t tend to work:

    A collection of all the businesses which might be transformed by disruptive innovation might at first sight appear to be a means of assembling the capabilities needed to manage change. In practice, it is a means of gathering together everyone who has an incentive to resist change. 

    I’d also note that the kinds of vertical integration represented by the above mergers don’t exactly encourage other companies–which were not competitors prior to the merger but have become so afterwards–to participate in an ecosystem.
    Kay references the work of Clayton Christensen, whose book The Innovator’s Solution I reviewed here.  See also Mergers, Acquisitions, Princesses, and Toads.

     

    Posted in Business, Management, Tech | 19 Comments »

    Fear of Robots: Mainframe-Era Version

    Posted by David Foster on 6th February 2014 (All posts by )

    New Yorker cartoon by David Langdon. (click to expand) I can’t find a date for this, but it was probably sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s.

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Tech | 3 Comments »