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    Learning the 777

    Posted by David Foster on 12th October 2017 (All posts by )

    Airline pilot Karlene Petitt is doing transition to the Boeing 777 and blogging about what she learns:

    Aircraft overview

    Structure and materials

    Flight controls

    Roll controls detail

    Series will continue at Karlene’s blog

    Posted in Aviation, Tech, Transportation | No Comments »

    Apple Pay for Better Security

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 11th October 2017 (All posts by )

    Over the last year I’ve had several opportunities to drive to remote parts of Oregon. Often we stop by a local grocery / convenience store to pick up groceries or a snack. These stores are small and often with a single check out lane and a very quaint atmosphere of old-time store goods.

    A bit of fun for me is to walk up to the credit card reader which usually has the icon for near field connectivity (NFC) and I surreptitiously use my Apple Watch with Apple Pay enabled to quickly pay for groceries without taking out my credit card. The cashier gets flummoxed and wonders what happened, and I show them my Apple Watch with my card image and they laugh.

    What is sad is that Apple Pay works “out of the box” at most of these remote grocery stores but it doesn’t work at many of the large retailers in the city. Instead of encouraging Apple Pay or similar google technologies, the retailers want to control the experience and the data and so they turn off this feature. You have the unfortunate alternative of putting your credit card in the chip reader and waiting for 5-10 seconds which slows the line for the whole process. Worse than the inconvenience is the fact that Apple Pay is much more secure than any card reader – Apple Pay doesn’t provide your “real” credit card to the store, instead it uses a “token” for the transaction.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Oregonia, Tech | 10 Comments »

    Apple Photos Integration

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 8th October 2017 (All posts by )

    I’ve gone all in on Apple through a series of semi-random decisions.  I bought a MacBook Pro back in 2011 and, thanks to my friend Brian who upgraded the memory and hard drive to an SSD, that machine still works great in late 2017 and I was able to upgrade to the latest Mac OS High Sierra without a challenge.  I have had several iPhones over the years and am on an iPhone 7 now.  My current iPad is an iPad Air 2 which also seems to have several years of life left in it.  Finally, I bought an Apple Watch and recently upgraded it to Watch OS 4.

    I’ve also been moving everything to the cloud slowly.  I looked at my MacBook and it said I hadn’t done a backup in over 1000 days.  I don’t really care because I put the (relatively few) documents that I care about in iCloud (and can access them across any Apple device), my contacts are in the Apple Cloud, while my photos (the core of most of this post) are already in the Apple cloud and I gave up on physical music and moved almost solely over to Apple Music.  My email is in the cloud with various providers, as well.  So what’s on the device that I really care about, anyways?  Cloud storage is also pretty cheap… I think I spend about a dollar a month on it for Apple (plus $9.99 for Apple music).  The only high space items I have (in terms of MB or GB) are photos, since I’ve given up on music.

    It is a hard decision to put all your photos in the Apple cloud.  You need to make the move to put your photos up in the cloud and have that be the primary location, not the ones on your hard drive or your phone  While someone with more technical expertise might tell you that is not an irrevocable decision, from my perspective it seems like it would be exceedingly difficult to “go back”.

    I came to this decision because I love the features that Apple Photos provides.  Specifically:

    • Once you tag faces to names, any new photos that you take are automatically linked to those same individuals.  The accuracy of this service has been increasing over time, both in terms of 1) matching different angles to people and also in 2) picking faces out of the crowd in the first place so that you can link them to people
    • Apple photos now synchs across devices so that if you link photos to faces on your iPhone it carries those same links over to the photos on your MacBook and on your iPad.  Incredibly, until the latest OS upgrade (on the iPhone / iPad as well as Mac OS) you had to do these independently (3 times).  I am also starting to play with synching to my Apple Watch with Watch OS 4 but this is in progress (and would be partial in any case)
    • Apple photos now has built in photo features that were present on typical photo editing software years ago, like auto-feature touch up (magic wand) and more tweaks.  I’m sure to a photo expert these features are minimalistic but to the vast, vast majority of photo users they are likely enough.  These features just came through with the latest upgrades
    • Apple photos makes it easier to synch faces to contacts and also appears to act more reliably across devices.  For instance, if I take a photo on my iPhone it won’t appear on my iPad or Mac until I connect that phone up to wifi somewhere and put it in a charger.  But then they all appear right away (in a reduced quality image, when you tap on one it “fills in” the remaining elements to a high quality image.  This used to be spotty, at best, and unreliable (I would have to start and restart my devices sometimes for it to work)
    • Now that synchronizing works reliably across devices, I can use my Mac for more heavy duty tasks like editing and changing the date on old photos (for example I take iPhone pictures of old photos from my physical photo albums and then I edit them and change their date on the Mac so that they are in the proper sequence and don’t show up at the top of your photo queue by date)
    • If you load older photos into iCloud it takes a while (probably faster now) because it attempts to add in all the AI (faces, locations, etc…) so be a bit patient.  I was an early adopter of this and somehow I had lots of duplicates that I am in the process of deleting but it probably is easier now
    • I tried making a physical photo book from Apple (to give to parents and in laws) and it worked great.  Now it is much easier to bring photos into the physical book or however you want to print them, and you have a huge variety of photos (edited, even) to choose from

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Photos, Tech | 7 Comments »

    Kinda Cool

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

    Lowes’ Holorooms

    Also in this video

    Posted in Business, Marketing, Tech | No Comments »

    Micro-transactions

    Posted by TM Lutas on 6th October 2017 (All posts by )

    It is now possible to convert electricity to money using an Internet browser (like the one you’re likely using to read this post) in amounts lower than $0.001, which is the smallest unit of account for the US Dollar. Jobs earning that amount are constantly available by doing math on your computer that works on supporting open ledger systems called blockchains.

    The product of the math work turns into cryptocurrency fractional coins which, when accumulated in large enough amounts can be sold for dollars, euros, yen, or any other conventional currency around.

    The transaction costs are orders of magnitude lower than in the conventional banking system, enough that large classes of transactions that were impractical are now merely somewhat expensive. There’s a lot of room for efficiency improvements at present.

    You can see an experiment running the first iteration I’m working with this concept at the project blog for Charleston Dry Feet. It’s currently generating litoshi from anyone who visits. Proceeds go to the worthy project of fixing Charleston, SC’s deficient storm water drainage system. You can turn the widget on or off with a button click.

    Posted in Capitalism, Miscellaneous, Tech | 20 Comments »

    Sputnik Anniversary Rerun – Book Review: Rockets and People

    Posted by David Foster on 4th October 2017 (All posts by )

    Today being the 60th anniversary of the Sputnik launch, here’s a rerun of a post about a very interesting book.

    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.

    Some vignettes, themes, and excerpts I thought were particularly interesting:

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Aviation, Big Government, Biography, Leftism, Management, Military Affairs, Russia, Society, Space, Tech, Transportation | 15 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading & Viewing

    Posted by David Foster on 28th September 2017 (All posts by )

    Things that were once common knowledge…and now are not

    Advice on leadership for Naval Academy cadets…applicable in other walks of life as well

    A time-lapse video of 30 days at sea

    Animated films:  a transition both in technologies and in implicit political messages

    Who murdered beauty?…an analysis of some trends in the world of art

    Cedar Sanderson asks What do Environmentalists, JRR Tolkein, Luddites, and Progressives all have in common?

    Company towns, then and now

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Business, Deep Thoughts, Film, Science, Society, Tech, Transportation | 8 Comments »

    Robot Emeritus

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

    Prior to WWII, only a small minority of Americans had checking accounts. With the postwar economic boom and with some promotion (here’s an ABA video intended to educate Americans about the virtues of the check), the number of checking-account-holders grew sharply, and the problem of processing all the checks became an increasingly large absorber of clerical workers.

    Attempting to dig itself out of the paperwork flood, Bank of America hired Stanford Research Institute to develop an automated solution.  The prototype system, called ERMA, was operational in early 1956.  The now-familiar MICR characters, printed in magnetic ink, were introduced to provide automatic account identification, so that only the amount of the check needed to be entered manually.  An ERMA system maintained account data (for up to 32000 customers) on a magnetic drum, so that overdrafts and stop-check requests could be identified in real time.  An automated check-sorting machine was included in the system.

    EMRA employed 8000 vacuum tubes and drew 80KW of power….it was not a stored-program computer but was wired for its specific function.  Development of follow-on production machines, which were solid-state and stored-program, was accomplished by NCR and GE.

    It still seems remarkable that checks…flimsy paper documents that are often treated pretty roughly…can be processed and sorted at 10 per second (in the case of ERMA) or even faster in the case of follow-on systems.  I read somewhere that when the ERMA system was being demonstrated to GE CEO Ralph Cordiner, he took one of his own checks, folded it in half, dropped in on the floor and stepped on it a couple of times, and then requested that it be included in the processing run.  Apparently the system handled it just fine.

    Some ERMA history

    A GE computer at work in a Chicago bank, in 1960

    I post items like this because they provide needed perspective in our present “age of automation” when there is so much media focus of robotics, artificial intelligence, and ‘the Internet of Things,’ but not a whole lot of understanding for how these fit on the historical technology growth trajectory.

    Previous Robot Emeritus posts:

    Railroad Centralized Traffic Control, 1927

    Manufacturing Automation, 1960

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, History, Tech | 1 Comment »

    Robots of the Week

    Posted by David Foster on 12th September 2017 (All posts by )

    Sewing robots.  Although spinning and weaving have long been highly mechanized, the final phase of the apparel-making value chain has resisted automation:

    IN 1970 William J. Bank, president of the Blue Jeans Corporation, predicted that there would be a man on Mars before the production of apparel was automated. Almost half a century later, he has not yet been proved wrong. 

    But that may change soon, given recent development in robotic sewing. Two companies, Softwear Automation (Atlanta) and Sewbo (Seattle) are pursuing different strategies:  Softwear’s approach is to create computer vision and robotic manipulation which is intelligent and subtle enough to deal with highly flexible fabric, whereas Sewbo’s approach is to temporarily stiffen the fabric in order to make working with it more like metalworking.

    Depending on how well these systems work in practice, and how the technology evolves, they may turn out to be not only the robots of the week, but the robots of the year or even the decade.  Apparel-making is a vast industry, concentrated in nations which are not-so-well-off economically, and employs a large number of people. A high level of automation would likely result in much of this production being relocated closer to the markets, thus saving transportation costs and shortening supply cycles.  The consequences for countries like China, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka could be pretty unpleasant.

    Most likely, unforeseen problems will slow the full deployment of these systems and an Apparel Apocalypse will not occur.  It would certainly be wise, though, for the leaderships of apparel-manufacturing-intensive countries to focus on the need to develop a broader employment base.

    More here.

    See also my post on 3d knitting

    Posted in Business, China, Tech | 5 Comments »

    Machine Tools and Glassmaking

    Posted by David Foster on 5th September 2017 (All posts by )

    In early August, I visited the American Precision Museum in Vermont, which is dedicated to the history of the American machine tool industry, and also made a side trip to the Simon Pearce Glass facility, recommended by Mike Kennedy in comments not too long ago.  Images (should expand when clicked) from upper left…

    1–The museum is located in the former Robbins & Lawrence armory.  Power was initially from a waterwheel, later supplemented by steam

    2–Blanchard Copying Lathe.  Mechanically copies a prototype shape…a rifle stock, in the example shown, but also used for table and chair legs, etc

    3–A much later approach to automated cutting of a specified shape:  this is a paper tape reader used to feed data to a numerically-controlled machine tool.

    4–Bendix G-15 computer, from the mid-1950s.  This one was used for gear-cutting calculations, reducing the typical time taken from 2 hours to 2 minutes.  Computers of this type were also used to directly produce the punched paper tapes used to operate machine tools.

    5–Sewing machine from 1859.  The success of these devices created great demand for precision machining.

    6–A very elaborate model of a steam engine, made by a German man who came to the US between the wars. When he visited Germany in the 1950s, he found that the model had survived intact in an attic.

    7–Profile milling machine, for cutting the outside periphery of a flat surface.

    8–Columbia chainless bicycle, from the 1890s. An advantage of this type was that women could ride them without danger of getting their long skirts caught in a chain.  A disadvantage was the price…$125 in 1890 dollars!

    9–Bevel gear cutting machine…made gears of a type required for the chainless bicycle.  Not clear if this machine came before the Columbia bicycle or if it was a later production-cost improvement.

    10–The showroom at Simon Pearce glass.

    11 & 12–Hydroelectric dam and turbine used to generate power at Simon Pearce.  Capacity is about 600KW, and what they don’t use for their own needs (which are pretty significant given the electric glass-heating furnaces) is sold to the grid.

    Lots more pictures of Simon Pearce at this article.

    Posted in Business, Energy & Power Generation, Tech | 12 Comments »

    Robot of the Week

    Posted by David Foster on 29th August 2017 (All posts by )

    Shark-detecting artificially-intelligent drone, now operational in Australia

    Posted in Tech | 3 Comments »

    Robots of the Week

    Posted by David Foster on 12th August 2017 (All posts by )

     

    AGBOTS

     

    Posted in Business, Tech | 1 Comment »

    Self-Driving Cars: When and What?

    Posted by David Foster on 4th August 2017 (All posts by )

    A collection of some opinions

    Posted in Tech, Transportation | 35 Comments »

    Robots Emeritus

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

    An interesting video from 1955 on manufacturing automation.

    How many of the people who are today projecting a technology-driven employment apocalypse have any idea that the industrial automation technology of 62 years ago was as capable as that shown in this video?

     

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, History, Tech | 10 Comments »

    Robot of the Week

    Posted by David Foster on 30th July 2017 (All posts by )

     

    Automated suturing

     

    Posted in Medicine, Tech | 1 Comment »

    Worthwhile Reading & Viewing

    Posted by David Foster on 29th July 2017 (All posts by )

    A photo essay about an old mill, by Gerard Van der Leun

    From welder to welding robot programmer

    Showing love through food

    The University Empire

    Privilege hoarding: Harvard and granite countertops

    A 2006 post by Dr Sanity on the Western Left and radical Islam

    Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, 30 years later.

    Cold Spring Shops writes about education, mating, fertility, and work.

    Posted in Academia, Feminism, History, Human Behavior, Islam, Leftism, Photos, Tech | 3 Comments »

    Robot Emeritus

    Posted by David Foster on 25th July 2017 (All posts by )

     

    Ninety years ago this month, the first Centralized Traffic Control system was placed in operation, on a 40-mile stretch of railroad belonging to the New York Central. From a central console, the Dispatcher was able to control switches and signals anywhere in the territory.  The positions of individual trains were displayed via lights on the panel. Interlocking logic at the remote locations ensure that neither dispatcher errors nor communication problems could set up potentially-dangerous conflicts.

    In today’s terminology, it was a geographically-distributed robotics system, with a strong flavor of what is now being called the Internet of Things–although the communications links in the system were not provided by the Internet, obviously, the concept of devices announcing their status via telecommunications and receiving commands the same way was quite similar.

    To railroad men of the time, the new system seemed almost magical:

    The dispatcher was there and he was just filled up with enthusiasm on this new gadget called centralized traffic control… Along about 10 o’clock, he just yelled right out loud, ‘Here comes a non-stop meet.’ We all gathered around the machine and watched the lights that you know all about, watched the lights come towards each other and pass each other without stopping. That, to me… was history on American railroads, the first non-stop meet on single track without train orders… and you never saw such enthusiasm in your life as was in the minds and hearts of that crew.

    CTC technology caught on quickly, and by the mid-1930s, stretches of track up to 100 miles long were regularly being operated under CTC control.  In principal, there was no limit to how far away the operator could be  from the controlled railroad territory.

    I post items like this because they provide needed perspective in our present “age of automation” when there is so much media focus of robotics, artificial intelligence, and ‘the Internet of Things,’ but not a whole lot of understanding for how these fit on the historical technology growth trajectory.

    Posted in History, Tech, Transportation | 14 Comments »

    Robots of the Week: Replacing Cashiers in Grocery Stores and Cafeterias

    Posted by David Foster on 22nd July 2017 (All posts by )

    Eliminating checkout lines via automatic object recognition: IMAGR and Mashgin.

    (Technically, these are artificial intelligence systems but probably shouldn’t really count as ‘robots’ since they respond to the physical world but don’t manipulate it)

    Posted in Business, Tech | 11 Comments »

    Robot of the Week: The Audi Traffic Jam Pilot

    Posted by David Foster on 15th July 2017 (All posts by )

    On certain roads, it is able to control the vehicle without driver involvement at speeds up to 37 mph.  The system, which in addition to the Traffic Jam Pilot also includes the Garage Pilot and the Parking Pilot, uses technology from Nvidia, Mobileye, and Delphi.

    Writeup

    Video

    The feature package is available (not sure if its optional or standard) with the 2018 model A8.

    Disclosure:  I’m an NVDA shareholder.

     

    Posted in Tech, Transportation | 12 Comments »

    Why Does This Happen?

    Posted by Jonathan on 6th July 2017 (All posts by )

    Skype used to be the premier VOIP app (long before we called such things apps). It always had a crummy user interface but call quality was excellent and users put up with the rough edges. However, since Microsoft bought Skype call quality has declined, seemingly steadily. There are frequent software updates that don’t improve the user experience and sometimes introduce new problems. With its Skype updates on Windows MSFT forces you to opt out a la Java from having your browser configuration hijacked. Calls get dropped more than they used to. Calls that don’t go through are much more frequent. Bandwidth now seems to affect call quality even though it was once possible to use Skype easily over dialup Internet connections.

    This morning I tried to make a Skype call on my mobile and found there had been another upgrade, forcing me to waste minutes selecting a new background color and dismissing what’s-new pages and trying to find my contacts list, which is all I ever want to do. I don’t want to invite my contacts to use Skype, I don’t care about inserting GIFs into chats, I don’t care about the Skype community. I care about good, consistent call quality, about having my list of phone numbers propagate automatically to laptop or phone when I update the list, about having a Skype number for incoming calls, and about easy management of occasional conferences and international calls. I used to care about video calling but I gave up since good alternatives appeared. If Skype could restore its past high call quality I could happily put up with the other hassles. If Skype could also improve its UI in a few obvious ways I would be thrilled. It never happens. Why not?

    A company with a great product conspicuously fails to improve that product and it starts to lag competing products. Or a big company buys a small company and ruins its main product. MSFT’s management is no doubt part of the problem here but the pattern is familiar. Why is it familiar? You might think the smart people running MSFT would know better. Perhaps they don’t, perhaps this is a more difficult problem than it appears to be. Or perhaps something else is going on.

    Discuss.

    Posted in Business, Management, Organizational Analysis, Tech | 20 Comments »

    Summer Rerun: Selling New Concepts can be Challenging

    Posted by David Foster on 6th July 2017 (All posts by )

    Via Maggie’s Farm, here’s a Bob Newhart skit from 1970. Bob plays the role of an 1890s-style venture capitalist, talking on the phone with inventor Herman Hollerith, who is trying to explain the merits of punched card technology.

    LINK

    Related: Father, Son & Co., the biography of long-time IBM CEO Thomas Watson Jr, is the best business autobiography I’ve read. I reviewed it here.

    Posted in Advertising, Book Notes, Business, History, Media, Tech | 1 Comment »

    Lynchings and Witch-Trials, Technology-Enhanced

    Posted by David Foster on 27th June 2017 (All posts by )

    Jonathan Kay:  The tyranny of Twitter:  How mob censure is changing the intellectual landscape.  Excerpt:

    A few weeks ago, shortly after I left my magazine gig, I had breakfast with a well-known Toronto man of letters. He told me his week had been rough, in part because it had been discovered that he was still connected on social media with a colleague who’d fallen into disfavour with Stupid Twitter-Land. “You know that we all can see that you are still friends with him,” read one of the emails my friend had received. “So. What are you going to do about that?”

    “So I folded,” he told me with a sad, defeated air. “I know I’m supposed to stick to my principles. That’s what we tell ourselves. Free association and all that. It’s part of the romance of our profession. But I can’t afford to actually do that. These people control who gets jobs. I’m broke. So now I just go numb and say whatever they need me to say.”

    also

    The Writers Union of Canada and the University of British Columbia Fine Arts faculty do not operate gulags. Nevertheless, the idea that a whole career can fall victim to a single social-media message sent in a moment of anger or frustration — or even a bad joke — has produced an atmosphere of real terror that is compromising the art and intellect of Canada’s most creative minds.

    I don’t think it’s just Canada, although perhaps it’s worse there than in the US at the moment.

    Motivations of the trolls:

    A lot of these people are brilliant writers who have spent their lives toiling in obscurity. Whole years may pass during which they will write a book of poetry, or an academic thesis, that perhaps only a few hundred people will ever read. The privilege that I am putting on display here — the right to author a long essay in a national newspaper — isn’t available to most of them. But thanks to the three-way combination of social-media technology, the moral urgency of identity politics, and these intellectuals’ hallowed status as wordsmiths, they now have a chance to gain a wide audience — and even impose their moral judgments on others. It is not hard to see why they would jump at this chance.

    I am reminded of Peter Drucker’s report of a conversation he had with an acquaintance who was supporting the Nazi party.  This man had come from a working-class background and felt that his career prospects had been very limited, but “Now I have a party membership card with a very low number and I am going to be somebody.”

    Clarence Thomas referred to the media coverage surrounding his candidateship for the US Supreme Court as a “high-tech lynching”…the high-tech in this case evidently being television.  But the nature of the television medium meant that denunciations had to originate from or at least be directed by a fairly small group of media-company employees.  Now, with the rise of social media, we have crowdsourced denunciations and witch-trials, as described in the Jonathan Kay article.

    In my post Freedom, the Village, and the Internet, I drew on some passages in the novel Every Man Dies Alone, which is centered on a German couple who become anti-Nazi activists after their son Ottochen is killed in the war (it was inspired by, and is loosely based on, a real-life story.)

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

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

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

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    Posted in Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Leftism, Media, Tech | 60 Comments »

    Summer Rerun: Applied Networking in the Early 1900s

    Posted by David Foster on 23rd June 2017 (All posts by )

    An on-line discussion board in 1907

    Interesting that girls as well as boys were participants in this network.

    Using networking technology for a stock trading edge, 1914-style

    A precursor of today’s high-frequency trading

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Society, Tech | Comments Off on Summer Rerun: Applied Networking in the Early 1900s

    Summer Rerun: Leaving (Several Trillion) on the Table

    Posted by David Foster on 22nd June 2017 (All posts by )

    (Over at Ricochet, James Pethokoukis has a post/thread on French president Macron’s call for American scientists and engineers to move to France.  In comments, someone asked John Walker (cofounder of Autodesk) whether Macron could lure him to France “as part of a Silicon Valley Rhone or Loire?”  Walker’s response is also in the comments.  Also, this post from 2006/2009 about some earlier efforts at top-down technology-industry planning in Europe seemed relevant, so I linked it there as well.)

    The invention of the transistor was an event of tremendous economic importance. Although there was already a substantial electronics industry, based on the vacuum tube, the transistor gave the field a powerful shot of adrenaline and brought about the creation of vast amounts of new wealth.

    As almost everyone knows, the transistor was invented by John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley, all researchers at Bell Laboratories, in 1946. But a recent article in Spectrum suggests that the true history of the transistor is more complex…and interesting not only from the standpoint of the history of technology, but also from the standpoint of economic policy.

    The story begins in Germany, during World War II. Owing to short-sighted decisions by the Nazi leadership, Germany’s position in radar technology had fallen behind the capabilities of Britain and of the United States. (Reacting to the prospect of airborne radar, Herman Goering had said “My pilots do not need a cinema on board!”)

    But by 1943, even the dullest Nazi could see the advantages that the Allies were obtaining from radar. In February of that year, Goering ordered an intensification of radar research efforts. One of the scientists assigned to radar research was Herbert Matare, who had been an electronics experimenter as a teenager and had gone on the earn a doctorate.

    A key issue in military radar was the need for shorter wavelengths–which allowed for better target resolution (such as the ability to pick up the periscope of a submerged submarine) and also facilitated the miniaturization of radar equipment. Vacuum tube diodes (diode: a device that allows electricity to travel only in one direction) did not work well at these wavelengths, because the distance between the electrodes in the tube was too large. Matare was working with an alternative: crystal rectifiers similar to those he had tinkered with as a teenager.

    In the course of this work, he noticed that when configured in a certain way, a device made of germanium could do more that provide a one-way gate: it could amplify. A small signal could control a more powerful current. In principle, the vacuum tube–fragile, bulky, power-hungry, and hot-running–could be replaced with devices of this type.

    Focused on his war work, Matare did not have time to pursue the possibilities of his invention. (And very fortunately, he and his colleagues in German science and industry never came close to matching the Allied achievements in radar.) After the war, Matare moved to Paris and went to work for a Westinghouse subsidiary, Compagnie des Freins et Signaux Westinghouse. There he met Heinrich Welker, another German, a theoretical physicist who, remarkably, had also developed a transistor-like device, and the two men began working together on understanding the technology and its potential. After they began obtaining consistent results, in 1948, they contacted the director of the PTT, the French government agency responsible for posts and telecommunications. He was too busy to come by for a demonstration. But after the announcement of the transistor by Bell Labs in July of that year, there was a sudden upsurge of interest in the Welker/Heinrich project, and the PTT minister found time to visit the lab. He urged them to apply for a French patent on the device and also suggested that they call it by a slightly different name: the transistron. By 1949, the device was in limited commercial use: first as an amplifier on the Paris-Limoges telephone line, and later on the lines running from France to Algiers.

    The Spectrum article tells what happened next: not much. But the French government and Westinghouse failed to capitalize on the technical advantages in semiconductors that they then appeared to have. After Hiroshima, nuclear physics had emerged as the dominant scientific discipline in the public mind, and nuclear power was widely heralded as the wave of the future. France became enchanted with pursuing the nuclear genie unbottled in the 1940s, while ignorant of its promising transistron.

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    Posted in Big Government, Business, Europe, France, Germany, Tech, USA | 4 Comments »

    USS Jackson at Portland Fleet Week… and Disruption Hits the Navy

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 10th June 2017 (All posts by )

    Portland, Oregon hosts “fleet week” where navy ships (including from Canada) dock alongside the river right next to downtown and offer tours and set up booths and the like. This year I was excited because USS Jackson, an Independence Class Littoral combat ship was arriving and I would get to see what an advanced combat craft looks like up close. I also found out a key link to “disruption” which has been a theme of my recent analysis and posts.

    The first thing you notice is the unique hull (compared to traditional warship designs). This design is supposed to let it operate in shallow waters near coastlines and also deliver very high speed – up to 50 knots – although the top speed is classified. The navy had a chain link fence up and armed guards with M16 weapons and a sign saying “use of deadly force authorized” so they were not kidding around.

    That same day I received my copy of “Modern War”, a magazine published by Strategy and Tactics Press (and I highly recommend that you subscribe to their publications, they are a solid and interesting publishing house) which just happened to profile the Independence Class ships on p68-70 of their July – August issue. Some highlights:

    They are controversial because of their limited basic armament and expensive construction costs. Senior naval leaders argue the mission flexibility and extensive automation provide a vast array of capabilities with fewer personnel and platforms than traditional designs. Construction and operating costs dominate budget discussions and headlines because they come ‘up front’. Today, however, personnel costs constitute 62% of the annual Department of Defense Budget.

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    Posted in Economics & Finance, Military Affairs, Tech | 37 Comments »