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  • Archive for the 'Tech' Category

    Book Review: God is an Englishman

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

    The Swann family saga, by R F Delderfield:

    God Is an Englishman

    Theirs Was the Kingdom

    Give Us This Day

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

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

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

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

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

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Britain, Business, History, Management, Tech | 4 Comments »

    The Game “Doom” and Its Historical Importance

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 14th March 2015 (All posts by )

    The game “Doom” came out for PCs in the early 1990s. Playing that game was a formative experience for me and its contribution to computers and gaming is very under-rated.

    I recently picked up a copy of the game on my iPad. I immediately was re-immersed in the game, remembering the maps, the monsters, the tactics, and sweating and jerking in my chair as I tried to get through the levels alive.

    Doom was created by Id Software, and it was one of the most successful “first person” shooters. To some extent they invented the genre; their first game was Castle Wolfenstein which was a remake (far superior) of a top-down view game that I used to play on my old Apple II. That (ancient) game was famous for having the characters’ talk – I remember that they would yell “Schweindhund” when you shot the German guards.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Personal Narrative, Tech | 7 Comments »

    Early American Jet Development

    Posted by David Foster on 11th March 2015 (All posts by )

    Here’s a fun video about early American jet engine development, made in 1952 and recently found in the archives and posted on the GE blog.

    The Jet Race and the Second World War is a useful source on the early days of the turbojet revolution.  The concept of the jet was developed independently in Britain (by Frank Whittle) and in Germany (by Hans von Ohain.)  US Army Air Corps chief of staff Henry “Hap” Arnold championed bringing this technology to the United States, promising the Brits that absolute secrecy would be maintained.  GE was chosen for the US production contract, largely because of its experience with turbosuperchargers, which in turn had benefited from its work with marine and powerplant turbines.  There had been a US research project on possible turbine applications in aviation, but it was focused on turboprops and ducted fans rather than pure jets.  (Interestingly, Arnold chose to exclude the piston engine manufacturers from this work, being concerned about possible conflicts of interest.)

    Bell Aircraft was chosen to design and build the airplane which was to be mated with the first American-built jet engine:  it was called the XP-59 Airacomet, and GE’s engine (a derivative of the Whittle W2B) was called the I-A.  The prototype Airacomet was delivered to the test field via steam train (with the engine being kept in constant rotation at low speed because of concerns about vibration damaging the bearings), and first flew in October 1942.  The Army Air Corps ordered 80 of them, but only 30 were delivered, with the balance of the production contract being cancelled because of somewhat disappointing performance and the incipient availability of better engines and airframes.

    Meanwhile, the British had proceeded with development of their first jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor, powered by Rolls Royce Welland engines.  The Meteor did not see any air-to-air combat during WWII, but it was used with success against German V-1 buzz bombs (“cruise missiles,” as we would now call them) and also ground attack and airfield defense missions during the last stages of the war in Europe.  It would later serve in the Korean War with the Royal Australian Air Force.

    The Planes of Fame Air Museum has a P-59 Airacomet and is restoring it to flying condition.

    Posted in Aviation, Book Notes, Britain, History, Military Affairs, Tech | 16 Comments »

    In the Future We Will All be Slaveowners

    Posted by Grurray on 9th March 2015 (All posts by )

    Image8
    Or so they thought in 1957 in this Mechanix Illustrated exposé.

    The description of the robot valet and cook makes it seem like dependence would make us more of a slave to the technology then the other way around, but the robot cars and drones are closer to the mark. I can’t imagine anyone waving amicably at today’s red light cameras, although many drivers would probably welcome the hail of bullets fired in their direction.

    The robot reporters prediction was about 50 years too soon, but we’re now starting to see them for statistics heavy topics like fantasy sports.

    The most amusing part is about GE’s role in the upcoming cyber serfdom.

    Most remarkable is General Electric‘s new Yes-Man, a master-slave manipulator of incredible dexterity. Any movement the human master makes with his hand, even lifting a finger, is faithfully duplicated by the powerful slave machine. In a fantastic demonstration, Yes-Man fixed a girl model’s hair-do and applied cosmetics, all with the gentle touch of a woman’s hand.

    Of course, it took awhile, but we know now that the GE Yes-Men did in fact come into existence and took over the entire company. For the past decade they apparently had the same short term forecasting skills as Mechanix Illustrated.

    According to the article, this was all just a walk in the park for cybernetics pioneer Dr. Norbert Wiener who envisioned the Age of Robots unfolding before us. Well, he didn’t exactly deliver the Jetsons, but Wiener did leave us with some insights to give us some pause in our pursuit of a future with digital autonomy.

    Finally the machines will do what we ask them to do and not what we ought to ask them to do. In the discussion of the relation between man and powerful agencies controlled by man, the gnomic wisdom of the folk tales has a value far beyond the books of our sociologists.

    In short, it is only a humanity which is capable of awe, which will also be capable of controlling the new potentials which we are opening for ourselves. We can be humble and live a good life with the aid of the machines, or we can be arrogant and die.

    Posted in Predictions, Tech | 7 Comments »

    Duz Ur GPS Mak U Dumr?

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

    Dr Rosamund Langston, a lecturer in neuroscience, says that by using satnavs, we wither away our ‘caveman’ ability to familiarise ourselves with new surroundings by memorizing snapshots of them.  Some of the research suggests that lack of exercising these spatial-reasoning abilities may have implications beyond a reduction in one’s ability to find one’s way unaided.

    See also my related posts:

    Duz Web Mak Us Dumr?  and

    Duz Web Mak Us Dumr–continued

    Posted in Human Behavior, Tech | 10 Comments »

    History Friday – The 19th Century Internet

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 6th March 2015 (All posts by )

    Work continues – at a rather slow pace, admittedly – on the two books I have currently under construction, while I do research reading for them (in a small way) and work on projects to do with the Tiny Publishing Bidness. Which has just had two old corporate clients appear out of the woodwork; I don’t know how much we can do for the second, as the electronic files for their project are nonexistent, as their corporate history was produced and printed in about 1990. Thus technology marches on. I am wracking my memory, to see if I can come up with my own estimation as to when electronically-composed documents became the norm. I would guess around that time. I used to go back and generate training documents and various reports on a computer which also ran the automated music channel at EBS-Zaragoza in the late 1980s. This usually involved two large floppy disks (one for the operating system, one for my document archive) and a tiny screen of brilliant green letters on a black background. This writing process usually had me seeing white objects in shades of pink for at least an hour afterwards.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Americas, Business, History, Tech | 17 Comments »

    The Next Big Thing

    Posted by Dan from Madison on 25th February 2015 (All posts by )

    A few weeks ago while sitting around, my wife and I started discussing the Next Big Thing. My new smart phone is simply an improvement over the last one – that isn’t it.

    I will tell you what is the Next Big Thing – driverless cars.

    I had heard about them a few times before reading America 3.0, and they are mentioned in that book. I send Lex links about testing and we have both come to the conclusion that the big hurdle with them won’t be the technology – it will be regulatory hurdles. But this is coming faster than we all think – and there really won’t be much anyone can do to stop it since the demand will be intense.

    I imagine the cops will be trotting out “safety” issues when the real reason will be that their days of writing dumb speeding tickets will be over. That revenue train, along with the DUI industry, will take major hits. I imagine they and others will fight this to the end. Insurance companies will likely see damage done – as crash rates go lower, they will be forced to drop premiums, or people will just go to a simple liability policy and chance the crash.

    As for me, I lose 70 minutes a day of productivity sitting in my car. All isn’t lost since I listen to Bloomberg business news, however if I could have that 70 minutes to catch up on email, or to simply further myself by reading a book it would be a huge plus in my life. How about being able to have more than one glass of wine with dinner with my wife at a nice restaurant or at a wedding reception and not having to worry about a DUI?

    Elon Musk says that we will be ready, tech wise, in five to six years:

    Mr. Musk expects autonomous driving to be safer for riders and pedestrians by a factor of 10.

    I absolutely believe this. In addition, when the computer gets traffic reports, it will choose the quickest way to the destination, and will choose the speed to use the least amount of fuel.

    This article is interesting from CNBC. Here is a quote:

    But for some mass market brands like Chevy, Honda or Volkswagen, Winterhoff says it will tougher to compete and win in a world where self-driving cars usher in the idea of mobility on demand.

    “Autonomous drive vehicles will mean many families will need fewer cars and if you only have one car instead of two, you will likely make it a premium brand,” he said.

    Imagine having only one car for a family of four. In my life, it would drop me off at work, head home and transport the wife if she needs to go somewhere, pick up/drop off a kid at school, head to the market where my groceries will be loaded by a clerk there that I have already paid for with Google Wallet, etc. etc.

    When you get talking heads speaking about winners and losers, you can feel that it is on the way. I just can’t wait.

    Posted in Big Government, Personal Narrative, Tech | 66 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – “Don’t Run” and Rental Cars

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 22nd February 2015 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    The Midwest, late 1990s

    Along with air travel, renting a car is part and parcel of the traveling business person’s experience. Over the years I have rented hundreds if not a thousand rental cars at airports across the USA.

    In the earliest days we’d always get a map from the rental car agency and then use it to navigate our way around town. Rental cars are typically near the airport and kind of tucked away often with lousy signage, so you need to know how to find your way out and how to find your way back. Nowadays most of the airports have a “single system” for rental cars where all the buses drop you off at the same facility, but back in the day each one had their own pros and cons.

    The big innovation in rental cars came when Hertz implemented “Neverlost”. Neverlost was the first in-car navigation system that I was aware of and we started getting it in their cars in the mid to late 1990s. Neverlost spoke to you as a woman in an English accent and she was forever telling me to

    Return to the designated route

    In her peeved manner whenever I made a wrong turn or disobeyed her orders. Any sort of new directions took a long time to take effect, and the system was remarkably clunky compared to what’s available on your smartphone, but back then it seemed like an enormous leap forward. One negative element of this is that I started listening to the machine rather than learning the cities I drove through – in particular Memphis is a city I should have explored with a map but instead sat like a zombie and was told what to do by machine.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Tech, Transportation | 9 Comments »

    Photoshop 25 Years Hence

    Posted by Dan from Madison on 21st February 2015 (All posts by )

    My blogmate Gerry has put up a fascinating post about Adobe Photoshop and its history as relates to Apple, Ad Agencies and advertising. You can view it here if you are interested.

    Posted in Tech | 2 Comments »

    Lovescanning

    Posted by David Foster on 14th February 2015 (All posts by )

    Especially for Valentines Day,  GE posts a video about Stanford University’s MRI-based “love contest.”

    It’s not quite a cold and clinical as it sounds, on account of the individual stories told by the participants.

    Posted in Human Behavior, Medicine, Science, Tech | 2 Comments »

    Could This Company Have Been Saved?

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

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

    Posted in Business, Management, Tech | 35 Comments »

    Mike Lotus Spoke to the University of Chicago Law School Federalist Society Student Chapter on February 3, 2015 About “America 3.0 and the Future of the Legal Profession”

    Posted by Lexington Green on 5th February 2015 (All posts by )

    UChicago law school

    Huge thanks to the University of Chicago Law School Federalist Society Student Chapter on Tuesday, who invited me to speak to their group on February 3, 2015. I previously spoke at the Booth School of Business, which was also a thrill. I am most grateful for the opportunity to speak at the University of Chicago, my undergraduate alma mater.

    The event was well-attended. I attribute this in part to the drawing power of the free buffet of Indian food, and not exclusively to the appeal of the speaker. The students were attentive and asked good questions. I understand that audio of the talk will be available at some point. I will post a link when it is available.

    My topic was “America 3.0 and the Future of the Legal Profession”.

    First I spoke about some of the themes from America 3.0: Rebooting American Prosperity in the 21st Century, Why America’s Greatest Days are Yet to Come, which I coauthored with James C. Bennett. I discussed the cultural foundations of American prosperity and freedom, the role of our legal profession in American history, in particular in adapting to technological changes, I then discussed some of the major technological changes which are now sweeping our nation and the world. I said that some of them will be general purpose technologies which will cause changes on the scale of the steam engine, railroads or computing itself.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, America 3.0, Book Notes, Chicagoania, Economics & Finance, Education, Entrepreneurship, Law, Personal Narrative, Politics, Quotations, Society, Tech, USA | Comments Off

    Book Review: Rockets and People

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

    Rockets and People, by Boris E Chertok

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The memoir includes dozens of memorable characters, including:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Read the rest of this entry »

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

    Conformity Kills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

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

    The First Transcontinental Telephone Call

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

    …was made 100 years ago, on January 25, 1915. (Well, actually, that was the first official transcontinental phone call; the line had actually been completed and tested by July of 1914, but the big PR event was timed to coincide with something called the Panama-Pacific exposition.) Alexander Graham Bell was in New York City and repeated his famous request “Mr Watson, come here, I want you” into the phone, Mr Watson then being in San Francisco.

    Long-distance calls from the East Coast had previously reached only as far as Denver; it was the use of vacuum-tube amplifiers to boost weak signals that made possible true transcontinental calling.

    Here’s the NYT story that marked the occasion. Note that the price announced for NYC-SF calling was $20.75 for the first three minutes and $6.75 for each minute thereafter. According to the CPI inflation calculator, these numbers equate to $486.38 and $158.21 in today’s money.

    Posted in History, Tech, USA | 7 Comments »

    Lewis Shepherd on the IC/Mil/NatSec Potential of Holographic Computing

    Posted by Zenpundit on 23rd January 2015 (All posts by )

    Cross-posted from zenpundit.com

    Lewis Shepherd, formerly of the DIA and IC and recently of Microsoft, has an outstanding post on Microsoft’s exciting ambient/holographic computing interface HoloLens. What I saw in the videos is stunning and I then ran them by an extremely tough, tech savvy and jaded audience – my students – their jaws dropped. It’s that impressive.

    Insider’s Guide to the New Holographic Computing 

    In my seven happy years at Microsoft before leaving a couple of months ago, I was never happier than when I was involved in a cool “secret project.”

    Last year my team and I contributed for many months on a revolutionary secret project – Holographic Computing – which was revealed today at Microsoft headquarters.  I’ve been blogging for years about a variety of research efforts which additively culminated in today’s announcements: HoloLens, HoloStudio for 3D holographic building, and a series of apps (e.g. HoloSkype, HoloMinecraft) for this new platform on Windows 10.

    For my readers in government, or who care about the government they pay for, PAY CLOSE ATTENTION.

    It’s real. I’ve worn it, used it, designed 3D models with it, explored the real surface of Mars, played and laughed and marveled with it. This isn’t Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance.” Everything in this video works today:

     

    These new inventions represent a major new step-change in the technology industry. That’s not hyperbole. The approach offers the best benefit of any technology:empowering people simply through complexity, and by extension a way to deliver new & unexpected capabilities to meet government requirements.

    Holographic computing, in all the forms it will take, is comparable to the Personal Computing revolution of the 1980s (which democratized computing), the Web revolution of the ’90s (which universalized computing), and the Mobility revolution of the past eight years, which is still uprooting the world from its foundation.

    One important point I care deeply about: Government missed each of those three revolutions. By and large, government agencies at all levels were late or slow (or glacial) to recognize and adopt those revolutionary capabilities. That miss was understandable in the developing world and yet indefensible in the United States, particularly at the federal level.

    I worked at the Pentagon in the summer of 1985, having left my own state-of-the-art PC at home in Stanford, but my assigned “analytical tool” was a typewriter. In the early 2000s, I worked at an intelligence agency trying to fight a war against global terror networks when most analysts weren’t allowed to use the World Wide Web at work. Even today, government agencies are lagging well behind in deploying modern smartphones and tablets for their yearning-to-be-mobile workforce.

    This laggard behavior must change. Government can’t afford (for the sake of the citizens it serves) to fall behind again, and  understanding how to adapt with the holographic revolution is a great place to start, for local, national, and transnational agencies.

    Now some background…

    Read the rest here.

    I remarked to Shepherd that the technology reminded me of the novels by Daniel Suarez, DAEMON and FREEDOM. Indeed, I can see HoloLens allowing a single operator to control swarms of intelligent armed drones and robots over a vast theater or in close-quarter tactical combat as easily as it would permit someone to manage a construction site, remotely assist in a major surgery, design a new automobile or play 3D Minecraft.

    MORE…..

    WIRED – Our Exclusive Hands-On With Microsoft’s Unbelievable New Holographic Goggles 

    engadget -I experienced ‘mixed reality’ with Microsoft’s holographic …

    Arstechnica.com -Hands-on: Microsoft’s HoloLens is flat-out magical | Ars …

    Mashable -Microsoft HoloLens won’t be the next Google Glass, and …

    Gizmodo -Microsoft HoloLens Hands-On: Incredible, Amazing …

    New York Times -Microsoft HoloLens: A Sensational Vision of the PC’s Future 

    Posted in Blogging, Book Notes, Diversions, Internet, Military Affairs, Tech, Video | 21 Comments »

    Dear Microsoft, Google and Other Retail Software Developers…

    Posted by Jonathan on 9th January 2015 (All posts by )

    [Update: These ideas apply to Web pages as well.]

    A few suggestions from a mere user:

    -Stop using script-based popup menus. Go back to old-style Microsoft-standard (c. 2003) clickable nested menus emanating from a static menu bar, with standard headings (FILE, EDIT, etc.) plus the unique headings needed for each piece of software. If you are using script menus as a workaround for complexity you should redesign your user interface. If you are using script menus for any other reason you should stop.

    -Knock it off with the icons. Use text buttons instead. The point of software it to economize on human effort, not to appear stylish. A trash-can icon is probably OK, but much more than that and users are forced to waste time mouse-hovering over your icons or (worse) looking things up in the online help.

    -Hire focus groups of 75-85 year-old occasional computer users and turn them loose on your products. They may not understand the fine points but they will tell you quickly if your products have any gross UI deficiencies that people like you who use software all day may be overlooking.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Customer Service, Deep Thoughts, Systems Analysis, Tech | 14 Comments »

    Some Key Technologies for 2015 and Beyond

    Posted by David Foster on 5th January 2015 (All posts by )

    …as viewed by General Electric

    Posted in Business, Tech | 7 Comments »

    Movie Review: The Imitation Game

    Posted by David Foster on 30th December 2014 (All posts by )

    I recently saw this film, which is based on the life and exploits of the mathematician, codebreaker, and computer science pioneer Alan Turing.  It is very well acted and definitely worth seeing; it’s good for more people to become familiar with Turing’s story and the accomplishments of the Bletchley Park codebreakers.  HOWEVER, the extremely negative portrayal of Commander Alastair Denniston, who ran BP, seems to have little basis in fact. Denniston was a real person, and his family is understandably upset at the way he was misrepresented in the film. Dramatic license is one thing, but if you want a villain, then make one up; don’t turn a real historical non-villainous individual into one.  There have been several articles in the UK press lately about the film and its portrayal of various individuals, especially Denniston:

    Bletchley Park Commander not the ‘baddy’ he is in The Imitation Game, family says

    Bletchley Park ‘villain’ was kind and dedicated, says ex-colleague

    The Imitation Game falsely paints Bletchley Park commander

    The film also could have done a better job at giving credit to the Polish mathematicians who pioneered machine methods of codebreaking, before WWII began.  Also, the film gives the impression that Turing’s friend Joan Clark was the only female codebreaker at Bletchley…this is not true, a very large number of women worked at BP, and some of them were in professional codebreaking roles.  One of these women was Mavis Lever; I excerpted some of her writing about BP at my 2007 post the Bombe runs again.  And it seems that the real Alan Turing, while he definitely came across as a bit of an odd duck, was more likeable than he is (at least initially) portrayed in the film; he has been called “a very easily approachable man” who did in fact have a sense of humor.  There’s a bit too much of “standard character type 21037–eccentric genius” in this version of Turing.

    The above critiques to the contrary, though, you should definitely see the film.  It does a good job of maintaining interest, even for those like myself who are already pretty familiar with the history The filmmakers could have avoided the above problems without harming the film’s impact as drama; indeed, I think there are accuracy-related changes that could have made the film more rather than less dramatic.

    This article compares several of the fictionalized Bletchley Park individuals with the real-life counterparts.  And this piece, by a woman who has spent a lot of time studying Turing and BP, is focused particularly on the character of Turing in real life versus in the film.  Probably makes most sense to see the movie first and then read these links for additional perspective. 

     

    Posted in Britain, Film, Germany, History, Society, Tech, War and Peace | 17 Comments »

    The Christmas Eve Radio Broadcast of 1906

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

    …a case study in the difficulties of finding historical truth.

    On Christmas Eve of 1906, a few shipboard radio operators–listening through the static for signals in Morse code–heard something that they had never before heard on the radio, and that most had never expected to hear. A human voice.

    The first voice radio broadcast was conducted by Reginald Fessenden, originating from his experimental station at Brant Rock, Massachussetts. After introducing the transmission, Fessenden played a recording of Handel’s “Largo” and then sang “O Holy Night” while accompanying himself on the violin. Fessenden’s wife and a friend were then intended to conduct a Bible reading, but in the first-ever case of mike fright, they were unable to do it, so the reading was conducted by Fessenden as well.

    Fessenden’s radio work at this period was based on a high-frequency AC generator (alternator), an electromechanical device created by Ernst Alexanderson of GE and modified by Fessenden.   The signals were generated at somewhere around  45-80khz.  (Low frequency compared to today’s normal radio, where the AM band starts at around 500khz; high frequency compared to the 50-60 hz that AC generators normally produce.)  The Alexanderson machines were expensive and very large–broadcast radio on a commercial scale was not practical until the introduction of the vacuum tube for both transmitting and receiving, several years later.

    The italicized story, which was the subject of a post I wrote in 2004, has apparently been accepted in radio and electronics engineering circles for many years: in fact, in 2006 there were commemorative events of the broadcast.  More recently, though, the story has been challenged:  James O’Neal has done considerable research on the matter and concludes that the Christmas Eve broadcast never actually happened,  based on lack of contemporaneous evidence (logs of other radio stations, for example)  among other factors.  He argues that Fessenden was no shrinking violet, indeed, he was a publicity hound and would have been expected to do everything possible to publicize such an obviously PR-able achievement…if it had actually happened.  (There is no question that Fessenden did do pioneering work in radio, including speech/music transmission: the controversy deals specifically with the legendary Christman Eve broadcast.)

    Comes now John Belrose, who has also done considerable research on this matter and who argues that the broadcast did in fact happen.  Belrose notes that from a business point of view, Fessenden was pursuing radio for point-to-point applications, rather than broadcasting, and hence would have had no reason to devote great effort to publicizing the Christmas Eve event.  I found a much longer analytical piece by Belrose here; he has done further research and continues to believe that the broadcast did in fact happen. The associate editor of IEEE Antennas and Propagation Magazine, where the article appears, finds his arguments persuasive.

    1906 was only 108 years ago, not long in historical time. Yet even for an event so relatively recent, which would have involved several people directly and been heard by several more, and which was relevant to extremely intense litigation around the rights to various radio-related patents, anything near absolute certainty appears impossible to attain.

    In any event, here’s O Holy Night.

    Posted in History, Holidays, Tech | 12 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading & Viewing

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

    Amazing treehouses from around the world

    Failure Porn.  Is there now too much celebration of failure?

    Why do journalists love twitter and hate blogging?  (from 2011)  Also:  the message of the medium:  why the Left loves twitter

    Leftists don’t like being reminded of the socialist roots of Naziism.  Also:  Hitler and the socialist dream.

    Best programming languages for beginners to learn.

    Some signs of recovery in the rustbelt

    A 3d printed kinematic dress

    Lightpaper!

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Human Behavior, Leftism, Media, Photos, Tech | 10 Comments »

    “The FAA, Drones, and Caltrops”

    Posted by Jonathan on 2nd December 2014 (All posts by )

    Some thoughts about drones and govt regulation, from the always interesting John Robb:

    Here’s one of the reasons that the FAA has seized control of all drones (including toys) and is slowing the development of automated aviation to a crawl. It’s a dumb move, since it won’t work, but they are doing it anyway.
     
    The reason is that drones make disruption easy.
     
    [. . .]
     
    The big question: Will the FAA effort to control drones protect against this type of disruption? No. It won’t.
     
    It actually makes the situation worse. It prevents the development of the safeguards an economically viable drone delivery network would produce.

    Read the whole (brief) post to get Robb’s full argument, which is a plausible one.

    Perhaps the FAA is motivated more by inertia and typical bureaucratic risk-aversion than by any sophisticated consideration of the likely downstream societal effects of drone development.

    The FAA’s proposed regulations would mainly affect commercial drone users who would probably be constrained by liability in any case. The pilot-license requirement makes little sense except to restrict entry into the market and as a means of tracking users. These regulations are not going to be easily enforceable. Maybe the FAA is being driven in part by lobbying from airlines and police agencies. Overregulation will incentivize the development of quiet drones, camouflaged drones, miniature drones, RF-shielded drones, autonomous drones that can fly programmed courses without radio control, etc.

    Big companies that can game the political system will get drones. Governments will get drones. Hackers, criminals and terrorists will get drones. Small and mid-sized businesses will pay up for approved outsourced drone services or will go without. The availability of liability insurance to cover drone-caused damage may be a significant issue.

    Someone wrote that operating a drone should be like owning a dog: minimal formal regulation, ad hoc restrictions based on local conditions, and liability for damages. That seems about right.

    We shall see what happens. At this point I’m more concerned about the FAA than about caltrops.

    Posted in Aviation, Big Government, Business, Predictions, Tech | 12 Comments »

    Theme: Productivity and Economic Growth

    Posted by David Foster on 1st December 2014 (All posts by )

    As Jonathan pointed out here, one problem with the blog format is that worthwhile posts tend to fade into the background over time, even when they might be of continuing value.  One approach I’d like to try is Theme roundups, in which I’ll select a number of previous posts on a common topic or set of related topics, and link them with brief introductory sentences or paragraphs.  At least initially, I’ll focus on my own posts.

    The posts in this second “theme” roundup focus on issues affecting productivity and economic growth.

    Energy, Productivity, and the Middle Class.  The primary driver of middle class affluence has been the availability of plentiful and low-cost energy…especially in the form of electricity…coupled with a whole array of productivity-increasing tools and methods, ranging from the horse-drawn harvester to the assembly line to the automated check sorting machine.

    Demographics and productivity growth.  Slowing population growth is of concern in just about every developed county because of the effects on worker/non-worker population mix.  Economist Michael Mandel presents a country-by-country analysis of the productivity growth rates required, in light of these demographics, to achieve a doubling of individual income by 2050.  (from 2005)

    The Innovator’s Solution.  My review of the now-classic book by Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor.  Far more valuable than most books on business strategy.

    Closing time?  Citigroup (this is from 2010) listed  “ten themes that spell the end of Western dominance,” while Joel Kotkin challenged what he called “declinism.”

    Entrepreneurship in decline?   Michael Malone, who has been writing about technology and Silicon Valley for a couple of decades, worries (in 2009) that the basic mechanism by which new technologies are commercialized–the formation and growth of new enterprises–is badly broken. (Malone’s original article has disappeared, but I excerpted part of it.)

    Decline is not inevitable.  Many Americans have come to believe that our best years are behind us.  I assert that American decline is by no means inevitable…and if we do wind up in long-term decline, it will be driven not by any sort of automatic economic process, but rather by our own choices–especially our own political choices.

     The suppression of entrepreneurship.  Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone has some words for Obama.  (2010)

    The politics of economic destruction.  What Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd tried to do to angel and venture capital funding of new enterprises.

    The idea that bigness automatically wins in business still seems to have a remarkable number of adherents, despite all evidence to the contrary.

    Startups and jobs…some data.  (the original post was just a link)

    Bigotry against businessspeople.  Media and political hostility toward businesspeople, and its consequences.

    Leaving trillions on the table.  The transistor as a case study in central planning versus entrepreneurial diversity.

    Misvaluing manufacturing. The once-common assertion that “services” are inherently of higher value than manufacturing was not very well thought out.  (2003)

    “Protocols” and wealth creation.  With  help from Andrew Carnegie, I challenge some assertions in a David Brooks column.

    Musings on Tyler’s technological thoughts. Comments on Tyler Cowen’s book Average is Over.  While it’s worth reading and occasionally thought-provoking, I think much of what he has to say is wrong-headed.

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Entrepreneurship, Politics, Tech, USA | 4 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading & Viewing

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

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

    Does automation make people dumb?

    Strategies for dealing with randomness in business

    Labor market fluidity in the US seems to be declining

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

    Strategies for dealing with toxic people

    Czars as political officers

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

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

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

     

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

    Retrotech: An On-Line Discussion Board

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

    …in 1907

     

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

    Posted in History, Society, Tech, USA | Comments Off