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  • Archive for the 'Tech' Category

    Worthwhile Reading & Viewing

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

    Propaganda:  turning human beings into automatically responding machines

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

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

    Tolerance for ambiguity can be an important career asset

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

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

    The story of  Pyrex

    A visit to the Le Creuset factory

    Virtual reality for football training

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

    Why we should study the ancient Greeks

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

    Cool Retrotech

    Posted by David Foster on 16th June 2015 (All posts by )

    Flight simulation technology, 1958-style

    Posted in Aviation, History, Tech, Transportation | 2 Comments »

    Use of Netatmo to Measure Wealth in Chicagoland

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 6th June 2015 (All posts by )

    Netatmo is a personal weather station that you can buy which is wifi connected and “joins” the netatmo network worldwide so that your information contributes to the grid of stations. I wrote about my experience in detail here.

    Here is what Netatmo looks like on your phone – you can see the temperature inside and outside your house (it is also connected with weather alerts) and if you turn your phone sideways you can also graph data along many time series. I find it to be very cool and check it a lot on my cell phone or ipad when I am bored and want to kill some time.

    I started looking at the Netatmo weather map on my phone and it also becomes a visual map of wealth and technology adoption in Chicago. While you can’t see all the individuals who might buy an iWatch on a map, the Netatmo weather station becomes a clear signal and it is tied to a clear physical location. Note that when you “drill in” to the map you will see many weather stations in an area such as River North – however if an area is devoid of stations entirely it comes up blank. And there’s Chicago! You can see the stations in the north side, a completely barren west side, and a mostly barren south side, except for the dot along the lake which represents Hyde Park.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Chicagoania, Society, Tech | 6 Comments »

    Automation and Safety

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

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

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

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

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

    Read the rest of this entry »

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

    The Battle of Britain + 75

    Posted by David Foster on 25th April 2015 (All posts by )

    An article in an aviation magazine pointed out that this summer will mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.  As a matter of perspective, it’s interesting to observe that the length of time separating the US Civil War from the Battle of Britain is the same as the length of time between the Battle and today.

    The archetypal fighter planes of the Battle of Britain were the Spitfire, the Hurricane, and, on the enemy side, the Messerschmitt 109.  Here are some recent pilot reports on what each of these aircraft is like to fly:

    Supermarine Spitfire

    Hawker Hurricane

    Messerschmitt 109

    It is now possible to take a ride in a Spitfire–allowing this apparently required some regulatory changes on the part of the British CAA. Here’s one company offering such flights. For pilots, it’s possible to get Spitfire training at Boultbee Flight Academy. I don’t think anyone is offering rides or training in the Hurricane or the 109…very few 2-seat versions of either were built, apparently–so if you want to fly one of these, you’ll probably have to buy one. Here’s a recently-restored Hurricane for sale.

    As an interesting historical irony, Israel’s first fighter was a version of the Messerschmitt 109.

    See also my post Radar Wars: a case study in science and government, which is about the secret decision-making involved in making Britain’s commitment to a large-scale investment in radar deployment.

    Posted in Aviation, Britain, Europe, Germany, History, Tech, War and Peace | 13 Comments »

    Cool Retrotech

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

    Here’s a video and a short writeup about Weizac,  the first electronic computer built in Israel.  Einstein was initially dubious about the project, wondering how a tiny country like Israel could possibly keep such a powerful machine busy.

    The article mentions that the co-leader of the project was Jerry Estrin.  His daughter, Judy Estrin, is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who among other things co-founded Bridge Communications and has served as CTO of Cisco.  Her 2008 book,  Closing the Innovation Gap, is on my reading list.

    Posted in History, Israel, Tech | 8 Comments »

    The Internet of Things… Connected Weather Station

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

    I have been laid up for a little while and like a good shut in I was shopping on Amazon for things to buy. One item that is always of interest to my parents and relatives is the weather. A while ago I bought them an Ambient Device weather forecaster which they still use today and they find very useful (sadly, that company went out of business).

    I recently spent about $150 to buy a Netatmo indoor and outdoor temperature / weather station. It is quite fascinating. Here is the indoor module that tracks temperature, sound (in decibels), CO2, humidity, and other elements. When you push the top button it will glow based on the CO2 levels (green is “good”). I plan to hide it behind a couch so you can’t see it. The indoor unit connected to my phone via bluetooth and then I was able to get it to sign on to my wireless network. It took about 5 minutes.

    Here is the outdoor component. This unit measures humidity and temperature and connects to the “base” station above. The outdoor unit is battery powered and all weather so once you put it outside (on our porch) you can ignore it and it will send readings to the base station.

    The really cool part is that you just download an app onto your phone and voila! you can have updates and graphs and charts and see your temperature in and out of your house anytime. They also have alerts so that you can be notified if there are temperature changes (such as below freezing weather outside or interior temperatures that drop enough to freeze your pipes) and also for CO2 alerts and other customizable features. It is all very easy to understand.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Tech | 11 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading & Viewing

    Posted by David Foster on 13th April 2015 (All posts by )

    Peter Thiel is interviewed by Tyler Cowen, in a conversation that ranges from why there is stagnation “in the world of atoms and not of bits” to the dangers of conformity to what he looks for when choosing people to why company names matter.

    Evaporative cooling of group beliefs.  Why a group’s beliefs tend to become stronger rather than weaker when strong evidence against those beliefs makes its appearance.

    More academic insanity:  the language police at the University of Michigan.

    Why Sam Sinai became a computer scientist instead of a doctor

    A National Archives official, in an e-mail comment that the people were not supposed to see:   “We live in constant fear of upsetting the White House”

    Why a pact with Iran throws Arab liberals under the bus  (“liberals” used here in the archaic and largely obsolete sense of “people who believe in liberty”)

    Garry Trudeau  (he wrote a cartoon called Doonesbury–is it really still being published?) gives his thoughts on the Charlie Hebdo murders perpetrated in the name of Islam–by accusing the cartoonists of “hate speech” and denouncing “free speech absolutism.”

    The secret Republicans of Silicon Valley

    Baseball, the stock market, and the dangers of following the herd

    Antoine de St-Exupery’s original watercolors  for The Little Prince

    Posted in Academia, Arts & Letters, Business, Civil Liberties, Human Behavior, Islam, Markets and Trading, Society, Sports, Tech, USA | 12 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – New Technology and Productivity

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 10th April 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 USA, early 1990s to mid 2010s

    Oftentimes I can remember clearly the first time I was exposed to new technology. Unfortunately these stories don’t have “light bulbs” going off in my head like in a cartoon; it usually involves me being befuddled and trying to determine why this technology is innovative or even useful.

    In the early to mid 1990s I was at a client in Reno, Nevada when the manager on our engagement showed me their “calendar” application. This application let you set up meetings with other employees, or show if you were going to be out of office or unavailable. The interface was very simple (like a mainframe “green screen”) and I kind of stared at it for a while. Why can’t you just call around and set up a meeting at a particular time, I wondered aloud. However, we were consultants, so while we worked all day (and into the night), the client’s staff were forced to attend meetings during most waking hours. It still seemed like overkill to me to have a giant system just to set up meetings, however. Obviously history has proven me wrong and calendar applications are the “killer app” of the modern productivity suite.

    At around that same time I was at a client in Cincinnati, Ohio when another consultant showed me a PDF document format. He explained (very patiently, in hindsight) that if you created a PDF and then had a viewer application it would work on every kind of computer, whether or not they had the software that you created the document in. I was confused. Didn’t everyone have Microsoft office? Couldn’t they just open it in word? Once again I missed the big picture.

    Email was around for a while but it didn’t catch on fire in our profession (consulting). A lot of this was due to the fact that we spent our days at the client site and the client (where we did most of our work) was on a different email system from our consulting company’s email system. Thus the most useful email wasn’t your firm email, it was the client’s email, because this would let you know when meetings were occurring and get important data from the client’s directly (although we usually used shared drives). I do remember my sense of accomplishments when I sent my first marketing email to a known client in the mid to late 1990s… I was waiting like that kid in “A Christmas Story” who wanted his secret decoder package from Ovaltine for a response to my meticulously crafted email… and of course it never came because I was late to the party and the potential customer had already gotten used to be inundated with marketing email (and ignored it).
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Tech | 6 Comments »

    Technology and Mass Transit

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 29th March 2015 (All posts by )

    I have not seen a formal study of the impact of technology on mass transit but I believe that it has made it profoundly more valuable and useful. And I accidentally participated in an experiment that partially proved this statement in the inverse.

    In Chicago they have a CTA “bus tracker” that tells you when a particular bus will arrive at your stop. Or you can program it so that you can see all the buses from various routes that are coming past your stop (this is useful because in Chicago you can often take many different routes that go to the same place over shorter distances). It works on your phone and many of the newer stops have the bus tracker programmed into the canopy so you don’t even need to look it up on your phone.

    Sadly enough most days rather than looking up the street for buses I check the bus tracker. I can usually get from my condo down the elevator and past the lobby in 2-3 minutes so 4 minutes is the cut off time. One morning I looked and I thought I had missed the bus entirely because the next one was ten minutes away on my phone. However, instead of just trudging off, I looked up, and a bus was right there!

    I got on the bus and it was completely empty! Not a soul was on the bus. While it was a nice day, usually this bus line was crowded during rush hour, often so crowded that I don’t even bother getting on because I have to stand right in the front past the yellow line where you aren’t supposed to stand and then get on and off with every stop (to let people on and off) until the crowd thins out.

    The driver was totally bewildered too. I sat with her up front and I guess they had changed the bus she was driving to this route (from another route) and they hadn’t updated bus tracker. I said that because she didn’t show up on my bus tracker. Thus no one was on the bus – because if it wasn’t on bus tracker, it didn’t exist.

    I am sure that the River North area is one of the most technologically sophisticated areas of the city and probably in other parts of town people just wait at the bus stop for the bus to show up. But in River North – everyone has been trained to use bus tracker and rely on it and they wouldn’t contemplate a bus existing that wasn’t on bus tracker.

    For me, the bus tracker has made the Chicago bus go from something marginally useful to a highly useful way to get around town. When I lived in Bucktown we used to wait for the #50 Damen bus and 3 of 4 times we’d give up and grab a cab after waiting 15-20 minutes and the 4th time 2-3 buses would show up in a big bunch full of angry riders. If you took the bus you weren’t happy about it; it was an unreliable and slow way to get around.

    However, bus tracker is very reliable and now you have visibility of what is coming and you can plan ahead so that you are whiling away your day standing outside in the rain or snow waiting in vain for a bus that seems like it will never come. I don’t have statistics but I would bet that bus tracker increases utilization of assets for the CTA and has become a known and reliable method of transportation for those that give it a chance.

    Cross posted at LITGM

    Posted in Business, Chicagoania, Customer Service, Tech, Transportation | 24 Comments »

    Book Review: God is an Englishman

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

    The Swann family saga, by R F Delderfield:

    God Is an Englishman

    Theirs Was the Kingdom

    Give Us This Day

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

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

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

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

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

    Read the rest of this entry »

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

    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.

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

    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.

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    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 »