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    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

    Feminists – Doing It Wrong

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 18th November 2014 (All posts by )

    I have to say this about the sh*tstorm over what is being irreverently termed shirtgate – it’s the final and ultimate straw in moving me away from ever calling myself a feminist again … at least, not in mixed company. Ah, well – a pity that the term has been so debased in the last few decades. Much as the memory of very real repression and denial of rights in the persons-of-color/African-American/Black community has been diminished, overlaid, generally abused and waved like a bloody shirt by cynical operators (to the detriment of the real-life community of color/African-American/Black-whatever they wish to be called this decade), so has the very real struggle for substantive legal, economic, economic and social rights for women also been debased and trivialized. Just as the current so-called champions of civil rights seem to use the concept as an all-purpose cover for deflecting any useful discussion of the impact of welfare, the trivialization of marriage, and glorification of the thug-life-style in the persons-of-color/African-American/Black community, the professional and very loud capital F-feminists seem to prefer a theatrical gesture over any substantial discussion of the real needs and concerns – and even the careers of ordinary women. Women whom it must be said, are usually capable, confident, tough, and love the men in their lives – fathers, brothers, husbands and sons.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Civil Liberties, Crime and Punishment, Current Events, Diversions, Feminism, Human Behavior, Just Unbelievable, Personal Finance, Society, Space, Tech, That's NOT Funny | 66 Comments »

    Retrotech: Using Network Technology for a Stock Trading Edge

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

    1914-style

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Markets and Trading, Media, Tech | 4 Comments »

    A Cool Startup Story, Revisited

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

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

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

    Holmes:

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

    and

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

    From a 2005 Daily Duck post about Theranos:

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

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

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

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

    The Great Lightbulb Conspiracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    All of that seems correct.

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

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

    It is up to us to make it happen.

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

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

    Catalist, “The 480,” and The Real 480

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Read the rest of this entry »

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

    Don’t Panic: Against the Spirit of the Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Read the rest of this entry »

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

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

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

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

    Posted in Obama, Politics, Tech | 13 Comments »

    Extremely Cool

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

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

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

    Posted in Tech, Transportation | 6 Comments »

    GE has sold its Appliance business

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

    …to Electrolux, for $3.3 billion.

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

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

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

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

    Cool Video of a CNC Machine Tool at Work

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

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

    LINK

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

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

    Posted in Business, Tech | 5 Comments »

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Blood on the Tracks

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

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

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

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

    Read the rest of this entry »

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

    Parrot AR.Drone 2.0

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

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

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

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

    By using your iPad as a control, the manufacturing and costs of the quad helicopter have dramatically been reduced. You do not need a dedicated device with unique controls to master – simply load software onto your iPad and you are off and running. You are also able to easily upgrade the controlling software on your device (just like updating an app) as well as update the quad helicopter itself via that same method.
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    Posted in Diversions, Tech | 2 Comments »

    Geography and Entrepreneurship

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

    …an interesting discussion at Ricochet:

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

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

    No.

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

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

    RTWT, and the comments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    All abooooooard!

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

    Of Energy and Slavery

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

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

    His article reminded me of a few things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Participatory Retrotech – the Concorde Flight Simulator

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The Computer, as Seen from 1955

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

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

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

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

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

    Posted in History, Media, Tech | 9 Comments »

    On the Internet

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

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

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

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

    It’s also totally worthless.

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

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

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

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