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  • Archive for the 'Tech' Category

    Book Review: Rockets and People, by Boris E Chertok

    Posted by David Foster on 4th October 2015 (All posts by )

    (Today marks the 58th anniversary of the Sputnik launch, making it an appropriate time to rerun this review, which I originally posted in February of this year)

    Rockets and People, by Boris E Chertok

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The memoir includes dozens of memorable characters, including:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Aviation, Big Government, Biography, Book Notes, Leftism, Management, Military Affairs, Russia, Society, Space, Tech, Transportation | 7 Comments »

    Manufacturing Day

    Posted by David Foster on 2nd October 2015 (All posts by )

    Today, October 2, is Manufacturing Day…”a celebration of modern manufacturing meant to inspire the next generation of manufacturers.”  There are opportunities for plant visits all over the country, many open to the public and some limited to school tours, etc.

    There’s a lot more manufacturing going on in the US than most people seem to realize, but not as much as there should be.

    See my related post faux manufacturing nostalgia, also  myths of the knowledge society and “protocols” and wealth creation.

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Management, Tech, USA | 2 Comments »

    Learning On My Time

    Posted by Dan from Madison on 30th September 2015 (All posts by )

    Recently I have been to the south of France four times to enjoy cycling vacations. The people there are super friendly and happy to have our tourist Euros. The food is outstanding.

    I took French in high school and for a couple years in college, but dropped it. I have recently picked it back up and am learning every day – literally.

    I have been using a free app called DuoLingo. It was pretty cool to see what I remembered after twenty something years.

    I set a goal to do some French every day. The app rewards you for hitting your daily goal. I made it realistic – equivalent to about 20 to 30 minutes a day. I am on a 92 day streak as of this writing. I am competitive with everything, especially myself.

    It is amazing how far I have come already. Now that I have knocked down most of the basic vocabulary and tenses, it is getting more difficult – but I am learning quickly. The app works you over in several ways. It says something that you have to write, or shows something that you have to translate (English to French and French to English) or shows you something that you are supposed to say into the voice recognition.

    While the app isn’t perfect, it is very, very good. I feel at this point if I could get someone to slow down while speaking that I would have a pretty good chance of getting around, ordering in a restaurant, reading basic travel information, etc. Someday I want to buy a little place in France so obviously learning the language is key – not to mention fun (to me anyways). I would recommend DuoLingo if you are interested in refreshing your language skills – it works on all of your platforms, and if you are in a place where you can’t speak, you can simply turn off that function.

    DuoLingo isn’t perfect – at a certain point down the road I will likely have to find a new app or hire a private tutor to perfect my conversational French, but for these basic building blocks, it is fantastic.

    But this particular post isn’t necessarily about DuoLingo – it is about learning on my time. In the past, something like this would be unimaginable. You would have to hire a private tutor or go to community college. My life isn’t structured that way. I am a business owner with kids all over the place so I need to approach learning French when I have 20 minutes here or there. I recently looked at the local community college for French courses and they only offered it at 6pm to 8.30pm on Tuesday and Thursday night. Not gonna happen.

    With DuoLingo, I hit it when and where I want to. Waiting for a kid to get out of dance class? DuoLingo. Someone is late for an appointment or maybe I am early? Same thing. I don’t have 2.5 hours to sit in a chair twice a week, away from my house or work.

    There are a lot of apps out there, and like with the first inning of the game, Khan Academy, I am excited to see how these new learning methods and interfaces come to fruition in the future.

    We aren’t there yet, but I think eventually kids graduating high school will be able to say “why college?” – and I think that is a great thing.

    Adults who want to simply further themselves no longer need to sit around at the local community college.

    Posted in Education, Internet, Tech | 11 Comments »

    John Hornick on 3D Printing, and some related comments about America 3.0

    Posted by Lexington Green on 21st September 2015 (All posts by )


    [Note: I am not personally or professionally acquainted with Mr. Hornick. He is in no way associated with any opinions I may have, or proposals I have made. He is not affiliated in any way with the America 3.0 Institute.]

    We wrote America 3.0 in 2012, mostly, and it was published in 2013. In the book we present a picture of America in 2040. We predict the demise of the industrial-era political and economic order, which is visibly failing today, and the rise of a new set of institutional arrangements for the country. A big part of this change is the development of several important new technologies which will undermine the existing order, and democratize the economy in radical ways.

    We focused on 3D printing, driverless cars, cheap desalination and personalized health care and medication. We were not trying to write a comprehensive book about future technology. Rather, our goal was to indicate the scale of the changes in technology which were coming, and the disruptive impact they would have. If we were to write it now, we would have said more about robotics, drones, and blockchains, for example. Nonetheless, the general trend of things is as we predicted. And as we suspected, things are moving much faster, and the world will be even more different by 2040 than we rather conservatively predicted.

    I recently ran across some outstanding videos by John Hornick, an intellectual property attorney at the Finnegan firm in DC. His Twitter is here. Mr. Hornick is an expert on the law and the technology of 3D printing. I have spent a few hours immersed in his videos.

    Mr. Hornick has a video, entitled “3D Printing State of the Art: Industrial” from May of 2015 which gets into detail about the current state of the art in 3D printing. It is a good primer if you are interested in the field. His deep knowledge as well as his enthusiasm make for a compelling presentation of a highly technical subject.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in America 3.0, Tech | 33 Comments »

    Much Talk These Days About “the Internet of Things”

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

    …but few seem to have noticed that the Internet of Very Big Things, aka Positive Train Control, is having some difficulties—and  the consequences could be pretty serious.

    via Cold Spring Shops, which has comments here and here.

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Tech, Transportation, USA | 16 Comments »

    Your Evolving Home Network

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

    Our building recently upgraded to 100 MB per unit internet using “microwave fixed wireless” rather than the traditional AT&T / Verizon / fiber solution. Here and here I wrote about this incredible technology and its potential to disrupt the cable and internet industries.

    After the upgrade we were receiving screaming fast performance from wired connections but slower ping and downloads on my wireless clients. Thus I asked my friend Brian for a wireless router recommendation and he mentioned the TP Link Archer A9. I picked it up on Amazon for $129 and recently hooked it up. With all the security threats that abound, it is important that you have a modern network router and are aware of weak security points on your network, particularly some of the new “Internet of Things” devices that are proliferating nowadays.

    Routers have changed significantly over the last few years in terms of power, capabilities, and ease of use. For instance the A9 has a simple console when you sign in and you can “hover over” and see your wired and wireless connections that are currently on your network. They have a cool error page and I am just starting to dig in to the various errors that I see on the panel and will be working with my ISP to resolve them – these aren’t typical “errors” in that the internet doesn’t work, but I do believe that frequent connections and re-connections and slower link times are caused by these events.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Privacy, Tech | 7 Comments »

    The Map is Not the Territory

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

    I was reminded of this old saying, from  Alfred Korzybski, by an article about an LNG plant in Qatar and the ships that serve it…in particular, the following passage:

    Miroslav Ahmetovic, the chief officer, spends much of his workday in a room below the bridge monitoring the L.N.G. cargo on screens that display indicators like pressure and volume. Every few hours he dons hard hat, gloves, goggles and protective clothing and goes out on the sweltering deck to see that nothing is amiss.

    “I want to make sure my video game conforms to reality,” Mr. Ahmetovic said…

    Very well put, Mr Ahmetovic.  And in an era of obsession with “big data” and “analytics” systems, the users of these systems in organizations of all types would do well to remember that the output of such systems…whether presented in the form of a “dashboard” or a spreadsheet or some form of elegant 3-D graphics…is not the reality, but merely a necessarily partial representation thereof.  The output of the information system is not a substitute for going to the Gemba, to use the Lean management phraseology.

    Related post: management mentalities

    Posted in Management, Tech | 16 Comments »

    You Can Drown in a Lake Whose Average Depth is 6 Inches

    Posted by David Foster on 29th August 2015 (All posts by )

    Where electrical power is concerned, it seems quite difficult for many people to grasp the importance of peak versus average demand and of  peak versus average supply.

    A letter in today’s WSJ argues in favor of solar power, noting that “unlike large generation plants, enormous wind turbines and especially nuclear reactors, all of which require years of planning, personal and small industrial solar installations can be planned and installed in a month or so”  The writer says that utilities are seeing these installations diminish their income, and hence “understandably are fighting back by charging not just for electricity, but separately for connection to the grid.”  He argues that as utilities raise their connection charges to compensate for the newly disconnected, more and more people will think that utility power is a bad deal and will disconnect totally, which will “ultimately result in electric utilities holding sway only in urban or perpetually cloudy areas.”

    What happens with solar will be largely dependent on the future improvements in battery or other energy storage technologies, but I think it is most unlikely that most people will be comfortable disconnecting from the grid totally.  With any economically-reasonable level of local storage, a run of bad weather is likely to result in running out of power totally, with very uncomfortable consequences.

    What most people who invest heavily in solar are likely to do, IMO, is to maintain a backup grid connection for those exceptional cases.  The problem is that the exceptional conditions will occur for thousands of households and other sites at the same time over a broad area…requiring the utility’s generation and transmission facilities to be sized for these exceptional conditions, with capital expenditures made accordingly.

    Continuing financial viability of the utilities will require these costs to be recovered, either via a connection fee (“readiness-to-serve charge”) or a very high kwh charge for these infrequent and difficult-to-handle customers.  But the solar people will argue vehemently against these charges, asserting that they represent nothing more than corporate greed and hostility to new technology, and are likely to gain considerable political support.

    In this scenario, in those areas with substantial distributed solar power, the utilities will be driven into financial distress or will have to raise rates considerably on their non-solar customers…which in turn will encourage more people to invest in solar, but will create great economic pain from those people and businesses who cannot do this, and eventually result in the costs of the entire vast grid infrastructure and its maintenance being allocated against an ever-declining base.  This seems unlikely to end well.

    Posted in Energy & Power Generation, Environment, Tech | 25 Comments »

    How Systems Get Tired

    Posted by David Foster on 22nd August 2015 (All posts by )

    This great post by Richard Fernandez  reminded me of a quote from George Eliot:

    The sense of security more frequently springs from habit than from conviction, and for this reason it often subsists after such a change in the conditions as might have been expected to suggest alarm. The lapse of time during which a given event has not happened is, in this logic of habit, constantly alleged as a reason why the event should never happen, even when the lapse of time is precisely the added condition which makes the event imminent.

    (from Silas Marner)

    Posted in Big Government, Deep Thoughts, Economics & Finance, Political Philosophy, Tech | 20 Comments »

    More on Politics and Social Media

    Posted by David Foster on 29th July 2015 (All posts by )

    some thoughts from the UK:

    A lot of what happens on Facebook, as with Twitter, is “virtue signalling” – showing off to your friends about how right on you are.

    via the Assistant Village Idiot, who says:

    I mentioned this long ago in terms of Not In Our Name, and also suggested that Jonathan Haidt overlooks those places where liberals are just as purity vs. disgust* concerned as conservatives. (See also environmentalism, vegetarianism, NASCAR and a host of other disgust issues, including, I think wealth – though that is more ambiguous in both camps.

    *And authority driven, another trait supposedly more common among conservatives.  The imprimatur of Roberth Reich or Paul Krugman is enough in economics; climate change catastrophe is based on choice of authorities.

    See also my related post  Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is…do you, Mr Priebus?


    Posted in Britain, Human Behavior, Internet, Leftism, Media, Politics, Tech | 1 Comment »

    Something is Happening Here, But You Don’t Know What it Is

    Posted by David Foster on 20th July 2015 (All posts by )

    …do you, Mr Priebus?

    A study by Pew Research says that Americans are increasingly getting their news from Facebook and Twitter.  The study indicates that 63% of both FB and Twitter users says that they get news from these sites, up from 47% and 52% in 2013.  (Bear in mind that 66% of US adults use Facebook, whereas only 17% use Twitter.)  In general, it seems that FB users are more likely to pro-actively share and comment on politically-related posts, whereas Twitter users are more likely to follow stories from “official” news organizations.

    Of course, the fact that someone gets news from FB or Twitter does not by itself say anything about how important that site is to them within the universe of possible news sources.  Another part of the survey attempts to answer that question.  Among people 35 and over, 34% say Facebook is “the most or an important” way they get news; the corresponding number for Twitter is 31%.  But among those 18-34, the number is 49% for both FB and Twitter.

    WSJ recently reviewed a new book,  The Selfie Vote,  by political analyst Kristen Soltis Anderson, who says:

    “I’ve spent the last six years trying to crack the code on young voters.  What I’ve found should terrify Republicans.”

    She believes the current Republican approach to political marketing does not mesh with the way Millennials (“who view their comfort with technology as what makes their generation ‘special'”) tend to get information.  Quoting the WSJ piece:

    “Take the 2012 presidential race.  Mitt Romney’s campaign stuck mostly with network TV ads during prime time, sometimes…paying nearly six times as much as Barack Obama’s campaign for an ad of the same length during the same time slot.  Team Obama made use of individually targeted ads for satellite subscribers, tailoring the campaign’s message to specific voters in swing states and spending less money on network TV.  The Obama campaign also developed cost-effective online ads that targeted Facebook and YouTube users based on personal-preference data, even running ads in online videogames…As more millennials pull the cable plug and spend their free time exclusively online, Republicans can’t expect to compete by pouring resources into 30-second spots during “Jeopardy!””

    I think Facebook is a poor source for news and a very inferior venue for political discussion.  But the Left is using it very effectively to circulate memes, usually in the form of simplistic poster-like images with a photo or graphic of some kind and a few words or dubious statistics.  There does not seem to be any coherent effort on the part of the RNC, or any other Republican campaign organization or conservative/libertarian organization, to rapidly generate refutations of these when called for, nor do I see very many counter-leftist memes that I judge to be good enough, from a marketing standpoint, to be worth circulating.  And there is very little of marketing value to be found on either the FB page of the RNC or the FB page of RNC chairman Reince Priebus.

    My sense is that while the RNC leadership may understand old-style get-out-the-vote campaigns and precinct organization, they have little concept of social media marketing, and have also been outdone in the use of “big data” for campaign management.  (See my post Catalist, “The 480,” and The Real 480.)  I don’t think they’re really all that good at old-fashioned direct-mail marketing, either, based on what shows up in my mailbox.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Advertising, Blogging, Book Notes, Elections, Human Behavior, Media, Politics, Rhetoric, Tech | 31 Comments »

    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 )

    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 »