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    Summer Rerun: Metaphors, Interfaces, Memes, and Thinking

    Posted by David Foster on 20th August 2019 (All posts by )

    This rerun of an earlier post (slightly reworked) was inspired by a comment by MCS at this post:

    We are now living in the first post-literate society where the masses will be directed by rumor. Memes will take the place of reasoned discussion.

    Neal Stephenson wrote In the Beginning was the Command Line, a strange little book which would probably be classified under the subject heading “computers.”  While the book does deal with human interfaces to computer systems, its deeper subject is the impact of media and metaphors on thought processes and on work.

    Stephenson contrasts the explicit word-based interface with the graphical or sensorial interface. The first (which I’ll call the textual interface) can be found in a basic UNIX system or in an old-style PC DOS system or timesharing terminal. The second (the sensorial interface) can be found in Windows and Mac systems and in their respective application programs.

    As a very different example of a sensorial interface, Stephenson uses something he saw at Disney World–a hypothetical stone-by-stone reconstruction of a ruin in the jungles of India. It is supposed to have been built by a local rajah in the sixteenth century, but since fallen into disrepair.

    The place looks more like what I have just described than any actual building you might find in India. All the stones in the broken walls are weathered as if monsoon rains had been trickling down them for centuries, the paint on the gorgeous murals is flaked and faded just so, and Bengal tigers loll among stumps of broken columns. Where modern repairs have been made to the ancient structure, they’ve been done, not as Disney’s engineers would do them, but as thrifty Indian janitors would–with hunks of bamboo and rust-spotted hunks of rebar.

    In one place, you walk along a stone wall and view some panels of art that tell a story.

    …a broad jagged crack runs across a panel or two, but the story is still readable: first, primordial chaos leads to a flourishing of many animal species. Next, we see the Tree of Life surrounded by diverse animals…an obvious allusion (or, in showbiz lingo, a tie-in) to the gigantic Tree of Life that dominates the center of Disney’s Animal Kingdom…But it’s rendered in historically correct style and could probably fool anyone who didn’t have a PhD in Indian art history.

    The next panel shows a mustachioed H. sapiens chopping down the Tree of Life with a scimitar, and the animals fleeing every which way. The one after that shows the misguided human getting walloped by a tidal wave, part of a latter-day Deluge presumably brought on by his stupidity.

    The final panel, then, portrays the Sapling of Life beginning to grow back, but now man has ditched the edged weapon and joined the other animals in standing around to adore and praise it.

    Clearly, this exhibit communicates a specific worldview, and it strongly implies that this worldview is consistent with traditional Indian religion and culture. Most viewers will assume the connection without doing further research as to its correctness or lack thereof.

    I’d observe that as a general matter, the sensorial interface is less open to challenge than the textual interface. It doesn’t argue–doesn’t present you with a chain of facts and logic that let you sit back and say, “Hey, wait a minute–I’m not so sure about that.” It just sucks you into its own point of view.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Arts & Letters, Blogging, Book Notes, Deep Thoughts, Film, Human Behavior, Internet, Obama, Tech | 2 Comments »

    Six Hundred Million Years in K-12

    Posted by David Foster on 17th August 2019 (All posts by )

    (This post is now an August perennial, in honor of the beginning of the new school year–indeed, many kids have already been in school for 2 or 3 weeks)

    Peter Orszag, who was Obama’s budget director and is now at Lazard, thinks it would be a good idea to cut back on summer school vacations for kids, arguing that this would both improve academics and reduce obesity.

    I’m with Jeremy LottBut to look at the vast wasteland that is American public education — the poor teaching, the awful curriculum, the low standards, the anemic achievement, the institutional resistance to needed reform — and say that the real problem is summer vacation takes a special sort of mind.

    I wrote about the war on summer vacation back in 2006, after stopping at a store in Georgia on the first day of August and discovering that this was the first day of school for the local children.

    The truth is, most public K-12 schools make very poor use of the time of their students. They waste huge proportions of the millions of hours which have been entrusted to them–waste them through the mindless implementation of fads and theories, waste them through inappropriate teacher-credentialing processes, waste them through refusal to maintain high standards of performance and behavior.

    When an organization or institution proves itself to be a poor steward of the resources that have been entrusted to it, the right answer is not to give it more resources to waste.

    Orszag and similar thinkers seem to have no concept that good things can happen to children’s development outside of an institutional setting. Plenty of kids develop and pursue interests in science, literature, art, music…plus, there is plenty to be learned simply by interacting with friends in an unstructured environment.

    Would the world be better off if Steve Wozniak and Jeri Ellsworth..to name only two of many, many examples..had their noses held constantly to the school grindstone rather than having time to develop their interests in electronics?

    Lewis E Lawes, who was warden of Sing Sing prison from 1915 to 1941, wrote an interesting book titled Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing. The title refers to the aggregate lengths of the sentences of the men in the prison at a typical particular point in time.

    Lawes:

    Twenty-five hundred men saddled with an aggregate of twenty thousand years! Within such cycles worlds are born, die, and are reborn. That span has witnessed the evolution of the intelligence of mortal man. And we know that twenty thousand years have seen nations run their courses, perish, and give way to their successors. Twenty thousand years in my keeping. What will they evolve?

    Following the same approach, the aggregate length of the terms to be spent in K-12 schools by their current students is more than 600,000,000 years. What proportion of this time is actually used productively?

    And how many of the officials who supervise and run the public schools, and the ed-school professors who influence their policies, think about this 600,000,000 years in the same serious and reflective way that Lawes thought about the 20,000 years under his supervision? Some do, of course, but a disturbing percentage of them seem to be simply going through the bureaucratic motions.

    And the politicians and officials of the Democratic Party, those who talk so much about their devotion to Education and The Children, are the last people in the world who are ever going to call them on it.

    Posted in Big Government, Crime and Punishment, Education, Politics, USA | 5 Comments »

    Murder, Suicide, and Society

    Posted by David Foster on 12th August 2019 (All posts by )

    A collection of worthwhile…if not very cheerful…links from Don Sensing.

    Posted in Deep Thoughts, Human Behavior, Religion, Society, Terrorism, USA | 13 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading

    Posted by David Foster on 5th August 2019 (All posts by )

    Anthony Kronman, a professor of law at Yale, writes about how an obsessive focus by academia on ‘diversity’ (as that term is now used) is destructive of individuality and the search for truth.

    Victor Davis Hanson observes that the Robert Muller’s “dream team,” loaded with Ivy Leaguers, was expected to devastate Trump’s legal team, which had scarcely a Harvard man or woman in sight.

    Electricity problems in Sweden – looks like these are being driven by the closing of nuclear plants, the increased reliance upon wind, and the failure to build adequate transmission capacity to collect the wind turbines with the loads.

    Posted in Civil Society, Education, Energy & Power Generation, Environment, Law, Leftism | 20 Comments »

    Summer Rerun — Book Review: Life in a Soviet Factory

    Posted by David Foster on 3rd August 2019 (All posts by )

    Bitter Waters: Life And Work In Stalin’s Russia by Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov

    A fascinating look at the Soviet economic system in the 1930s, as viewed from the front lines of that system.

    Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov was released from a labor camp in 1935, and was fortunate to find a job as a book-keeper in a sawmill. When the factory manager, Grigory Neposedov (a pseudonym) was assigned to run a larger and more modern factory (also a sawmill), he took Gennady with him.

    Although he had almost no formal education, Neposedov was an excellent plant manager. As Gennady describes him:

    He was unable to move quietly. Skinny and short, he moved around the plant so quickly that he seemed to be running, not walking. Keeping pace with the director, the fat chief mechanic would be steeped in perspiration…He rarely sat in his office, and if he needed to sign some paper or other, you had to look for him in the mechanic’s office, in the shops, or in the basement under the shops, where the transmission belts and motors that powered the work stations were located…This enthusiasm of his, this ability to lose himself completely in a genuine creative exertion, to give his all selflessly, was contagious. It was impossible to be around Neposedov without being infected by his energy; he roused everyone, set them on fire. And if he did not succeed in shaking someone up, it could unmistakely be said that such a person was dead or a complete blob.

    With his enthusiasm and dedication to his factory, Neposedov comes across almost as a Soviet version of Hank Reardon (the steel mill owner in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged), with this difference–Nepodesov could throw himself as enthusiastically into bureaucratic manipulation as into his technical and leadership work. All of his skills would be needed to make this factory a success.

    Although the sawmill had modern equipment, it was producing at only a fraction of its design capacity. One of the problems was energy: the plant was powered by a 200HP steam engine, and whoever had built the place had spent almost all of the budget on other equipment, leaving very little for the boiler. The original boiler that came with the plant turned out to be useless, and was replaced with a salvaged boiler..this worked, but was not in good shape and produced only about half the steam needed to run the engine–and the plant–at full power.

    At this point in history, and in this particular corner of the Soviet economy, the amount that was available to be paid to workers was strongly related to the output of a plant. And workers at this sawmill were becoming increasingly desperate, on the point of actual starvation. Neposedov, aided by Gennady, pusued a three-part program of improvement: (1)fix the boiler, (2)improve the workflow (as we would now call it) within the plant, and (3)put in place an incentive system for the workers.

    New “pipes” for the boiler were somehow obtained (I think “pipes” in this context refers to boiler flues) and the workflow was continuously analyzed and improved. The most interesting part of the story, though, deals with the incentive program. The plant manager apparently had discretion to put such programs in place as long as he could pay for them out of increased output. (As the book describes it, there were extensive accounting systems in place throughout the Soviet economy–indeed, Lenin had once gone so far as to say “Socialism is accounting.” The accounting seems a bit similar to what you would find in a multidivisional American company with extensive intracompany transactions.) The incentive system that Gennady designed for this sawmill was based on very sharp pay increases for the workers when production exceeded target–so that, for example, you could double your pay by producing only 25% over target. (Actually, the plan paid collectively by group and by shift, rather than on an individual basis.)

    The incentive plan, together with the repaired steam boiler, resulted in very high production–140%, then 160% of target–and correspondingly high pay for the workers. Gennady had some nervous moments when he feared he had made a mistake in the calculations and the cost of the additional wages would exceed the amount generated by the new production….a mistake like this could easily have landed him back in Siberia, or worse. But it turned out that the new system was indeed sustainable.

    The local Communist Party leadership, while pleased with the increased production, was disturbed that the propaganda buzzwords of the day were not being implemented. “Socialist competition” was hot at the time, and the Party organizer insisted on competition at the individual worker levels, not just the group and shift level.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Big Government, Book Notes, Business, Economics & Finance, Leftism, Management, Russia | 4 Comments »

    More Heinlein Stories

    Posted by David Foster on 28th July 2019 (All posts by )

    I recently posted a brief review of The Man Who Sold the Moon, a 1950 story about the first lunar trip, and thought some reviews of other early Heinlein stories might be of interest as well.  (For those who haven’t yet read these stories, I’ve tried to minimize spoilers.)

    Let There be Light (published in 1940).  Archie Douglas, a scientist, tries to pick up a very attractive woman who is dining by herself. She politely turns him down, but it soon transpires that she is the very same Doctor M L Martin with whom Douglas has a scientific meeting scheduled.  (M L = Mary Lou.)  Initially, Archie refuses to believe that a woman so attractive could have such outstanding scientific credentials, but he is soon convinced, and the two begin a research collaboration that quickly develops romantic overtones.

    Their effort initially focuses on the development of electroluminscent light panels, making use of Mary Lou’s earlier research on the firefly–but when Archie’s factory-owner father faces the prospect of being run out of business by discriminatory electric rates imposed by the power cartel, the pair decides to reverse the process and efficiently create electricity from sunlight.  They succeed…but the power cartel is not happy about the prospect of cheap distributed generation and will do anything to keep them from bringing their technology to market.

    A fun story, with lots of snappy banter between the pair.

    The Roads Must Roll (published in 1940).  Larry Gaines, chief engineer of the Reno–San Diego roadtown, is explaining the rolling-road technology and its social/economic impact to an Australian visitor.  These ‘roadtowns’ are huge multistrip conveyor belts:  passengers can get on at any point and then, depending on the length of their journey, move from the initial 5mph strip all the way over to the 100mph strip.  More conducive to intermediate stops than the Elon Musk approach!

    The fast strip is wide enough to allow shops and restaurants to be located on it…Gaines and his visitor are conversing while having lunch at Jake’s Steak House. (“To dine on the fly makes the miles roll by.”)  The Australian (who is Transport Minister of that country) is impressed with what he has seen and what Gaines tells him about its usefulness and social impact–but he demurs politely: “”isn’t it possible that you may have put too many eggs in one basket in allowing your whole economy to become dependent on the functioning of one type of machinery?”

    Gaines responds that the potentially-serious reliability issue is not with the machinery, but with the men who tend it: “Other industries can go on strike, and only create temporary and partial dislocations…But if the roads stop rolling, everything else must stop; the effect would be the same as a general strike: with this important difference:  It takes a majority of the population fired by a real feeling of grievance, to create a general strike, but the men that run the roads, few as they are, can create the same complete paralysis.”

    “We had just one strike on the roads, back in ”sixty-six.  It was justified, I think, and it corrected a lot of real abuses–but it mustn’t happen again.”

    Gaines is confident that there will be no such problems in the future, he tells his guest: the engineers who manage the road’s operation are now part of a military-like organization with high esprit de corps:  indeed, they are graduates of the United States Academy of Transport, and even have their own song, to the tune of “Those caissons go rolling along.”

    Just then, Gaines’ coffee lands in his lap.  The strip has abruptly begun slowing to a stop.  He soon discovers that members of his workforce have fallen under the spell of an ideology called Functionalism, which holds that people who do the most critical work in a society should have political power to match. And, what is more, the primary instigator of the rebellion is…Gaines’ own deputy.

    I’m not sure whether the technology would really be workable–with strips running at speeds up to 100mph, it would seem that the resulting winds would create an insoluble problem, even with Heinlein’s proposed solution (partitions to isolate air flow between the different strips)  But it’s a good story, and points out a real potential issue with critical infrastructure operated by key, hard-to-replace personnel.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Energy & Power Generation, Society, Space, Tech | 19 Comments »

    Well, That’s Interesting

    Posted by David Foster on 25th July 2019 (All posts by )

    Tulsi Gabbard is suing Google for $50MM and also seeking injunctive relief.

    Link

    The article at the link includes the complaint.

    Posted in Advertising, Business, Civil Liberties, Tech | 21 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading

    Posted by David Foster on 22nd July 2019 (All posts by )

    Haven’t posted one of these for while, so here are a few links I found interesting…

    Tom Wolfe on the space race as a combat of individual champions in the ancient style.

    Zoning rules as an enemy of shade.

    Sarah Hoyt on the human tendency to assume that the conditions of the past still apply.  (Even the purely imagined and stereotypical conditions of the past, in some cases, I’d add)

    Interesting ‘blog’ by Holly (Maths Geek).  (Actually a Twitter feed…people who are on Twitter would IMO do well to mirror all content onto a traditional blog unless they are willing to have their work at the mercy of Jack Dorsey and his minions)

    Despite all the concern and hype about Russian hacking, China’s spying and influence within our borders are rising.  See also this case of a former GE engineer and a businessman charged with stealing turbine technology, with the “financial and other support” of the Chinese government.  Additionally, see my post So, really want to talk about foreign intervention?

    Posted in Big Government, Blogging, China, Deep Thoughts, Feminism, History, Human Behavior, Science, Space, Tech | 8 Comments »

    The First Trip to the Moon, as Envisaged by Robert Heinlein

    Posted by David Foster on 19th July 2019 (All posts by )

    … in his 1950 story, The Man Who Sold the Moon.  Given the upcoming anniversary of the actual first moon landing, I thought it would be fun to go back and take a look at this fictional version of the first trip.

    In Heinlein’s story, the first manned lunar landing is not government-driven. Rather, it is the achievement of entrepreneur/industrialist Delos D Harriman, known to his friends and associates as ‘D.D.”  Having long dreamed of going to the moon, he finally decides that the time is right.

    Harriman-known as “our bad boy” to his fellow Directors of the power cartel–finds his colleagues reluctant to invest in a venture whose costs are so high and whose returns are uncertain.  Even his long-time partner, George Strong, fails to see either financial return or emotional appeal in the effort:

    George, isn’t there anything in your soul but discounts and dividends? Didn’t you ever sit with a girl on a soft summer night and stare up at the Moon and wonder what was there?

    Yeah, I did once.  I caught a cold.

    Nevertheless, Strong supports the project out of loyalty, and some tycoons support it because supersalesman Harriman is able to convince them that there is money for them in the project–or loss, if they decline to participate.  Much of the story is devoted to Harriman’s strategies for fund-raising, some of which skirt–or go over–the lines of legality and ethics. He implies to the Moka-Coka company, for example, that another soft drink maker plans to turn the Moon into a massive billboard (using a rocket to scatter black dust on the surface in patterns), and suggests that the public-spirited Moka company might like to invest in the project to preclude such use of the moon by their rival.

    As an old real-estate operator, Harriman is very focused on the question:  who owns the moon?…he argues that the question is indeed meaningful, based on real-estate doctrine that a property owner owns a wedge going down to the center of the earth and extending up to infinity. He doesn’t want lunar ownership vested in any country, even the US, because he thinks it would result in world war (given the moon’s value as a rocket-bomb base), and he does want it vested in his operation, for reasons of profitability as well as protection from bad uses.  His legal maneuvering, involving the UN as well as all countries over which the path of the moon passes–and a mix of non-profit, for-profit, and anonymous corporations–is intricately described.

    For the technology of the moon trip, Harriman had hoped to use a nuclear fuel which has been applied to power generation, but it proves too unstable for use in a rocket–so well-known chemical rocket technology must be employed instead (rockets are commonly used for long-distance transportation in the era where this story is set).  On the advice of Harriman’s chief engineer, Andrew Ferguson, the most technically-qualified man in rocketry, Bob Coster, is hired to run the project…but he evidently lacks sufficient management experience and is soon overwhelmed.  Harriman tries to help him out:

    “Top administration ain’t engineering, and maybe I can show you a few tricks there, if you’ll let me….Top bossing is like sex; until you’ve had it, you don’t know about it.”  Harriman had the mental reservation that if the boy would not take advice, he would suddenly be out of a job, whether Ferguson liked it or not.

    Although the story does deal with the technical aspects of the moon trip, that is not its primary focus…it is really a “business romance”, as Colby Cosh called it. “The Man Who Sold The Moon” emphasizes the financial difficulties, deals, the marketing, and the interpersonal stresses involved in the project–even Harriman’s wife is strongly opposed to his pursuit of his dream.   There are endless angles for the raising of money developed by Harriman and his friends, even soliciting contributions from children.

    The “man who sold the moon” tag becomes literal when, inspired by stories of the Florida land boom–“sometimes a parcel would change hands a dozen time before anyone got around to finding out that the stuff was ten-foot deep in water”–Harriman suggests selling lots on the moon itself:

    “We can offer bargains better than that–an acre, a guaranteed dry acre, for maybe ten dollars–or a thousand acres at a dollar an acre.  Who’s going to turn down a bargain like that?  Particularly after the rumor gets around that the Moon is believed to be loaded with uranium?”

    “Is it?”

    “How should I know?  When the boom sags a little we will announce the selected location of Luna City–and it will just happen to work out that the land around the site is still available for sale.  Don’t worry, Saul, if it’s real estate, George and I can sell it.  Why, down in the Ozarks, wheter the land stands on edge, we used to sell both sides of the same acre.”

    Comparisons between Harriman and Elon Musk come readily to mind–see the Colby Cosh article–though I don’t think Musk has been credibly accused of anything as far over the line as several of Harriman’s maneuvers.  It has also been suggested that Harriman’s name, and some aspects of his character, are owed to the railroad builder Edward Henry Harriman.

    I don’t think the date of the first lunar landing is mentioned in the story itself, but it has been placed–based on Heinlein’s future history timeline and on other stories–in 1978.  So real life beat out science fiction, at least from a date standpoint, by nine years.

    Could it have really happened that way–the first moon trip not via a gigantic government/corporate program piggybacking off of military missile technology, but rather by a private/corporate venture?  Given the vast amounts of money spent on the Apollo program and its predecessors–certainly much more than the fictional Harriman and his tycoon friends could have raised–it may seem impossible.  But would it really have been?

    Posted in Book Notes, Business, Capitalism, Civil Society, Space, Tech, USA | 30 Comments »

    Fear of Freedom?

    Posted by David Foster on 16th July 2019 (All posts by )

    Stuart Schneiderman links to an article by a therapist who has a lot of experience working with millennials

    On any given day, a handful of millennials will come into my office and express their most pressing concerns: “I’m worried I’ll never make enough money to retire.” “I feel like a failure.” “I don’t know if I’m setting up my adult life the right way.”

    But the complaint they bring up the most? “I have too many choices and I can’t decide what to do. What if I make the wrong choice?”

    Now, I think that ‘generational’ explanations of social phenomena should be taken with multiple carloads of salt:  individual differences are IMO much more significant than generational differences.  And the people this therapist has been working with are not just millennials, but San Francisco area millennials.  Still, this pushback against having too many choices is unpleasantly reminiscent of the young German who was quoted as saying, shortly before the outbreak of World War II: “We Germans are so happy.  We are free of freedom.”

    To the extent that this phenomenon is real and is general, I would suspect several factors of being implicated. Specifically:

    ***The focus on “self-esteem building”, which seems to have the effect of producing people whose self-esteem is brittle and cannot withstand failure or contradiction.

    ***The trend toward child-raising in organized group settings…usually for-profit organized group settings…which may tend to create more orientation toward group conformity and less individuality than the more traditional “artisanal” at-home child raising.

    ***Increasing years of schooling, which can delay growing up.  Peter Drucker observed that when you’re in school, it’s all about you, unlike the working world where it’s all about doing things that are of value to others.  (FWIW, Drucker also said he observed striking levels of immaturity in many medical students because of this factor.)

    Anecdotal evidence only, but I have observed that people with many years of education–specifically, people with graduate degrees–are often reluctant to try new approaches to things.  Whether it’s an MBA or a Masters in Computer Science, they often want to stick close to the paradigms they were given in the classroom.  It would be interesting for someone to systematically study the relationship between education and mental rigidity.

    ***Finally, there is general social change and disorganization.  Stuart writes:  “Back in the day, when society was organized and where people understood their duties and obligations, these decisions were far less difficult and far less onerous”…the decisions were less onerous, but of course many people felt constrained–and often were constrained–in ways they did not want to be.

    Someone writing in an aviation magazine observed that “if you do anything with your airplane that is not consistent with the Pilot’s Operating Handbook, then you are a test pilot.”  In a society, the equivalent of the POH is the aggregate of laws, customs, and implicit expectations that guide behavior.  There is no doubt that any society’s POH needs constant updating, and sometime major changes–but when major changes do occur, they will be disorienting to many people, and it seems that a nontrivial number of them will react by wishing for more constraints.

    Some people thrive as test pilots–either of aircraft or in a societal setting–but many do not, including many people who would be perfectly adequate or even excellent pilots in a more-defined setting.

    One of the major problems we have in America today is that so many of the people who have taken it upon themselves to totally rewrite the societal POH are people who are lacking in practical experience, historical knowledge, and ‘skin in the game.’  To continue the aviation analogy, it is as if a POH was rewritten by people who had no background in aeronautical engineering, no experience or minimal experience in flying aircraft, and (in many cases) absolutely no intent of either flying or flying in those aircraft being operated in conformity with their documents.

    What proportion of the people in a society can lose belief in the value of individual freedom before they destroy that freedom for everyone, including those who do value it, and how close are we to that point?

     

     

    Posted in Big Government, Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Human Behavior, USA | 28 Comments »

    Perception and…

    Posted by David Foster on 14th July 2019 (All posts by )

    Culture?  Language?  Genetics?

    Alison Gopnik, writing in the WSJ, discusses an interesting experiment on problem solving in very young children which was run by two researchers at UC San Diego, following on to research in which Gopnik was herself involved.  Children of various ages were shown a machine that lights up when you put a block of a certain color or shape on it.  “Even toddlers can easily figure out that a green block makes the machine go while a blue block doesn’t.”

    The researchers wondered:  what if the test was of the relationship between objects..say, two square blocks of the same color made the machine light up, but not two blocks of different colors?

    For American children, 18-month-old children had no trouble figuring out that the relationship between the objects was the key thing.  But older American children, 3-year-olds, did worse at the relationship test than did their younger counterparts.  For Chinese children, however, the fall-off in relationship-assessing performance between 18 months and 3 years old did not happen.

    Here’s a reasonably decent summary of the paper’s main points, and here’s the paper itself.

    Why the fall-off for American kids?  (A temporary fall-off, it seems…the researchers say that the American kids recover their relationship-assessing skills between the ages of  4-6 years.)  One hypothesis is language….possibly the “noun spurt” that is said to characterize early-English learning has something to do with it.  Or perhaps there are broader cultural factors:  “In particular, there are well-documented differ- ences in holistic and analytic processing (and relatedly, collectivist and individualist cognitive styles) across cultures, which may simi- larly result in an emphasis on relationships between entities or on characteristics of individual entities. More broadly, environmental variation across these learning contexts (e.g., socioeconomic status, number of siblings, and pedagogical and child- rearing practices) may differentially affect general cognitive skills that are known to influence relational reasoning, like executive function.”  (quoted from the paper)

    Or, perhaps, could there be a genetic explanation?…Would children of Chinese ancestry, raised in the US in English-speaking homes, show more often the Chinese  pattern or the American pattern in these experiments?  While a genetic explanation seems unlikely to me, I would think it should at least be considered.

    Most likely, to me, seems the language explanation.  The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which has also been dubbed ‘linguistic relativity’, holds that the language we speak has a major impact on how we perceive the world…it fell into some disrepute after WWII because of its appropriation by the Nazis to make claims of cultural superiority and also because of some apparent errors in Whorf’s reporting, concerning for example the Inuit words for ‘snow’…it does make sense, however, that language has a significant impact on what thoughts can be most easily expressed and hence on what thoughts are most likely to be conceived.

    Posted in Academia, China, Deep Thoughts, Human Behavior, USA | 10 Comments »

    The Totalitarian Mindset is Strong on the Left

    Posted by David Foster on 11th July 2019 (All posts by )

    Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot:

    “I woke up this morning thinking it was going to be another great day. I’ve been celebrating with friends, family and the community since I turned 90. I’ve told you about the gracious gift of $117 million that was collected and given in my honor to four charities that mean a lot to me. All that happiness blew up because I said in a newspaper interview that I have supported and will continue to support Donald Trump.

    Boom!

    Negative stories… vicious threats, without cause, to boycott the company that has enabled my foundation to give billions to support autism, medical research, education, heart and neurological issues like stroke, and to help our veterans. The company that I retired from in 2002 and have not had a business relationship with in almost 20 years. A company that has employed more than a half-million people. The people who work there are affiliated with both political parties or no party at all. They are of all religions and all colors and backgrounds. Why would people want to hurt them?

    All because I give my voice and some of my money to our President. Am I in China? Argentina? Russia? That’s what it feels like to me.

    It saddens me that our country has come to this, where I, as a private citizen, cannot express my feelings. It angers me and it saddens me, but it sure as hell is not going to stop me. If you thought it would, you’ve got the wrong guy.

    In the next ten years, God willing, I will accomplish more to save this world than my critics will do even if they had forty lifetimes.”

    Few people have Bernie Marcus-level resources, and also relatively few, I’m afraid, have the emotional strength necessary to stand up against a mob, even a mob whose attacks are (usually) strictly verbal.  Most, I fear, will simply go along.

    And no one should be under the illusion that the Gleichschaltung will “only” require you to personally refrain from expressing unapproved thoughts: it will also require you to denounce and shun your friends and colleagues who have dared to express such thoughts.  See Lynchings and Witch-Trials, Technology-Enhanced:

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

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

    Are there any among the current set of Democratic presidential candidates who see this kind of thing as a problem and who would provide even the most modest form of push-back against it?

    Posted in Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Leftism, USA | 18 Comments »

    Heat and the Movies

    Posted by David Foster on 5th July 2019 (All posts by )

    Hot weather encourages feelings of gratitude for the existence of air conditioning, the primary inventor of which (at least as far as a practical system goes) was Willis Carrier.  His original motivation was not the improvement of human comfort, but rather solving air quality problems affecting the operations of a printing company.  But A/C was quickly applied to the dehumidification and cooling of human was well as industrial environments.

    Initially, systems were large and expensive and hence better-fitted to businesses and other environments serving a lot of people than to individual homes.  One of the first industries that adopted air conditioning was the motion-picture theater industry, starting with an installation at Sid Grauman’s Metropolitan Theater in 1922.

    It makes sense to believe, and seems to be generally accepted, that the introduction of A/C had much to do with the great success of the movie industry…if the theater was one of the few places in town where you could be cool, then it would be nice to have enough new movies constantly coming out to justify going the the theater as often as possible.

    The same phenomenon applied with department stores…starting with a Hudson’s in Detroit in 1926…though I would think A/C was not quite as impactful in that case as in the case of the movies.

    BUT, with the introduction and constant improvement of home air conditioners, the process would have likely gone into reverse: if you can be cool at home, there is less incentive to “go to the movies” unless there is something showing that you really want to see. Similarly with retail..although until the introduction of the consumer Internet, you still needed to go to a store for most things.

    It is pretty common that a technology that helps a particular industry at one point will, later and with further development of that industry, harm that industry.  Another example is the newspaper industry:  one of the great enablers of the growth of the newspaper industry was the telegraph (along with the high-speed printing press and the Linotype machine.)  But as digital communications (of which the telegraph was an early example) developed into data networks and ultimately the Internet, the ability to conveniently extend the information flow into the home was devastatingly harmful to that industry.

    Returning to the air conditioner, another impact of this technology has been geographical: making areas that were previously not-so-desirable for reasons of climate much more generally inhabitable…as in the cases of the US south and southwest.

    A/C is a significant consumer of energy in the form of electricity, and as it is more widely adopted in places such India, it will have a major impact on electricity consumption in those countries.

    Thoughts?  Other industry examples?

    Posted in Business, Energy & Power Generation, History, Human Behavior, Internet, Tech | 35 Comments »

    A New Insult-Meme!

    Posted by David Foster on 28th June 2019 (All posts by )

    In a discussion of ‘alternative energy’ at a social media site, someone raised the practical issue of the difficulties involved in high-volume energy storage.  Someone else came back at him with a comment to the effect that “climate-solution deniers are as bad a climate change deniers.”

    This is probably just the leading edge of a new insult-meme:  I expect to see a lot more of the climate-solution-denier accusations being made.  We are getting uncomfortably close to a pervasive climate of Lysenkoism.

    In Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon, set in the Soviet Union, his character Rubashov (an old Bolshevik who is now on trial for his life) muses:

    “A short time ago, our leading agriculturist, B., was shot with thirty of his collaborators because he maintained the opinion that nitrate artificial manure was superior to potash. No. 1 is all for potash; therefore B. and the thirty had to be liquidated as saboteurs. In a NATIONALLY CENTRALIZED AGRICULTURE, the alternative of nitrate or potash is of enormous importance: it can decide the issue of the next war. If No. I was in the right, history will absolve him, and the execution of the thirty-one men will be a mere bagatelle. If he was wrong …”

    and

    “We know that virtue does not matter to history, and that crimes remain unpunished; but that every error had its consequences and venges itself unto the seventh generation. Therefore we concentrated all our efforts on preventing error and destroying the very seeds of it. Never in history has so much power over the future of humanity been concentrated in so few hands as in our case. Each wrong idea we follow is a crime committed against future generations. Therefore we have to punish wrong ideas as others punish crimes: with death. We were held for madmen because we followed every thought down to its final consequence and acted accordingly. We were compared to the inquisition because, like them, we constantly felt in ourselves the whole weight of responsibility for the super-individual life to come. We resembled the great Inquisitors in that we persecuted the seeds of evil not only in men’s deeds, but in their thoughts. We admitted no private sphere, not even inside a man’s skull. We lived under the compulsion of working things out to their final conclusions. Our minds were so tensely charged that the slightest collision caused a mortal short-circuit. Thus we were fated to mutual destruction.” (emphasis added)

    The assertions now being made that anyone who challenges catastrophic CO2-caused climate change is complicit in the deaths of thousands/hundreds of thousands/millions parallel the above rather closesly.

    Koestler’s Rubashov also observed that it had become “necessity to drill every sentence into the masses by vulgarization and endless repetition; what was presented as right must shine like gold, what was presented as wrong must be as black as pitch; political statements had to be coloured like ginger-bread figures at a fair.”  

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Big Government, Book Notes, Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Energy & Power Generation, Leftism, Russia | 27 Comments »

    Book Review: Gossip from the Forest

    Posted by David Foster on 24th June 2019 (All posts by )

    Gossip from the Forest, by Thomas Keneally

    You are a politician and a government official, but without much in the way of real power.  You are not a member of the country’s elite class, and out of sympathy with many of the government’s policies.

    For the last four years, your country has been involved in a major war–a war that you initially supported.  But at least a year ago, you came to the conclusion that the war cannot be won, and that a peace treaty must be negotiated.  You have had no success, however, in convincing the parliament and the government of this view.

    Now, however, the leading generals have become convinced that a total and disastrous defeat is impending, and peace must be made immediately. Your country’s negotiating position at this point is not strong, to put it mildly.  And one of the small group selected to conduct the negotiations with the enemy is you.

    It gets worse.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, France, Germany, History, Miscellaneous, War and Peace | 1 Comment »

    The Compleat Spy Requires AI

    Posted by David Foster on 18th June 2019 (All posts by )

    China’s intelligence services appear to be using LinkedIn, with profile pictures generated artificially, for the recruitment of agents.

    Chinese intrusion into US affairs has not generally gotten anywhere near the attention that Russian intrusion…real, attempted, or imagined…has gotten, but it needs more visibility.  See my related post So, Really Want to Talk About Foreign Intervention?

    Posted in Business, China, Internet, Russia, Tech | 3 Comments »

    Manufacturing in the USA

    Posted by David Foster on 9th June 2019 (All posts by )

    A website devoted to that topic:  Reshoring Manufacturing

    Posted in Business, International Affairs, Management, USA | 13 Comments »

    D-Day plus 75 Years

    Posted by David Foster on 6th June 2019 (All posts by )

    Neptunus Lex:  The liberation of France started when each, individual man on those landing craft as the ramp came down – each paratroop in his transport when the light turned green – made the individual decision to step off with the only life he had and face the fire.]

    American Digest:  A walk across a beach in Normandy

    Don Sensing points out that success was by no means assured:  The pivot day of history

    A collection of D-day color photos from Life Magazine

    See Bookworm’s post from 2012, and Michael Kennedy’s photos from 2007

    The Battle of Midway took place from June 4 through June 7, 1942. Bookworm attended a Battle of Midway commemoration event in 2010 and also in 2011: Our Navy–a sentimental service in a cynical society.

    See also  Sgt Mom’s History Friday post from 2014.

    General Electric remembers the factory workers at home who made victory possible.  Also, women building airplanes during WWII, in color and the story of the Willow Run bomber plant.

    A very interesting piece on  the radio news coverage of the invasion

    Posted in Europe, France, History, USA, War and Peace | 14 Comments »

    Before D-Day, There Was Dieppe

    Posted by David Foster on 1st June 2019 (All posts by )

    June 6 will mark the 75th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion.  Most Americans surely have at least some knowledge of this event…but relatively few are aware that there was an earlier amphibious assault on occupied Europe. The attack on the French port of Dieppe took place on August 19, 1942. The objectives were twofold. First, the attack was intended as kind of a “feasibility test” for the large-scale invasion which was to take place later. As stated by General Sir Alan Brooke, “If it was ever intended to invade France it was essential to launch a preliminary offensive on a divisional scale.” Second, the attack was intended to convince Hitler that an invasion was more imminent than it in fact was, thereby leading to the diversion of German forces from other areas.

    The troops assigned to Dieppe were mostly Canadians–5000 of them. There were also British commandos and a small number of American Rangers. Eight destroyers were assigned to the operation, along with 74 Allied air squadrons.

    The attack was a disastrous failure. In the words of military historian John Keegan: “When the badly shocked survivors of that terrible morning were got home and heads counted, only 2,110 of the 4,963 Canadians who had set sail the day before could be found. It became known later that 1,874 were prisoners, but of these 568 were wounded and 72 were to die of their wounds, while 378 of those returning were also wounded. Sixty-five percent of the Canadians engaged had therefore become casualties, almost all of them from the six assaulting infantry battalions, a toll which compared with that of July 1st, 1916, first day of the Battle of the Somme and blackest in the British army’s history. The 2nd Canadian Division had, for practical purposes, been destroyed…Strategic as well as human criteria applied in measuring the scale of the disaster. All the tanks which had been landed had been lost…lost also were 5 of the 10 precious Landing Craft Tank. And, auguring worst of all for the future, the damage had been done not by hastily summoned reinforcements, but by the forces already present; the 3 Canadian battalions which had stormed the central beach had been opposed by a single German company–at odds, that is, of 12 to 1…” If one defending unit could stop an attacking force with 12 times the numbers, a successful invasion would be impossible. Keegan: “(the disparity between the power of the attack and the defense) clearly could not be overcome merely by increasing the numbers of those embarked for the assault. that would be to repeat the mistakes of the First World War, when the solution of greater numbers resulted arithmetically in greater casualties for no territorial gains.”

    Captain (later Vice-Admiral) John Hughes-Hallett summarized the lessons of the failure in a report written shortly after the fact. To quote Keegan once again: “‘The lesson of Greatest Importance,’ his report capitalized and italicized, “Is the need for overwhelming fire support, including close support, during the initial stages of the attack,’ It should be provided by ‘heavy and medium Naval bombardment, by air action, by special vessels or craft’ (which would have to be developed) ‘working close inshore, and by using the firepower of the assaulting troops while still seaborne.’”

    The lessons of Dieppe were taken seriously. Keegan goes on to describe the naval firepower assigned to the actual D-day landings carried out by Canadians at Juno Beach: “Heaviest and furthest out were the two battleships Ramillies and Warspite…They both mounted four 15-inch guns and there were two more in Roberts, their accompanying monitor. Their chief task was to engage the large-calibre shore batteries between the Orne and the mouth of the Seine, but so great was their range–over eighteen miles–that they could in emergency be talked in on any target in the British bridgeheads…Immediately port and starboard of the lowering position was disposed a line of twelve cruisers, the smallest, like Diadem, mounting eight 5.25 inch guns, the largest, like Belfast, twelve 6-inch. Both were covering the Canadian beaches…In front of the Canadian lowering position manoeuvred the supporting destroyers, eleven for the Juno sector…And immediately in ahead of the assault-wave infantry was deployed a small fleet of support landing-craft: eight Landing Craft Gun, a sort of small monitor mounting two 4.7 inch guns; four Landing Craft Support, bristling with automatic cannon; eight Landing Craft tank (Rocket), on each of which were racked the tubes of 1,100 5-inch rockets, to be discharged in a single salvo; and eighteen Landing Craft Assault (Hedgerow), which were to fire their loads of twenty-four 60-lb bombs into the beach obstacles and so explode as many as possible of the mines attached to them.”

    In addition to the need for very heavy naval firepower, the D-day planners learned another lesson from Dieppe: rather than immediately seizing a port, or landing in close proximity to one, they avoided ports altogether, landing supplies initially over an open beach and leaving the capture of a port for a later phase in the operation.

    Keegan quotes are from his book, Six Armies in Normandy.

    There is much talk in management and consulting circles these days about the need for organizations to “embrace failure”…much of this talk is fairly glib and does not always consider that certain kinds of failures are truly catastrophic from a human/strategic/economic point of view and are indeed worthy of stringent efforts to prevent their occurrence.  When failures–catastrophic or otherwise–do occur, it is incumbent on responsible leadership to seriously analyze the lessons to be learned and to apply that knowledge diligently.  In the case of Dieppe, that work does indeed appear to have been done.

    Posted in Britain, France, Germany, History, Management, Military Affairs, USA | 53 Comments »

    Telemigration

    Posted by David Foster on 26th May 2019 (All posts by )

    It has often been asserted that the US doesn’t need to worry overmuch about our position in Manufacturing, because Services are the future and that is where we will have the most competitive advantage.  And, indeed, the balance of trade in services is more favorable than that in the goods-producing industries: for 2018, exports of services totaled $821 billion, whereas imports of services were only $557 billion.

    However, while imports of services are today small compared with imports of goods, which for 2018 were almost $2.7 trillion, it would be a mistake to conclude that services businesses and services jobs are immune to offshoring.  Indeed, for many types of services, offshoring/exporting is easier than the offshoring/importing of goods:  there are no transportation issues, and, in the case of imports to the US, there are no tariffs at all.

    Telemigration…the term was introduced by Richard Baldwin in his book The Globotics Upheaval…is the ability to have remote workers doing things that previously would have required their physical presence.  Obviously, the ability to do this has been greatly enhanced by the availability of the Internet and other forms of high-bandwidth low-cost communications.  Today, medical images and legal documents are being reviewed in low-cost-of-labor countries.  Software is being developed for American companies in countries around the world.  Offshoring of clerical operations has been practiced by US firms for a couple of decades, and, of course, the offshoring of customer service is common.

    Baldwin also argues that telemigration will be greatly enhanced by the availability of machine translation technology, especially Google Translate.  I think he may be overstating the case here–from what I’ve seen, the quality of GT translations is highly variable.  Not sure how well this approach would work in facilitating the interaction that is often required among team members to create something or solve a problem, and I am sure I wouldn’t want to trust it exclusively for something like, say, translating the functional specifications for a life-critical avionics system to be programmed by non-English speakers.

    But there are a lot of English-speakers in the world, and a lot of activities in which fluency in a common language is not essential.

    One area in which a lot of telemigration seems to be occurring is in software development and maintenance.  Here for example, is a company which acquires application software companies and offshores much of the ongoing work (which presumably includes incremental product enhancements as well as problem-fixing) to contract programmers: company’s chief recruiter asserts that the current cloud wage for a C++ programmer is $15 an hour. As the Forbes article notes, that’s what Amazon pays its warehouse workers.  (Well, at least in the US–and $15/hour for a programmer in, say, India is surely worth a lot more than $15/hour in this country.)  What makes this story particularly interesting is that the founder/CEO of the company was noted, in his earlier incarnation in a different software business, for paying software people very well indeed and going to great lengths to recruit them.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Aviation, Business, Deep Thoughts, Immigration, International Affairs, Internet, Tech, Transportation, USA | 36 Comments »

    Book Review: The Caine Mutiny

    Posted by David Foster on 18th May 2019 (All posts by )

    The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk

    —-

    (reposted in honor of Herman Wouk, who died yesterday at the age of 103)

    Just about everyone has seen the movie based on this book, featuring Humphrey Bogart’s famous performance as Captain Queeg.  The movie is indeed excellent–the book is even better, and contains a lot that is absent from the film.  And while the film ends basically after the court-martial scene, the book continues to follow the USS Caine and  key characters for the duration of the war.  In this review, I won’t worry about spoilers re plot elements that were included in the movie, but will try to minimize them as far as other aspects of the book are concerned. After summarizing the story, I’ll comment on some of the issue raised by the book. (A 2005 article, referencing The Caine Mutiny, refers to Wouk as “the first neoconservative.”)

    Lieutenant Commander Philip Queeg, a rigid and insecure man, is appointed during WWII to the command of Caine, a decrepit old destroyer-minesweeper…the ship and its slovenly-appearing crew are described as being part of the  “hoodlum navy.”  This is Queeg’s first command, and he is desperately concerned to make it a success, deeply afraid of making a mistake which will lead to his failure.  Ironically, it is specifically this fear of failure and perceived need for perfection which is responsible for many, perhaps most, of his troubles. When Caine runs aground the first time Queeg takes her out, he fails to submit the required grounding report for fear of higher authority’s reaction. When the ship cuts her own towline while assigned to target-towing duty, Queeg cannot make up him mind whether or not to attempt recovery of the drifting target–and radios in for instructions.  Incidents like these do not inspire confidence in Queeg on the part of his superiors.

    The officers and crew of Caine also lose confidence in the captain as his obsessive-compulsive behavior becomes increasingly problematic.  As a result of several incidents during combat, there are also concerns about Queeg’s personal courage. While no one aboard Caine likes Queeg once they get to know him, the captain’s most vocal critic is an officer named Thomas Keefer, an intellectual who is an aspiring novelist. Keefer has a cynical attitude toward the Navy, which he refers to as “a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots,” and advises Willie Keith, a young officer who is his subordinate,  that “If you’re not an idiot, but find yourself in the Navy, you can only operate well by pretending to be one.”

    The ship’s executive officer is Steve Maryk. In civilian life a commercial fisherman, Maryk now hopes to make the Navy his career. Maryk is a fine seaman and a good leader, but not a highly-educated man–he is somewhat in awe of Tom Keefer’s intellectual attainments.

    In repeated conversations, Keefer tells Maryk that the captain must be mentally ill, using psychological jargon and concepts that Maryk does not pretend to understand. Maryk is concerned enough about Queeg’s behavior that he begins keeping a “medical log” on Queeg, with the idea of presenting this to higher authority if necessary and possible. The time seems right when Caine shares an anchorage with the battleship carrying Admiral Halsey:  Maryk takes his log, takes Keefer in tow, and heads over to the New Jersey to see if they can speak with the Admiral.  But Keefer, at the last moment, chickens out, asserting that Halsey, with his experience aboard large well-managed ships, would never be able to understand the state of things aboard a hoodlum-navy ship like Caine, and that raising the issue with him would only get the two of them in trouble.  Feeling unable to make the case without support, Maryk gives up on talking to Halsey and the two officers return to Caine.

    But soon thereafter, the old ship encounters a typhooon. Fleet course is 180 degrees, due south–away from the wind–and Queeg refuses to adopt the safer course of heading into the wind even though communication with other ships, as well as radar contact, has been lost.

    An unbelievably big gray wave loomed on the port side, high over the bridge. It came smashing down. Water spouted into the wheelhouse from the open wing, flooding to Willie’s knees. The water felt surprisingly warm and sticky, like blood. “Sir, we’re shipping water on the goddamn bridge!” said Maryk shrilly. “We’ve got to come around into the wind!”

    “Heading 245, sir.” Stilwell’s voice was sobbing. “She ain’t answering to the engines at all, sir!”

    The Caine rolled almost completely over on its port side.  Everybody in the wheelhouse except Stilwell went sliding across the streaming deck and piled up against the windows.  The sea was under their noses, dashing up against the glass.  “Mr Maryk, the light on this gyro just went out!” screamed Stilwell, clinging desperately to the wheel.  The wind howled and shrieked in Willie’s ears.  He lay on his face on the deck, tumbling around in salt water, flailing for a grip at something solid.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Book Notes, History, Human Behavior, Management, Military Affairs, Nautical Book Project, Reruns, Transportation | 9 Comments »

    Pretty Scary

    Posted by David Foster on 17th May 2019 (All posts by )

    Martin Wolf, writing in the Financial Times, displayed the above graph, which is taken from this article in the Journal of Democracy.

    After seeing this graph, I was going to put the title “Absolutely Terrifying” on this post.  But when looking at survey data, I like to dig into the source information a bit and look at the wording of the actual questions asked.  This data comes from something called the World Values Survey, and the specific question is:

    How important is it for you to live in a country that is governed democratically? On this scale where 1 means it is “not at all important” and 10 means “absolutely important” what position would you choose?

    I wondered how the results would look if I added the “9”  answers, one notch below “absolutely important”, to those who gave the highest possible importance answer…then did the same thing when adding the “8” respondents.  Here’s what I got (US data only), summarized.

    “Absolutely Important” only:

    1930s 63%
    1940s 56%
    1950s 57%
    1960s 47%
    1970s 43%
    1980s 27%

    “Absolutely Important” plus “9” responses:

    1930s 78%
    1940s 74%
    1950s 67%
    1960s 61%
    1970s 57%
    1980s 40%

    When I also add those who assigned democracy an “8” rating, I get a total of 89% for the 1930s cohort falling to 77% for the 1960s birth and 53% for those born in the 1980s.

    (There have been six “waves” of the World Values Survey; I used only the most recent one, which probably explains why my numbers for the “absolutely important” category are slightly different from those shown in the graph.  The data is openly available here, and the display and crosstab toolset is very easy to use.)

    So the results are slightly less-alarming than they appeared at first glance, which is why I changed the title of this post from “Absolutely Terrifying” to “Pretty Scary.”  Still, 40% is less than half, and the indication that only 40% of the 1980s cohort value democracy as either “maximally important,” or one step down from that, should be of considerable concern.

    Your thoughts?

    Posted in Civil Liberties, Deep Thoughts, Europe, Human Behavior, Political Philosophy, Politics, USA | 16 Comments »

    An Unexpected Defeat

    Posted by David Foster on 11th May 2019 (All posts by )

    ‘When the crocus blossoms,’ hiss the women in Berlin,
    ‘He will press the button, and the battle will begin.
    When the crocus blossoms, up the German knights will go,
    And flame and fume and filthiness will terminate the foe…
    When the crocus blossoms, not a neutral will remain.’

    (A P Herbert, Spring Song, quoted in To Lose a Battle, by Alistair Horne)

    On May 10, 1940, German forces launched an attack against Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Few people among the Allies imagined that France would collapse in only six weeks: Churchill, for example, had a high opinion of the fighting qualities of the French army. But collapse is what happened, of course, and we are still all living with the consequences. General Andre Beaufre, who in 1940 was a young Captain on the French staff, wrote in 1967:

    The collapse of the French Army is the most important event of the twentieth century.

    If it’s an exaggeration, it’s not much of one. If France had held up to the German assault as effectively as it was expected to do, World War II would probably have never reached the nightmare levels that it in fact did reach. The Hitler regime might well have fallen. The Holocaust would never have happened. Most likely, there would have been no Communist takeover of Eastern Europe.

    This campaign has never received much attention in America; it tends to be regarded as something that happened before the “real” war started. Indeed, many denizens of the Anglosphere seem to believe that the French basically gave up without a fight–which is a considerable exaggeration given the French casualties of around 90,000 killed and 200,000 wounded. But I think the fall of France deserves serious study, and that some of the root causes of the defeat are scarily relevant to today’s world.

    First, I will very briefly summarize the campaign from a military standpoint, and will then shift focus to the social and political factors involved in the defeat.

    France’s border can be thought of in terms of three sectors. In the north, the border with with Belgium. Early French military planning had been based on the idea of a strong cooperative relationship with Belgium: however, in the years immediately prior to 1940, that country had adopted a position of neutrality and had refused to do any joint military planning with France. In the south, the border was protected by the forts of the Maginot Line (the southern flank of which was anchored by mountainous territory bordering on Switzerland and Italy.) In between these regions was the country of the Ardennes. It was heavily wooded and with few roads, and the French high command did not believe it was a feasible attack route for strong forces–hence, the Maginot Line had not been extended to cover it, and the border here was protected only with field fortifications.

    The French plan was based on the assumption that the main German attack would come through Belgium. Following the expected request from the Belgian government for assistance, strong French forces were to advance into that country and counterattack the Germans. In the Maginot and Ardennes sectors, holding actions only were envisaged. While the troops manning the Maginot were of high quality, the Ardennes forces included a large proportion of middle-aged reservists, and had been designated as lower-class units.

    The opening moves seemed to fit expectations. The Germans launched a powerful attack through Belgium, and the Belgian government made the expected requests for help. Andre Beaufre:

    Doumenc sent me at once to Vincennes to report to General Gamelin (the French supreme commander). I arrived at 6.30 AM at the moment when the order had just been given for the huge machine to go into operation: the advance into Belgium. Gamelin was striding up and down the corridor in his fort, humming, with a pleased and martial air which I had never seen before. It has been said since that he expected defeat, but I could see no evidence of it at the time.

    There was heavy fighting in Belgium…but the German attack on this country had served to mask their real point of maximum effort. Early in the morning of the 13th, it became clear that massive German forces were moving through the Ardennes, which had turned out to not be so impassable after all. A massive German air attack paved the way for a crossing of the Meuse river and the capture of the town of Sedan. French officers were stunned by the speed of the German advance–they had expected delays while the Germans brought up heavy artillery, not understanding that dive bombers could play a role similar to that traditionally played by artillery. And the bombing was psychologically-shattering, especially for inexperienced troops. The famous historian Marc Bloch had been exposed to many artillery barrages while fighting in the First World War: in reflecting on his service in 1940, he observed that he found aerial bombing much more frightening even though it was, objectively, probably less dangerous. (Bloch later joined the Resistance and was captured by the Germans and shot.)

    The French command never really recovered from the unexpected thrust through the Ardennes and the fall of Sedan. Beginning on May 27, the British evacuated their troops at Dunkirk. On June 14, Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned. He was succeeded by Philippe Petain, a hero of the First World War, who immediately sought terms with the Germans. The “armistice”–basically a surrender–was signed on June 20. By Hitler’s order, it was signed in the same railway car where the armistice of 1918 had been signed. Hitler was present in person for the ceremony: William Shirer was fifty yards away, and was studying his expression through binoculars: It is afire with scorn, anger, hate, revenge, triumph.

    Many military factors were involved in the defeat–obsolete doctrine on armored forces, inadequate use of radio communications, a strange and cumbersome military organization structure. But the roots of the 1940 debacle are not to be found only–or perhaps even primarily–in strictly military matters. A major role was played by certain characteristics of French society and politics of the time–and some of these factors are spookily similar to some of the things that are going on in America today.

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    Posted in Britain, Europe, France, Germany, History, War and Peace | 38 Comments »

    The Transcontinental Railroad is 150

    Posted by David Foster on 9th May 2019 (All posts by )

    This month marks the 150th anniversary of the US Transcontinental Railroad… surely one of the most important ‘infrastructure’ projects of all time. Railway Age reprints the contemporary coverage from their predecessor publication, Railway Times.

    Union Pacific has completed the restoration of their ‘Big Boy’ steam locomotive, #4014, and will be running it, together with Living Legend #844, from Ogden, Utah to Cheyenne, Wyoming, as part of the transcontinental commemoration.

    Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy is, as the title suggests, about the Canadian transcontinental railroad rather than the American, but is a fitting song for the occasion nonetheless. Also, the Smithsonian website Folklife has a playlist of 20 songs that are in some way related to the transcontinental, with some information about each.  (only short samples available unless you have Spotify)

    It seems likely that, absent the transcontinental railroad, the United States would not have been able to stay together as a nation on a continental basis–certainly, long-distance transportation technology acts as a centripetal force to counterbalance the many centrifugal forces that tend to separate geographies politically.  I’ve previously cited the thoughts of Edward Porter Alexander, a Confederate general turned railroad president, on this topic, while raising the question as to how far this effect can and should extend.

    Posted in History, Tech, Transportation, USA | 31 Comments »

    Technology, War, and Education

    Posted by David Foster on 6th May 2019 (All posts by )

    From NBCLearn, here’s a series of short videos focused on WWII aircraft, technology, and people and intended for K-12 classroom use.  Each video is accompanied by two lesson plans, one focused on relevant STEM topics and the other with “social studies” topics.

    For example, the STEM lesson plan that goes with the Pearl Harbor video is mainly about the attributes of the Zero Fighter .  The “social studies” lesson starts with the teacher asking students “Who wants to tell the class what has been happening in Europe since World War I” and “Who wants to tell the class what has been happening in the eastern hemisphere?”  (it would be interesting to hear some of the answers) and then progresses to other related topics, including a comparison of FDR’s speech after Pearl Harbor with the speech of GWB after 9/11.

    I thought it was an interesting and worthwhile approach.  I would have preferred the videos to be a little longer (they’re about 5 minutes each), and thought there were some missed opportunities, misguided emphases, and a few apparent actual errors in some of the lesson plans.  For example, the “social studies” piece on the Night Witches (female Russian night bomber pilots) could have included something about the situation in the Soviet Union at the time, and the Eastern Front War in general…same point for The Flying Tank, the video about the Sturmovik ground attack plane.  The lesson on the B-17 Ball Turret could have usefully included a link the Randall Jarrell’s brutal poem, Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.  The STEM lesson plan on the ME-262 jet fighter talks about the benefits of the swept wing for “balance on its nosewheel”…”it also made the ME-262 faster”–but didn’t really get across the reasons why a swept wing is important as airspeeds get near the speed of sound.  The discussion of the Po-2 biplane used by the Night Witches implies that the plane had good gliding capabilities:  I seriously doubt this, given the low wing aspect ratio (as noted in the lesson plan) and the high drag generally characteristic of the biplane types. It would glide fine, but not for far…which was appropriate given its mission.

    I thought that, overall, this was a very worthwhile effort.  The videos were co-produced with Paul Allen’s Vulcan Productions.  NBCLearn also has a whole lot of other educational videos.

    Posted in Aviation, Education, History, Tech, War and Peace | 10 Comments »