Chicago Boyz

                 
 
 
What Are Chicago Boyz Readers Reading?
 

 
  •   Enter your email to be notified of new posts:
  •   Problem? Question?
  •   Contact Authors:

  • CB Twitter Feed
  • Blog Posts (RSS 2.0)
  • Blog Posts (Atom 0.3)
  • Incoming Links
  • Recent Comments

    • Loading...
  • Authors

  • Notable Discussions

  • Recent Posts

  • Blogroll

  • Categories

  • Archives

  • Author Archive

    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 | 13 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.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    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 »

    Of Humor and Sanity

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

    Back in September, I mentioned some articles describing efforts to give artificial intelligence systems something resembling a simulated sense of humor.  “Interesting research, perhaps,”  I wrote at the time, “but at this juncture I’m less concerned above providing a sense of humor for AI systems than maintaining a sense of humor for human beings.”

    Comes now Claire Lehmann, tweeting:  “In clinical psychology you learn that the loss of a sense of humour can indicate deterioration in mental health.”  I’d assert that this is probably also true of entire organizations and entire societies.

    While people in general are increasingly too afraid to engage in real, lighthearted humor, there is a kind of faux-humor that is toxically thriving.

    In The Screwtape Letters, C S Lewis’s devil responds to a letter from his protege, in which the latter refers to his “patients” as “great laughers,” which the younger devil sees as a good sign for his project to lead them into damnation.  Maybe yes, maybe no, replies Screwtape; it depends on what kind of humor the patients are engaging in. He goes through a categorization of types, and says:

    But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.

    Flippancy is closely related to sarcasm and snark.  Field Marshal Lord Wavell had some thoughts:

    Explosions of temper do not necessarily ruin a general’s reputation or influence with his troops; it is almost expected of them (“the privileged irascibility of senior officers,” someone has written), and it is not always resented, sometimes even admired, except by those immediately concerned. But sarcasm is always resented and seldom forgiven. (emphasis added) In the Peninsula the bitter sarcastic tongue of Craufurd, the brilliant but erratic leader of the Light Division, was much more wounding and feared than the more violent outbursts of Picton, a rough, hot-tempered man.

    A few pages later (in his little book The Art of Generalship), Wavell again addresses the topic of sarcasm:

    He (the general) should never indulge in sarcasm, which is being clever at someone else’s expense, and always offends.

    At the same time humor is being suppressed among people in general, late-night comedians and other media types are heavily engaging in sarcasm/snark, with socially-toxic results that would have been no surprise to Lord Wavell.

    Also, some thoughts on the damage done by snideness in advertising.

     

    Posted in Civil Society, Human Behavior, Humor, Media, USA | 8 Comments »

    Saving (Restoring) Free-Range Childhood

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

    Kerry McDonald:  The Value of a Self-Directed Summer for Kids.

    Autonomy and choice are central to a self-directed summer, in contrast to the control and regimentation that define so many children’s days all year round. Parents from all socio-economic backgrounds face mounting pressure to have their children’s summer days filled with structured, and often expensive, enrichment activities; but poorer parents may confront the most coercion.

    RTWT.  See also my related post Six Hundred Million Years in K-12.

    The term “free-range kids” was originated, AFAIK, by Lenore Skenazy, who has a blog with that name.

    Posted in Civil Society, Crime and Punishment, Human Behavior, USA | 8 Comments »

    Paying Higher Taxes Can be Very Profitable

    Posted by David Foster on 15th April 2019 (All posts by )

    (originally posted in 2010–now an April perennial)

    Chevy Chase, MD, is an affluent suburb of Washington DC. Median household income is over $200K, and a significant percentage of households have incomes that are much, much higher. Stores located in Chevy Chase include Tiffany & Co, Ralph Lauren, Christian Dior, Versace, Jimmy Choo, Nieman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Saks-Jandel.

    PowerLine observed that during the 2008 election season, yards in Chevy Chase were thick with Obama signs–and wondered how these people were now feeling (in October 2009) about the prospect of sharp tax increases for people in their income brackets.

    The PowerLine guys are very astute, but I think they were missing a key point on this one. There are substantial groups of people who stood to benefit financially from the policies of the Obama/Pelosi/Reid triumvirate (really, the Democratic Party in general), and these benefits can greatly outweigh the costs of any additional taxes that these policies require them to pay. Many of the residents of Chevy Chase–a very high percentage of whom get their income directly or indirectly from government activities–fall into this category.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Miscellaneous | 3 Comments »

    Boredom

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

    Ammo Grrrll writes about her husband, a man who is never bored…”the most self-amusing human I have ever known, mostly due to an overabundance of enthusiasms and boundless curiosity about every dang thing in the world.”  She contrasts this attitude with the attitudes of those people who really can’t think of anything to do unless they need to go to work.

    Valerie Jarrett famously said of Obama:  “He’s been bored to death his whole life.”  We can’t be sure, of course, that Jarrett is here actually reflecting Obama’s true characteristics;  but we can be sure that she feels that the characteristic of being bored one’s whole life is something admirable, a sign of intellectual and maybe moral superiority.

    (I think it’s correct to say that the affectation of boredom has traditionally been associated with members of aristocracies)

    Years ago, when I visited the American Museum of the American Indian, one of the exhibits was a collection of jewelry made by former senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Cheyenne)…really fine stuff, not that I’m any judge.  I remember wondering at the time:  how many other politicians have a serious hobby or avocation such as this?  I thought then and I think now that it’s probably pretty exceptional; most of them seem to have few interests other than the pursuit of power and activities directly related to that pursuit.

    In his important memoir of growing up in Germany between the wars, Sebastian Haffner discusses a period (during the Stresemann chancellorship) when the political and economic climate in that country stabilized significantly.  Most people were a lot happier:

    The last ten years were forgotten like a bad dream. The Day of Judgment was remote again, and there was no demand for saviors or revolutionaries…There was an ample measure of freedom, peace, and order, everywhere the most well-meaning liberal-mindedness, good wages, good food and a little political boredom. everyone was cordially invited to concentrate on their personal lives, to arrange their affairs according to their own taste and to find their own paths to happiness.

    But…and I think this is a particuarly important point…a return to private life was not to everyone’s taste:

    A generation of young Germans had become accustomed to having the entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions…Now that these deliveries suddently ceased, people were left helpless, impoverished, robbed, and disappointed. They had never learned how to live from within themselves, how to make an ordinary private life great, beautiful and worth while, how to enjoy it and make it interesting. So they regarded the end of political tension and the return of private liberty not as a gift, but as a deprivation. They were bored, their minds strayed to silly thoughts, and they began to sulk.

    and

    To be precise (the occasion demands precision, because in my opinion it provides the key to the contemporary period of history): it was not the entire generation of young Germans. Not every single individual reacted in this fashion. There were some who learned during this period, belatedly and a little clumsily, as it were, how to live. they began to enjoy their own lives, weaned themselves from the cheap intoxication of the sports of war and revolution, and started to develop their own personalities. It was at this time that, invisibly and unnoticed, the Germans divided into those who later became Nazis and those who would remain non-Nazis.

    I believe that in America today, there are a lot of people–largely, but not exclusively on the Left–whose political activity is motivated in large part by their inability to make their own lives great, beautiful and worth while.

    Discuss, if so inclined.

    Posted in Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Germany, Human Behavior, USA | 17 Comments »

    A Truly Courageous Business Decision

    Posted by David Foster on 7th April 2019 (All posts by )

    Today marks the 55th anniversary of IBM’s announcement of the System/360 line…which made obsolete virtually all of its then-existing products.  The 360 line established a common architecture for machines of widely-differing price and performance characteristics, with the individual product implementations of this architecture differing considerably.  The goal was compatibility, so that customers could upgrade without extensive rewriting of programs.  Consolidating IBM’s diverse computer systems into this single system architecture was a bold decision; truly, a bet-the-company decision: in the end, it paid off, with devastating consequences for the ‘Seven Dwarfs’ who were IBM’s competitors at the time…but the implementation was frighteningly stressful.  A good article on the project recently appeared in IEEE Spectrum.

    Tom Watson Jr, who ran IBM during this time period, discusses the 360 project extensively in his superb memoir, Father, Son, and Co.  I reviewed it here–highly recommended.

    Posted in Book Notes, Business, Management, Tech | 21 Comments »

    Movie Review: “O”

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

    (This is a rerun of a post from 2010–I was reminded of this movie by Paula Marantz Cohen’s WSJ article about teaching ‘Othello’)

    Odin James–“O”–is a high-school basketball star. His friend Hugo also plays for the team, though not on O’s level. When O singles out another player–Michael–for special recognition, Hugo’s already-high jealously level reaches a fever pitch.

    Roger, a wealthy but awkward and widely-disliked student, is hopelessly in love with O’s girlfriend, Desi. Hugo enlists him in a plot which he sells to Roger as a way of luring Desi away from O…but his real intent is to destroy both O and Michael, with Desi as collateral damage.

    Does the plot sound a little bit familiar?

    This is, of course, “Othello,” set in an American prep school instead of in Venice, and with the title character as an athlete rather than a military commander.

    O is Othello (Mekhi Phifer)
    Desi is Desdemona (Julia Stiles)
    Hugo is Iago (Josh Hartnett)
    Roger is Rodrigo (Elden Henson)
    Michael is Michael Casio (Andrew Keegan)
    Emily is Emilia (Rain Phoenix)
    The basketball coach, nicknamed “Duke,” is the Duke (Martin Sheen)

    No attempt is made to use Shakespearean language, which was probably a wise decision. While this adaptation may sound contrived from the above description, I think it actually works very well. (The film was released in 2001.)

    There are a few interesting differences between the film and the original play, as well as some interesting angles for transforming Renaissance Venice into a modern high school:

    (1)In the movie, Hugo/Iago is the coach’s son, which plays an important role in his jealousy of O/Othello. There is no such relationship or motivation in the play.

    (2)In the play, Iago’s hate of Othello and of Michael Casio is driven largely by Othello’s decision to choose Casio, rather than Iago, as his principal lieutenant. The recognition/elevation of Michael is also an important factor in the movie–however, in the play, Othello’s promotion decision is based largely on factors which Iago, with some justice, sees as extraneous: book-learning and family/social connections rather than combat experience. Hugo/Iago suffers from no such social-class disadvantage in the movie.

    (3)In the play, Iago convinces Othello that he, Iago, understands more about the true nature of Venetian women than Othello the Moor–an outsider to Venice–possibly can, and that hence, Othello had better listen to Iago’s advice. In the movie, this turns into an assertion by Hugo that O…the only African-American in the school…needs to pay attention to Hugo’s greater experience with white women (“They are all horny snakes,” he warns O.)

    (4)In the play, Michael Casio is portrayed in a very positive way. In the film, he comes across as more than a bit of a jerk.

    (5)Like the play, the movie ends with the murder of Desi and Emily/Emilia and the suicide of O/Othello…but whereas in the play, Michael survives and is designated as Governor at the end, in the movie he is shot and it is left ambiguous whether or not he survives. I think Shakespeare perhaps intended the elevation of Michael Casio at the end to symbolize the continuity of society and of proper authority: there is no such symbolism in the film. The ending of the film is at least as dark as that of the play, and that’s pretty dark.

    An interesting sound track, ranging from hip-hop to opera.

    Certainly not a substitute for the original, but very well worth seeing, in my opinion.

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Education, Film | 3 Comments »

    A Convergence of Media Empires and Telecommunications Empires

    Posted by David Foster on 31st March 2019 (All posts by )

    CNN and MSNBC have come in for much criticism for irresponsible reporting and political bias–merited criticism, IMO–especially in the wake of the Mueller report.  It has been too rarely, noted, though, that these networks are not independent entities.  CNN is owned by AT&T, and MSNBC is owned by Comcast.

    Not to be left behind, Verizon appears to me to also be playing the political-bias game through its Yahoo service. I have a Yahoo Mail account (Yahoo owned by VZ since 2017), and every day I get a “news” email from them.  A high percentage of these are anti-Trump in tone, and I doubt that an objective observer could look at a month or more of these communications and conclude that any attempt at balance was being made.

    From a business standpoint, I question whether there is any real synergy between a telecommunications business and an entertainment and “news” business.  After combining Yahoo and AOL into its ridiculously-named ‘Oath” division, Verizon has already written down $4.8 billion in asset value (and also changed the name.)  I doubt that AT&T management is really going to add any value to its vast Time-Warner acquisition.  But, not being a shareholder or bondholder in any of these companies, I really don’t care all that much.  What I do care about are the societal and public-policy implications of these amalgamations.

    Why is AT&T adopting, through its CNN subsidiary, a strident anti-Trump position?  Does this reflect AT&T’s corporate policy, or are they merely adopting a decentralized management style and letting subsidiary-level management make their own decisions? Does the anti-Trump drum-beating that I perceive in Yahoo reflect Verizon corporate policy?  Do they even know it is going on, or is it just a lower-level decision in a department that is now probably perceived as being not all that important or strategic?  Does it make sense for VZ to offend a lot of people–somewhere around 50% of the US population–current or potential customers for a wide range of their services–in the name of a strident opinion stream that doesn’t even have any direct revenue generation associated with it?

    TV news viewership isn’t what it once was, but is still nontrivial.  The assets and income streams of these telecommunications companies are so vast that they can easily afford to subsidize marginal or outright unprofitable news operations on behalf of corporate political opinions or those of individual executives. At some point, they may hit ‘negative synergy’, as the political slant of the news operations drives away customers for other services, but they don’t seem very concerned about that and relatively few people, so far, even seem to realize the connection between the TV channel or the online systems and the telecommunications company that owns it.

    When people talk about ‘the media’, they need to recognize who/what the media actually is.

    Posted in Media, Tech | 27 Comments »

    Important Reading

    Posted by David Foster on 23rd March 2019 (All posts by )

    Sarah Hoyt:  The Totalitarian Train in Rolling Down the Tracks

    If I could communicate just one thing, across the increasing divide of language and thought to the left it would be this: that warm and fuzzy feeling you get when you’re running someone down is not righteousness.  It’s just the feeling apes get when they run off another ape.

    If you’re part of a band and all of you were piling on an outsider — or an insider who was just declared an outsider and run off — you’ll also feel very connected to your band, and a feeling of being loved and belonging.  It’s not real. It’s the result of a “reward” rush of endorphins, oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine that flood your body after stress and a perceived “victory.”  Oxytocin, particularly, promotes a feeling of bonding with those around you.

    Just remember, as you’re high fiving each other and believing that something that feels so good has to be good and morally “just” you could be the victim tomorrow.  Because the feelings don’t last, and that rush of “righteousness and victory” is addictive. Those who are your comrades today will be looking for someone to kick in the face tomorrow. And it really could be you.

    I’m reminded again of a passage in Goethe’s Faust. After finding that she is pregnant–which meant big trouble for a single woman in that time and place–Gretchen is talking with her awful friend Lieschen, who (still unaware of Gretchen’s situation) is licking her chops about the prospect of humiliating another girl (Barbara) who has also become pregnant outside of marriage. Here’s Gretchen, reflecting on her own past complicity in such viciousness:

    How readily I used to blame
    Some poor young soul that came to shame!
    Never found sharp enough words like pins
    To stick into other people’s sins
    Black as it seemed, I tarred it to boot
    And never black enough to suit
    Would cross myself, exclaim and preen–
    Now I myself am bared to sin!
    Yet all of it that drove me here
    God! ws so innocent, was so dear!

    Doesn’t this describe a lot of today’s SJW behavior and other political behavior?  “Never found sharp enough words like pins To stick in other people’s sins…Would cross myself, exclaim, and preen”

    Lots of exclaiming and preening going on these days..quite likely, even, in certain churches, some crossing of themselves by activists as part of the denunciation of the “others.”   The extent of the pleasure gained by many from group cruelty toward approved targets is pretty clear and is a major factor in today’s social and political toxicity.

    Posted in Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Human Behavior, Leftism, USA | 13 Comments »

    Book Review: The Year of the French (rerun)

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

    The Year of the French, by Thomas Flanagan

    (This being St Patrick’s day, I’m again taking advantage of the hook to re-post this review, in the hope of inspiring a few more people to read this incredibly fine historical novel)

    Ralph Peters calls this book “the finest historical novel written in English, at least in the twentieth century,” going on to say “except for ‘The Leopard,’ I know of no historical novel that so richly and convincingly captures the ambience of a bygone world.”

    In August of 1798, the French revolutionary government landed 1000 troops in County Mayo to support indigenous Irish rebels, with the objective of overthrowing British rule in Ireland.  The Year of the French tells the (fictionalized but fact-based) story of these events from the viewpoint of several characters, representing different groups in the complex and strife-ridden Irish social structure of the time.

    Owen MacCarthy is a schoolmaster and poet who writes in the Gaelic tradition.  He is pressed by illiterate locals to write a threatening letter to a landlord who has evicted tenants while switching land from farming to cattle-raising.  With his dark vision of how an attempt at rebellion must end–“In Castlebar.  They will load you in carts with your wrists tied behind you and take you down to Castlebar and try you there and hang you there”–MacCarthy is reluctant to get involved, but he writes the letter.

    Sam Cooper, the recipient of the letter, is a small-scale landlord, and captain of the local militia.  Indigenously Irish, his family converted to Protestantism several generations ago to avoid the crippling social and economic disabilities imposed on Catholics. Cooper’s wife, Kate, herself still Catholic, is a beautiful and utterly ruthless woman…she advises Cooper to respond to the letter by rounding up “a few of the likeliest rogues,”  jailing and flogging them, without any concern for actual guilt or innocence. “My God, what a creature you are for a woman,”  Cooper responds. “It is a man you should have been born.”  “A strange creature that would make me in your bed,” Kate fires back, “It is a woman I am, and fine cause you have to know it…What matters now is who has the land and who will keep it.”

    Ferdy O’Donnell  is a young hillside farmer on Cooper’s land.  Far back in the past, the land was owned by the O’Donnell family…Ferdy had once shown Cooper  “a valueless curiosity, a parchment that recorded the fact in faded ink the colour of old, dried blood.”

    Arthur Vincent Broome is a Protestant clergyman who is not thrilled by the “wild and dismal region” to which he has been assigned, but who performs his duties as best he can. Broome is resolved to eschew religious bigotry, but…”I affirm most sincerely that distinctions which rest upon creed mean little to me, and yet I confess that my compassion for their misery is mingled with an abhorrence of their alien ways…they live and thrive in mud and squalour…their music, for all that antiquarians and fanatics can find to say in its flavor, is wild and savage…they combine a grave and gentle courtesy with a murderous violence that erupts without warning…”‘

    Malcolm Elliott is a Protestant landlord and solicitor, and a member of the Society of United Irishmen.  This was a revolutionary group with Enlightenment ideals, dedicated to bringing Catholics and Protestants together in the cause of overthrowing British rule and establishing an Irish Republic.  His wife, Judith, is an Englishwoman with romantic ideas about Ireland.

    John Moore, also a United Irishman, is a member of one of the few Catholic families that have managed to hold on to their land.  He is in love with Ellen Treacy, daughter of another prominent Catholic family: she returns his love, but believes that he is caught in a web of words that can only lead to disaster.  “One of these days you will say a loose word to some fellow and he will get on his horse and ride off to Westport to lay an information with Dennis Browne, and that will be the last seen of you”

    Dennis Browne is High Sheriff of Mayo…smooth, manipulative, and devoted to the interests of the very largest landowners in the county, such as his brother Lord Altamont and the mysterious Lord Glenthorne, the “Big Lord” who owns vast landholdings and an immense house which he has never visited.

    Randall MacDonnell is a Catholic landowner with a decrepit farm and house, devoted primarily to his horses.  His motivations for joining the rebellion are quite different from those of the idealistic United Irishmen…”For a hundred years of more, those Protestant bastards have been the cocks of the walk, strutting around on acres that belong by rights to the Irish…there are men still living who remember when a son could grab his father’s land by turning Protestant.”

    Jean Joseph Humbert is the commander of the French forces.  A former dealer in animal skins, he owes his position in life to the revolution.  He is a talented commander, but  the battle he is most concerned about is the battle for status and supremacy between himself and  Napoleon Bonaparte.

    Charles Cornwallis, the general who surrendered to the Americans at Yorktown, is now in charge of defeating the French and the rebels and pacifying the rebellious areas of Ireland.   Seen through the eyes of  a young aide who admires him greatly, Cornwallis is portrayed as a basically kindly man who can be hard when he thinks it necessary, but takes no pleasure in it.  “The color of war had long since bleached from his thoughts, and it remained for him only a duty to be scrupulously performed.”

    This book is largely about the way in which the past lives on in the present, both in the world of physical objects and the world of social relationships.  Two characters who make a brief appearance are Richard Manning, proprietor of a decrepit and debt-laden castle, and his companion Ellen Kirwan:

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Britain, France, History, Ireland | 2 Comments »

    The College Admissions Scam and the State of American Higher Education

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

    The admissions scandal reveals a lot about the characters of the parents, college officials, and others that were involved; more importantly, it points up some unpleasant truths about the state of American higher education today.

    Heather MacDonald:

    None of this could have happened if higher education had not itself become a corrupt institution, featuring low classroom demands, no core knowledge acquisition, low grading standards, fashionable (but society-destroying) left-wing activism, luxury-hotel amenities, endless partying, and huge expense. Students often learn virtually nothing during their college years…

    Peggy Noonan, writing in the WSJ about the pressure on kids to become Success Robots:

    I go to schools a lot, have taught at universities and seen a ton of great kids and professors who’ve really sacrificed themselves to teach. A few years ago I worked for a few months at an Ivy League school. I expected a lot of questions about politics, history and literature. But that is not what the students were really interested in. What they were interested in—it was almost my first question, and it never abated—was networking. They wanted to know how you network. At first I was surprised: “I don’t know, that wasn’t on my mind, I think it all comes down to the work.” Then I’d ask: “Why don’t you just make friends instead?” By the end I was saying, “It’s a mistake to see people as commodities, as things you can use! Concentrate on the work!” They’d get impatient. They knew there was a secret to getting ahead, that it was networking, and that I was cruelly withholding successful strategies.

    In time I concluded they’d been trained to be shallow, encouraged to see others as commodities. They didn’t think great work would be rewarded, they thought great connections were. And it was what they’d implicitly been promised by the school: Get in here and you can network with the cream of the crop, you’ll rise to the top with them.’

    Indeed, much of the promotion of Higher Ed in the US has been based not on the idea that you will acquire knowledge, which is in itself a worthwhile thing, nor on the idea that you will acquire specific conceptual skills needed for your career, but rather, on the point that you will acquire a Degree, a Credential, a piece of paper.  And where ‘elite’ colleges are concerned, a big part of the perceived value of that credential is its scarcity value, quite similar to the scarcity value of a limited-edition print, the plates of which are destroyed after the initial run in order to keep the prices up.

    Fifty years ago, Peter Drucker asserted that one of the major advantages America has over Europe is the absence of a narrow educational funnel, in the form of a few ‘elite’ institutions, through which future high-level leaders must pass:

    One thing it (modern society) cannot afford in education is the “elite institution” which has a monopoly on social standing, on prestige, and on the command positions in society and economy. Oxford and Cambridge are important reasons for the English brain drain. A main reason for the technology gap is the Grande Ecole such as the Ecole Polytechnique or the Ecole Normale. These elite institutions may do a magnificent job of education, but only their graduates normally get into the command positions. Only their faculties “matter.” This restricts and impoverishes the whole society…The Harvard Law School might like to be a Grande Ecole and to claim for its graduates a preferential position. But American society has never been willing to accept this claim…

    We as a country are a lot closer to accepting Grande Ecole status for Harvard Law School and similar institutions than we were when Drucker wrote the above.

    He continues:

    It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the strength of American higher education lies in this absence of schools for leaders and schools for followers. It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the engineer with a degree from North Idaho A. and M. is an engineer and not a draftsman.

    Parents who participated in the admissions scam seem to have had a view of American society similar to that which Drucker attributed to European society of 50 years ago.  And indeed, as I noted above, for some fields, this has even become somewhat true.

    To a considerable extent, the real social function of the ‘elite’ college degree in America today is the erection and perpetuation of class barriers:  the limitation of social mobility.  See this piece by Glenn Reynolds.

    If the colleges in question had truly rigorous programs, and one had to do well in these programs in order to get the coveted degree, then scams like the current one wouldn’t work very well. I could be wrong, but I don’t think that bribing your way into MIT would do you much good if you couldn’t do the work.  And bribing your way into a flight training program wouldn’t do you any good unless you developed the knowledge to pass the relevant written exam and the skills to convince an FAA Designated Examiner that you knew what you were doing.  Unfortunately, too many of America’s colleges seem to be more interested in establishing their admission processes as gateways to success than in demonstrating enough respect for what they profess to be teaching to ensure that their graduates have actually learned something about it when they get that magical certificate.

    Drucker also wrote:

    The central moral problem of the knowledge society will be the responsibility of the learned, the men of knowledge. Historically, the men of knowledge have not held power, at least not in the West. They were ornaments…But now knowledge has power. It controls access to opportunity and advancement. Scientists and scholars are no longer merely “on tap,” they are “on top.”…

    But power and wealth impose responsibility. The learned may have more knowledge than the rest of us, but learning rarely confers wisdom. It is, therefore, not surprising that the men of knowledge do not realize that they have to acquire responsibility fast. They are no different from any other group that ever before entered into power..They too believe that anyone who questions their motives must be either fool or villain, either “anti-intellectual” or “McCarthyite.” But the men of knowledge, too, will find out that power can be justified only through responsibility…

    It is highly probable that the next great wave of popular criticism, indignation, and revolt in the United States will be provoked by the arrogance of the learned.

    I’m not sure university administrators, for the most part, should really count as “the learned”, although they do play that role on TV.

    Posted in Academia, Education, Europe, USA | 22 Comments »

    Robot of the Week

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

    Fedex local delivery robot.

    I can think of some conditions that might be problematic for these things to deal with.

    Posted in Customer Service, Tech, Transportation | 3 Comments »

    Freezing in the Dark

    Posted by David Foster on 2nd March 2019 (All posts by )

    There has been much concern about possible hacking of the power grid by Russia, China, and others.  Here we have a segment from Rachel Maddow, inspired by a threat analysis from the US Intelligence Community.  From the analysis:

    China has the ability to launch cyber attacks that cause localized, temporary disruptive effects on critical infrastructure–such as disruption of a natural gas pipeline for days to weeks–in the United States. Russia has the ability to execute cyber attacks in the United States that generate localized, temporary disruptive effects on critical infrastructure.

    Maddow:  It’s like negative 50 degrees in the Dakotas right now. What would happen if Russia killed the power today?  What would happen if all the natural gas lines that service Sioux Falls just poof on the coldest day in recent memories?

    What would happen?  Nothing good.  These are serious threats, and I doubt that Russia and China are or will continue to be the only entities able to conduct such cyberattacks.  And there is also plenty of risk for non-cyber attacks…physical-world sabotage…which could have similarly malign impact on energy infrastructure.

    But we don’t need to wait for a foreign adversary or domestic terrorist organization to cripple our energy infrastructure.  We can quite effectively do it to ourselves.

    In late January, it was very cold in Minnesota.  And there wasn’t a lot of wind.  Natural gas, also, was in short supply, as a result of pipeline capacity constraints.  Xcel Energy urged its gas customers to turn down thermostats and water heaters, and to use electric heaters as necessary.  The electricity was coming from primarily coal plants (40 GW) and natural gas plants (about 23 GW)–the gas plants, of course, are also dependent on pipeline capacity.

    Also in Minnesota, here’s a large solar farm covered with snow.  Wonder if it’s melted or been swept off yet?  And here’s a cautionary story from Germany, where long, still, and dim winters do not mix well with wind and solar power generation.

    Solar and wind in most parts of the US are now small enough in proportion to overall grid capacity that shortfalls can be made up by the other sources.  What happens if they come to represent the majority of the grid’s power capacity–not to mention the exclusive source of capacity, as demanded by some?

    It may be feasible to store a few hours of electricity without driving costs out of sight…but what about the situation in which wind and solar are underperforming for several days in a row?  Interconnection of sources and demands over a wide area (geographical diversity) can help, but is by no means a comprehensive solution. So far, the gas, coal, and hydro plants have been there to kick in where necessary.

    Almost every day, there are assertions that new solar is cheaper than its fossil-fuel equivalents.  This may be true in some areas if you ignore the need to match supply and demand on an instantaneous basis.  But if the fossil-fuel plants are there to handle only those periods when wind, solar, and limited battery storage aren’t sufficient to meet demand, then the total energy production against which their capital cost is charged will be much lower, and hence, the cost per unit will go up. (See the California Duck Must Die for a nice visual portrayal of how widespread solar adoption has changed the load curve for the other sources.)  In some states with net metering, a home or business owner can sell excess power to the grid when loads are low and buy it back at the same unit price when loads are at their maximum. This becomes especially problematic when “renewables” become a major part of the mix.  Unless incentives are intelligently crafted–unlikely, given politics–“renewable” sources will effectively be subsidized by conventional sources and potentially make the construction and maintenance of those conventional sources impossible.  See If Solar and Wind Are So Cheap, Why Do They Make Electricity So Expensive?

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Big Government, Business, Crony Capitalism, Current Events, Energy & Power Generation, Environment, Europe, Germany, Russia, Tech | 41 Comments »

    A Robot of the Week, Revisited

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

    In a robots of the week post a while back, I mentioned two companies that are attempting to automate the apparel-production process. Recently, one of these companies, Softwear Automation, announced that its Sewbot product is now also available on a rental basis under the banner Sewbot as a Service.  (SaaS, playing off the acronym for the currently-hot field of Software as a Service.)  From the SaaS announcement:

    From 1994 to 2005, the United States lost more than 900,000 textile and apparel jobs to offshoring.

    Fast-forward to 2018. The pendulum is swinging back and textiles are returning as lean, highly automated, environmentally conscious production facilities. Within the last six years, there have been significant announcements by foreign-owned textile companies investing in the United States, with site selection choices clustered in the Southeast including the first Chinese owned Cut Make Trim factory in Arkansas.

    Despite this industry reversal, the seamstresses are not returning. While the knowledge can be shared to upskill workers, people don’t have the  desire to work in a traditional textile factory.

    To solve this and accelerate the growth of US based textile manufacturing, Softwear Automation is announcing SEWBOTS-as-a-Service, a rental lease service to allow manufacturers, brands, and retailers to source and manufacture here in the US at a lower cost than outsourcing and with greater predictability and quality. While we understand the benefits of “Made in America”, the focus of this program is to offer US textile manufacturing more control, greater margin, faster turn times and less inventory.

    The rental rate for Sewbot is quoted as starting at $5000/month, which comes to $55/shift for a three-shift operation.Softwear is also now offering production-rate estimates for various kinds of textile products. For microfiber towels, a single operator supervising 6 robots can make 2880 towels in an 8-hour shift, compared with 223 towels for a single operator performing traditional manual activities.   Other product types which the company sees as suitable for Sewbot automation include mattress covers, pillows, automotive floormats, t-shirts, and shoes (uppers).

    Most aspects of the apparel supply chain have long been highly automated: indeed, the mechanization of spinning and weaving was the hallmark of the Industrial Revolution.  The sewing process, however, has remained stubbornly labor-intensive, largely because the flexible nature of fabric makes it hard to handle mechanically.  Softwear Automation’s solution involves the use of machine vision for precise fabric positioning.  This article at IEEE Spectrum explains a little bit about how it works.

    Depending on how well these systems turn out to work in practice, and how the technology evolves, they may turn out to be not only the robots of the week, but the robots of the year or even the decade.  Apparel-making is a vast industry, concentrated in nations which are not-so-well-off economically, and employs a large number of people. A high level of automation would likely result in much of this production being relocated closer to the markets, thus saving transportation costs and shortening supply cycles.  The consequences for countries like China, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka could be pretty unpleasant.  For the US, the onshoring of the work would seem clearly to be beneficial.

    I don’t know enough about the industry to analyze the economics of Sewbot vs low-wage-country production in any depth, but back-of-the envelope for one product type (the towels) suggests that on a pure direct labor cost per unit basis, a US-based Sewbot can still be undercut by human labor rates below about $4/hour.  (Calculated using the rental rate:  for many companies, purchase may offer better economics.)  But production isn’t the only factor in the product cost equation, of course, and in many situations proximity to end markets will be of considerable value: especially simpler inventory control and faster response to style changes. And a Made in the USA label is surely worth at least something.  Also, the economics may be different for some of the other product types…for the t-shirts, the company is citing a unit cost of $.33 for US-based production using  Sewbot…this compares with something around $.22 for a country such as Bangladesh, and is probably cheaper than China at the current wage rates.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, China, India, International Affairs, Tech, USA, Vietnam | 6 Comments »

    Well, This is a Cheerful Thought

    Posted by David Foster on 13th February 2019 (All posts by )

    …not.

    Twitter’s Takeover of Politics is Just Getting Started.

    Summary at Tyler Cowen’s blog:

    But what does this new, more intense celebrity culture mean for actual outcomes? The more power and influence that individual communicators wield over public opinion, the harder it will be for a sitting president to get things done. (The best option, see above, will be to make your case and engage your adversaries on social media.) The harder it will be for an aspirant party to put forward a coherent, predictable and actionable political program.

    Finally, the issues that are easier to express on social media will become the more important ones. Technocratic dreams will fade, and fiery rhetoric and identity politics will rule the day. And if you think this is the political world we’re already living in, rest assured: It’s just barely gotten started.

    See also my post freedom, the village, and social media.

    Posted in Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Culture, Deep Thoughts, Politics, Tech | 20 Comments »

    Even Smart People Get It Wrong Sometimes

    Posted by David Foster on 7th February 2019 (All posts by )

    Economist Art Laffer:

    “China is a huge plus to the U.S. because without China there is no Walmart, and without Walmart there is no middle class or lower class prosperity in America.”

    Actually, the US was known for broad-based prosperity long before either Walmart or China was a significant factor.  It was really only in the 1980s that Walmart’s expansion really took off…and it was then by no means as China-dependent as it has more recently become.  Indeed, starting in 1984 and extending at least through the early 1990s, Walmart was a strong supporter of the Crafted with Pride in the USA campaign, which was launched by textile entrepreneur Roger Milliken, among others.

    China’s presence in the global marketplace was greatly expanded by the Permanent Normal Trade Relations bill, which was signed by President Clinton in October 2000, as well as by China’s own economic-liberalization policies.  (Some data on the growth of Chinese exports over time, here)

    Real mean US household income, which is effectively a measure of price levels as well as wages/salaries, grew from $71773 in 1985 to $93887 in 2000.  Fifteen years later, in 2015, it had risen to only $95887.  (2017 dollars)

    Real median household income  grew from $51455 in 1985 to $59938 in fifteen years later, in 2000. In 2015, this indicator had actually declined to $58476.  (It grew to $61372 by 2017)

    There are a lot of factors that affect an economy, of course, and it would be unfair to conclude that the slowdown in American household income growth was caused by the vast expansion of trade with China.  Maybe it would have been even worse without Chinese imports and exports?

    National Review writer Robet VerBruggen cites “research” suggesting that “consumers save hundreds of billions of dollars per year thanks to expanded trade with China, and six-figure sums for every manufacturing job lost.  (Tucker) Carlson may be right that cheap junk from China doesn’t make us happy in any fundamental way, but it would put serious strains on family budgets if all that junk got expensive again.”

    Maybe. But I doubt if the strains would really be all that serious over time. If manufacturers did not have vast reservoirs of low-wage labor available for production of a particular product, then the incentives to improve productivity when making that product with high-wage labor would be greatly increased. Capital investment that makes no sense when you are paying workers $1.50/hour may make great sense when you have to pay $15/hour.  Furthermore, product designs themselves can often be changed in minor ways to make them more manufacturable; again, this would help reduce the cost impact of domestic or other high-wage-country manufacturing.

    I doubt if the strains on family budgets resulting from such changes in production-labor costs would have anywhere near the impact that has resulted from dysfunctional public schools (resulting in a need to pay for private schooling or move to a pricier neighborhood), unreasonable constraints on home-building, and out-of-control administrative and facilities spending by universities, coupled with irresponsible marketing of degree programs and student loans by same.

    One thing that has definitely been beneficial about China’s export trade is the drastic reduction in poverty in that country; this reduction is indeed something that we should all celebrate.  I suspect, however, that given economic liberalization, China could probably be doing just as well or almost as well with an economic approach that is not so extreme in its trade orientation but more focused on satisfying domestic demand…and this would probably be much more sustainable for them in the long run.

    Also, here are some additional links on US wage trends for anyone who’s interested:

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, China, Economics & Finance, Tech, USA | 29 Comments »

    Financial Markets Commentary

    Posted by David Foster on 30th January 2019 (All posts by )

    John Hussman on valuations

    The saga of Broker Joe, from 2007

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Markets and Trading | 7 Comments »