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    Creating a Mass Audience

    Posted by David Foster on 2nd July 2020 (All posts by )

    Today marks the 99th anniversary of the first radio broadcast heard by a very large number of people:  the Dempsey vs Carpentier boxing match.  (Although a Carpentier was French, he had quite a following in the United States, owing to his distinguished record as a pilot in the First World War.)

    Boxing promoter Tex Ricard had the idea that radio broadcasting might be a good way to increase the popularity of prizefighting…there had previously been some broadcasts of fights in local areas with limited audiences, but what was envisaged for this broadcast was a much larger audience over a much wider area.  David Sarnoff of RCA, a strong advocate for the development of a broadcasting industry, was evidently a driving force behind this approach.  A dedicated phone line from ringside to a transmitter in Hoboken was established, and radio amateurs throughout the Middle Atlantic states were encouraged to set up their receivers in bars, auditoriums, etc, for the benefit of those people (most of the population) who did not have their own radio receivers.  The radio audience was estimated at 300,000 people.

    The broadcast was not national in scope, owing to the limitations of the AM radio band, but it was a significant milestone in the the delocalization of information.  Very soon, network broadcasting, enabled by long-distance dedicated phone links, would make possible programs with truly national audiences.  The delocalization trend has continued, with television, intercontinental links via satellite and undersea cable, and the Internet, and has been a powerful driver of social, economic, and political changes.

     

    Posted in Advertising, Business, Civil Society, Marketing, Media, Sports, Tech, USA | No Comments »

    Excessive Credential-Worship Has Many Costs

    Posted by David Foster on 1st July 2020 (All posts by )

    A WSJ article suggests that if the corporations which have been proclaiming their support for black communities really want to make a difference, they should change their hiring and management practices to focus on job skills, rather than continuing to privilege college degrees. They say that “degree inflation” is rampant: as an example, 67% of postings for new production supervisors in 2015 included college-degree requirements, though only 16% of existing production supervisors had bachelor’s degrees.  (See interesting NBER paper here.)

    Indeed, I’m not very comfortable with the term ‘middle skill’ which has been adopted for jobs that typically require a technical training program of some sort but do not require a college degree.  Is someone with an undergraduate sociology degree really necessarily more skilled than a CNC machinist?  The suggestion that someone with a college degree is always higher-skilled than someone without a degree has unpleasant implications of a class-bound society. The authors of the NBER paper suggest an alternative term: STARs…Skilled Through Alternative Routes, and they also suggest that many “technology” jobs shouldn’t really require a college degree.  They note that:

    While some of these new occupations (e.g., data scientist) may require skills (e.g., statistical methods) which are typically acquired in advanced formal education, a large number (e.g., application developers and administrators for enterprise Software-as-a-Service platforms such as Salesforce, Workday, or ServiceNow) are learned not in formal education, but mostly on-the-job or in credentialed skill training designed by the SaaS companies themselves. While estimating STARs’ potential to fill skilled roles still emerging is beyond the scope of this paper, it would be reasonable to expect that employers’ rational ignorance or deprecation of experienced-based signals of STARs skills for existing jobs may similarly shape.

    …they also suggest that there are many cases in which skills developed by an employee in a particular not-well-paid job can actually be of value to an employer in a different and better-paid job, but that the mapping of these skills sets is not generally well-understood by employers.

    Back in 1969, Peter Drucker wrote:

    The most serious impact of the long years of schooling is, however, the “diploma curtain” between those with degrees and those without. It threatens to cut society in two for the first time in American history…By denying opportunity to those without higher education, we are denying access to contribution and performance to a large number of people of superior ability, intelligence, and capacity to achieve…I expect, within ten years or so, to see a proposal before one of our state legislatures or up for referendum to ban, on applications for employment, all questions related to educational status…I, for one, shall vote for this proposal if I can.

    I wouldn’t favor a legal ban on such questions, but I do think public policy needs to encourage of focus on skills rather than on degrees per se, and I’m happy to see that President Trump has signed an executive order requiring Federal agencies to increase the use of skill assessments and interviews with subject matter experts to determine an applicant’s qualifications, rather than simply looking at educational achievements.  At least one agency had already made this switch to a certain degree:  the FAA, which once required a college degree for aspiring controllers entering its specialized training program, now allows alternatively a combination of three years of progressively responsible work experience or a combination of post-secondary education and work experience that totals three years.  And some private employers are putting more emphasis on apprenticeship programs and various kinds of alternative skill demonstration.  (See for example the GE Aviation apprenticeship program; lots more North Carolina apprenticeship programs here.)

    Working on the lifting of the “diploma curtain” seems particularly appropriate given the growing evidence that many college graduates today don’t really learn all that much during their college years.  In any case, if the inappropriate use of college credentials can be reduced, it should offer a significant benefit to overall economic growth and productivity, as well as to many individuals.

     

     

     

     

    Posted in Academia, Business, Education, Tech, Urban Issues | 18 Comments »

    Another Possible Explanation for the Absence of Space Aliens

    Posted by David Foster on 26th June 2020 (All posts by )

    The physicist Enrico Fermi wondered why we haven’t seen any evidence of visitors from another planet, given that he believed intelligent life elsewhere in our galaxy was highly probable.  (Maybe we have seen such evidence, given some recent UFO incidents, but for the sake of argument…)  This question is known as Fermi’s Paradox.

    Standard answers to the Paradox involve emphasizing the vast distances involved, and the fact that “as far as our galaxy is concerned, we are living somewhere in the sticks, far removed from the metropolitan area of the galactic center,” as Edward Teller put it.  Another theory is that species which are sufficiently intelligent to achieve interstellar travel have a tendency to blow themselves up long before they reach anywhere in our vicinity.

    Don Sensing cited another possible explanation, suggested by Geoffrey Miller:

    I suggest a different, even darker solution to the Paradox. Basically, I think the aliens don’t blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they’re too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don’t need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today. Once they turn inwards to chase their shiny pennies of pleasure, they lose the cosmic plot. They become like a self-stimulating rat, pressing a bar to deliver electricity to its brain’s ventral tegmental area, which stimulates its nucleus accumbens to release dopamine, which feels…ever so good.

    See my post here for thoughts related to the above explanation and the psychology of decadence.

    But I have a new theory, suggested by recent events: The aliens invent something like Twitter, their whole planet becomes the equivalent of a particularly nasty middle school on earth, and they melt down under waves of mutual accusations and denunciations.

    Posted in Deep Thoughts, Human Behavior, Science, Space | 13 Comments »

    An Unusual Product Line

    Posted by David Foster on 20th June 2020 (All posts by )

    Here’s a company that builds (in addition to other things) square-rigged sailing ships…not just as a shipyard executing customer-supplied designs, but as a more-or-less standard product line.  There are three models, ranging from 1150 to 3000 tons displacement.

    I wonder how many they have sold.

    Posted in Business, Transportation | 12 Comments »

    Sell Your Soul or Lose Your Livelihood (updated)

    Posted by David Foster on 18th June 2020 (All posts by )

    Every day, people are losing their jobs because of political opinions or assertions about reality which are considered unacceptable. David Shor, a political data analyst, lost his job after tweeting a summary of research indicating that nonviolent protest tactics tend to be more effective than violent tactics. At the Poetry Foundation, both the president and the chairman resigned after being heavily attacked because their statement on the current situation…which said that the members “stand in solidarity with the Black community, and denounce injustice and systemic racism”…was vague and lacked any commitment to concrete action. An Illinois high school principal finds her job under attack after advising students that, if they protest, they should refrain from violence and looting. The list could be expanded indefinitely and includes people in all industries and at all levels.

    This isn’t new. For the last two decades, the ‘progressive’ left has loudly insisted that dissenting voices (dissenting from the Prog worldview, that is) must be suppressed. But the trend has accelerated sharply.

    I am reminded, as I often am, of the memoirs of Sebastian Haffner, who grew up in Germany between the wars. One very affecting section of the book describes what happened to Haffner’s father–a civil servant under both Weimar and the Kaiser–following the Nazi takeover. The elder Haffner, long-since retired, had considerable accomplishments to his credit: There had been great pieces of legislation in his administrative area, on which he had worked closely. They were important, daring, thoughtful, intellectual achievements, the fruits of decades of experience and years of intense, meticulous analysis and dedicated refinement”–and it was extremely painful to him to see this work ruthlessly trashed by the new government. But worse was to come.

    One day Mr. Haffner received an official letter. It required him to list all of the political parties, organizations, and associations to which he had ever belonged in his life and to sign a declaration that he ‘stood behind the government of national uprising without reservations.’ Failure to sign would mean the loss of his pension, which he had earned through 45 years of devoted service.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Elections, Germany, History, Media, USA | 20 Comments »

    Police vs Prisons

    Posted by David Foster on 16th June 2020 (All posts by )

    Here’s an interesting piece suggesting that there is a tradeoff between spending on police and spending on prisons.  It is claimed that money diverted from prisons to policing buys at least 4x the reduction in crime.  Apparently, on a per-capita basis the US now employees 35% fewer police than the world average…an interesting data point given the current calls for police defunding.

    Posted in Crime and Punishment, Law Enforcement, Urban Issues, USA | 19 Comments »

    The Diplomad is Back!

    Posted by David Foster on 10th June 2020 (All posts by )

    The Diplomad 2.0, the blog of a retired Foreign Service officer, disappeared without a trace…it was gone for good or so I thought.  Turns out that the author had some domain-name problems, and the blog is now back here.

    thediplomad.blogspot.com

     

    Posted in Blogging | 6 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading

    Posted by David Foster on 6th June 2020 (All posts by )

    A long but interesting essay about Peter Thiel, who is IMO one of the more thoughtful and creative among the Silicon Valley set.

    The politicization of everything…including websites like nextdoor.com, “designed for people to share useful information within a neighborhood like dates of bulky trash-pick, locations of road closings, and postings of lawn equipment for sale”…as seen by a woman who is a music historian, with a particular concentration on Russia.

    Dispatches from the front lines of the knitting wars.  Can these people be trusted with knitting needles? Those things can be dangerous, you know.

    A post by a police officer’s wife.

    Violent protest and the intelligentsia.  Disturbing parallels between pre-revolutionary Russia and contemporary America.

    A walk across a beach in Normandy.  Today, June 6, marks the 76th anniversary of the Normandy invasion..I haven’t seen much remembance of this today.

    Posted in Academia, History, Internet, Law Enforcement, Leftism, Russia, Tech | 22 Comments »

    Do the Lord Chancellor and the Archbishop Approve?

    Posted by David Foster on 28th May 2020 (All posts by )

    YouTube is run by a woman named Susan Wojcicki.  She has indicated that videos peddling fake or unproven coronavirus remedies will be banned, and also suggested that video that “goes against” WHO guidance on the pandemic will be blocked.

    So Ms Wojcicki has established WHO as the ultimate worldwide authority on Covid-19, the  imprimatur of said authority being required for dissemination of any relevant information or opinions within Wojcicki’s domains.  One might remind her that on January 23 of this year, WHO decided not to declare that Covid-19 was a global health emergency…hence, had Wojcicki’s present rule been in effect then, any videos asserting that C-19 was, in fact, such an emergency would have been taken down!

    What is the thinking behind this sort of effort to clamp down on information flow?  One can certainly understand and sympathize with a desire to avoid the dissemination of quack cures.  But how does this morph into a justification for shutting down discussion of causes, risk levels, and public-policy responses to the epidemic?

    If I try to take as sympathetic a view as possible to Ms Wojcicki and those like her, I might view their actions as being motivated by a feeling of responsibility for consumer protection.  But Americans are more that just consumers: we are also (and much more importantly) citizens, participants in the public dialog and political process.  (And an interesting argument has been made that in the American system, citizens are officers of the state.)  And citizens, in order to fulfill their public responsibilities, need unfettered access to information and discussion.

    In the case of Twitter’s ‘fact checking’ of President Trump’s tweet about vote-by-mail, I’d say that the raw political bias is pretty evident.  Is vote-by-mail more susceptible to fraud than is conventional voting?  Considerable evidence can be amassed to suggest that it is indeed so susceptible, counter-evidence and arguments can also be presented. It is a legitimate topic for public discussion, yet Twitter chooses to treat is as if it is a matter of absolute black-and-white truth-versus-falsity on which they have to weigh in, as if it were a question of the spherical vs flat shape of the earth or the value of the acceleration of gravity.  (Although I see there are some flat-earth tweets up on Twitter right now.)  And I haven’t seen any Twitter fact-checking of the feed from the People’s Daily of China, or the official Twitter account of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran…or, for that matter, of the statements of Joe Biden.

    We are reaching a state at which the ability to publish information and have it reach certain very large audiences is dependent on the approval of certain individuals at Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook…somewhat similar to the way in which publication of a book in England, prior to 1692, required the imprimatur of the Lord Chancellor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or one of certain other specified officials.  The analogy is not perfect, of course, and it will be argued that it isn’t very relevant at all, because today, if Twitter won’t distribute your content, you can always try Facebook, and if that doesn’t work either, there’s always Gab or other relatively-minor platforms, or you can just put up your own website or blog…or start your own social media platform.  But, still, a very small number of entities and their officials are exercising a very high degree of control over information flow in America today.

    What, if anything, can/should be done about this situation?  One argument is that nothing can be or needs to be done that Twitter etc are private property, and if they discriminate excessively, other platforms will supplant them.  Another argument is that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act should be modified/limited…this is the provision which insulates on-line service providers such as social media companies—not only pure internet service providers or hosting companies—from certain forms of liability which are applicable to traditional publishers.  This is the direction in which President Trump’s thinking seems to be going.

    There is also an interesting ‘public square’ argument which has been made, specifically by Prager University in connection with the ‘restricted’ status assigned to its videos by YouTube.  This is based on a 1945 Supreme Court decision in the case of Marsh v Alabama, in which the court ruled that Gulf Shipbuilding Company could not prohibit a Jehovah’s Witness from distributing literature in the the town of Chickasaw, Alabama, even though that town was Gulf Shipbuilding’s private property.  The argument is that the precedent also applies to on-line communities, even though these do not involve physical presence…this argument  was rejected, though, by both the district court and the Ninth Circuit…not sure whether there will be an appeal to the Supremes. (The Federalist has proposed that social media companies could be required to provide specific ‘due process’ protections for content creators, in exchange for retaining their Section 230 immunities.)

    So what are your thoughts on this topic?

    Posted in Civil Liberties, COVID-19, Current Events, Internet, Tech | 37 Comments »

    Retro-Reading, Mechanical Engineering, Part 2

    Posted by David Foster on 24th May 2020 (All posts by )

    (This is a continuation of my Retro-Reading post, based on the April 1930 issue of Mechanical Engineering magazine.  Part One is here)

    A View from the Left.  One of the most interesting things in the magazine is an excerpt from the writing of Sidney Webb, the well-known Fabian socialist.  (The magazine refers to him as a “publicist,” maybe that was 1930-speak for an activist.)

    The manual-working population of the cities was, in fact, mainly composed of laborers who were lifelong hewers of wood and drawers of water whilst that of the vast stretches of farmland and forest outside the cities was as devoid of art as of letters. And the proportion of merely mechanical work in the world s production has, taken as a whole, lessened, not increased. What a multitude of laborers quarried the stones, dragged and carried the stones and lifted the stones of the cathedral walls on which half a dozen skilled and artistic masons carved gargoyles? From the building of the Pyramids down to the present day, the proportion of the world’s work of the nature of mere physical digging, pushing, carrying, lifting and hammering, by the exertion of muscular force, has almost continuously diminished….

    And it must not be forgotten that, in Western civilization to-day, the actual numbers of men and women engaged in daily work of distinctly intellectual character, which is thus not necessarily devoid of art, are positively greater than at any previous time. There are, of course, many more such workers of superior education, artistic capacity, and interesting daily tasks in Henry Ford’s factories at Detroit than there were in the whole city of Detroit fifty years ago! Along side of these successors of the equally exceptional skilled handicraftsmen of the Middle Ages there has come to be a vast multitude of other workers with less interesting tasks, who could not other wise have come into existence, and who represent the laborers of the cities and the semi-servile rural population of past times, and who certainly would not themselves dream of wishing to revert to the conditions of those times. It may be granted, that, in much of their daily tasks (as has always been the case) the workers of to-day can find no joy, and take the very minimum of interest. But there is one all important difference in their lot. Unlike their predecessors, these men spend only half their waking hours at the task by which they gain their bread. In the other half of their day they are, for the first time in history, free (and, in great measure, able) to give themselves to other interests, which in an ever- increasing proportion of cases lead to an intellectual development heretofore unknown among the typical manual workers. It is, in fact, arguable that it is among the lower half of the manual workers of Western civilization rather than among the upper half, that there has been the greatest relative advance during the past couple of centuries. It is, indeed, to the so-called unskilled workers of London and Berlin and Paris, badly off in many respects as they still are and notably to their wives and children that the Machine Age has incidentally brought the greatest advance in freedom and in civilization.

    Rather different from the view of our present-day leftists, wouldn’t you say?  Indeed, both the American New Deal and the Soviet Communist Party were huge supporters of hydroelectric dams… today, many of the Progs want to tear them down.

    I’ll continue in a future post with some other highlights from the magazine, including the articles on transportation and metalworking.

    Posted in History, Leftism, Miscellaneous, Tech, USA | 42 Comments »

    Video Review: The Dawns Here Are Quiet

    Posted by David Foster on 17th May 2020 (All posts by )

    This is both a 2015 Russian WWII TV series and a 1972 Russian movie, both based on the same novel.  The original movie is apparently considered a classic in Russia; so much so that making a new version was viewed as almost blasphemous by some.

    Sergeant Vaskov is in charge of an antiaircraft battery in a (so far) quiet area.  His troops have been a drunken and quarrelsome lot, and when they are swapped out and sent to the front, he asks for replacements who will not drink and carouse with the local women so excessively.  He is surprised and initially dismayed when the replacements show up and they are all women…girls, really, just out of AA gunner’s training.

    The movie starts out with a rather light tone, but quickly darkens.  Two German paratroopers—apparently saboteurs targeting a vital transportation junction—are spotted in the woods, and Vaskov takes five of his women and goes out after them.  It turns out that there are actually a lot more of the enemy than two…sixteen, in fact…and stopping them will be practically a mission impossible for Vaskov and his five newly-minted AA gunners.

    I first watched the recent TV series, which has excellent cinematography and some really striking scenery. The backstories of the women and of their male commander are shown via a series of flashbacks. Lisa Britschkina, a shy girl, was sent to Siberia with her family on grounds of being Kulaks, yet she seemingly feels no conflicts about fighting for the Soviet state.  Another of the five ‘volunteers’, Sonia Gurvich, was an excellent student and loves to read poetry aloud. Her husband was killed on the first day of the war–she has a son, who is living with Sonia’s mother. Vaskov when we meet him is a rather troubled person:  his wife has left him for another man, he was wounded on his first day of battle and has guilt feelings about now being assigned to this relatively-safe backwater in the midst of a war for national survival.

    I don’t want to include any spoilers in this review: suffice it to say that this isn’t a strong-and-independent-female-superhero movie. The women accomplish remarkable things, but they and Vaskov are a true team.  Some of the scenes and events seem improbable, but the story draws you in and the characters will not be easily forgotten.

    I was curious as to how the 1972 movie would compare with the more recent series…watched it, and was pleasantly surprised–I was expecting a lot more heavy-handed Soviet propaganda than was in it.  The use of color in this film is interesting: most of it is in black & white, but the flashbacks…most of which refer to the time before the war..are in color. The story is pretty close to that in the 2015 series; the portrayal of the characters, particularly the women, is pretty different–for one thing, those in the 1972 movie seem even younger, and act (at least initially) rather girlier.  One backstory is notably different in this version–that of Lisa Britschkina–the part about her family having been sent to Siberia isn’t there.  (I’m not sure if it was in the original novel, but based on when it was published (1969) I’m guessing not.)  In both versions, some of the women smart off toward Vaskov in a way which they seem unlikely to have been gotten away with in the 1940s or for that matter today, even with a leader as fundamentally kindly as he is portrayed as being.

    One objection some Russians have to the recent video is that it is “too Hollywood-ized”…this is a fair criticism of the action scenes near the end, but not, I think, of the whole thing.  Both versions are worth seeing.

    I’m preaching largely to the converted here, but–we should always keep in mind, when watching Russian WWII films or reading books on the same subject, that the great heroism demonstrated by so many Russians, and the fact that they were allied with America, do not negate the extreme evil of the Soviet regime.

     

     

    Posted in Film, History, Leftism, Russia, War and Peace | 25 Comments »

    Virus Transmission Modes

    Posted by David Foster on 11th May 2020 (All posts by )

    Here’s an article with data…or at least assertions…about various ways in which Covid-19 spreads and their relative risks.

    To the extent that data at this level of detail can be obtained and verified, it seems a lot more useful than generic claims about lockdowns and social distancing, or the elimination of same.

    Mike K, any comments?

    Posted in COVID-19, Medicine, Science, USA | 25 Comments »

    Reshoring

    Posted by David Foster on 3rd May 2020 (All posts by )

    The consulting firm Kearney updates their numbers on the foreign sourcing and US manufacturing of products.  Lots of interesting data.

    Posted in Business, China, Economics & Finance, Latin America, Management, USA, Vietnam | 32 Comments »

    Retro-Reading

    Posted by David Foster on 30th April 2020 (All posts by )

    I have a copy of Mechanical Engineering magazine for April 1930. It marks the 50th anniversary of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and contains not only commentary on the past, present, and future of mechanical technology, but also some thoughts concerning the social/economic impact of this technology. Very interesting reading, some of it relevant to today’s issues.

    There are excerpts from an address given by the ASME President in 1881:

    When the last generation was in its prime our factories were in operation twelve or thirteen hours; “Man’s work was from sun to sun, and woman’s work was never done.”  today man works ten hours, and woman is coming to a stage where she will work where, when, and how she pleases.  Then three yards an hour was the product for a single operative; today ten yards per worker are produced….A single mill operative at Fall River, Lowell, or Providence makes each year cloth enough to supply 1500 of the people who pay her wages by sending her tea.

    From the 1930 article on Fifty Years of Power:

    Turn back to 1880…It was a machine age, true, but only in spots–and very small spots at that. Along the streams of Eastern communities, mainly in New England, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, were dotted little mills.  Water power determined their original location.  Steam aided their growth.  Within their walls spindles whirred and rolls turned almost as in a modern plant.

    Step out of these nuclei of power and the machine age of that day disappears.  On the streets, the horse and buggy, the oil lamp, or gas at best, and the lamp lighter.  Horses for the street and for the plow…In the home, the oil lamp and scrub-board.  Pick and shovel in the ditch. Hod carriers on construction.  Ten-and twelve-hour days of back-breaking labor.  In the worker’s cottage, food and a little sleep…No time or money for reading, music, or play.

    Points made in the multiple articles on steam power: the transition from hand-fired furnaces in power stations to mechanical stoker firing…increased steam pressures…and the transition from reciprocating engines to steam turbines.  The result was that cost per kilowatt-hour generated fell from 3.1 cents in 1883 to .77 cents in 1929.

    Interestingly, only about half the power consumed in factories in 1930 was in the form of purchased electricity…the rest was self-generated, in the form of either self-generated electricity or of direct mechanical drive.  One type of reciprocating steam engine…the Uniflow..is seen as having a continuing applicability in horsepowers too low for efficient use of the steam turbine.

    Indeed, the advertising section at the back of the magazine contains an ad from the Skinner Engine Company noting that the newly-built New Yorker Hotel had chosen five Uniflow engines to generate electricity for the hotel rather than purchasing power from a utility. They claim that hundreds of engines have been installed in stores, office building, hospitals, and factories, and that the savings over utility power has proved so great that the engines brought greater returns on money invested and on floor space than any other department in the business.

    Refrigeration was apparently a hot area (sorry) in 1930, and there’s a pretty long article on the topic.  One thing I hadn’t known is that some cities had central systems for cooling, in which chilled brine was circulated through pipes to individual refrigerators in homes and businesses…the refrigerator could then be very simple, with no active parts other than a thermostat-actuated valve. Such systems were in use in Boston and in New York City as early as 1890.  Sort of a “cloud” approach to refrigeration—Cooling as a Service!

    Textiles were a very important industry in the US in 1930, and there is a long article on the subject. One interesting subtopic within the article has to do with dyes:

    The first use of the chemical or aniline colors dates back to about 1850, when the chemists of Germany presented several new colors obtained by subjecting various fabrics to the action or absorption of liquor holding a derivative of coal tar in solution…America did not make much progress in this direction owing to certain complications and the lack of consolidated action.  What was produced here was in most cases equal to the imported product, but owing to the greater facilities for producing the color, the greater attention given to research, substantial government financial aid, and, primarily, the exceedingly low labor cost abroad, competition was out of the question.  Hence up to 1914 we had practically no dye industry and depended on Germany not only for dyes but also for many valuable pharmaceutical preparations as well as for phenol, the basis for many of our explosives.  

    This problem was solved by intensive efforts during the First World War, and “whereas the value of our dye products in 1882 was $1.8 million, which increased to about $3.3 million in 1914–but with the aid largely of foreign intermediates–we now have over 200 firms producing $220 million worth of products, all more or less directly connected with this and allied industries.”

    The article briefly discussed an intriguing piece of textile technology–the knot-tying mechanism:

    Fifty years ago it was considered a mark of superiority to tie a perfect “weaver’s” knot, a knot that would properly unit the ends of the yarn and stay united while it was passing through the different processes…the number of operators who could tie rapidly and skillfully a series of these knots was limited.

    One of the handiest mechanical devices one can see in the industry is known as a “knotter,” which forms a smoothly-tied, not-slipping knot…Just a handful of mechanism, but in the particular processes where it is used it shows an economy of operation estimated at 50 per cent in time and an unlimited amount in patience.

    The author goes on to say that now (in 1930) there is equipment for collective tying of knots, bringing 2000 ends of warp together and uniting them by tying in eleven minutes.  Pretty intelligent-seeming for a purely mechanical system!

    The woodworking industry was also important in the US in the 1930s, and the author of the article on this industry notes that it had only been fairly recently that this industry had emerged from small-scale operations into mass production. (The author distinguishes between “intimate industries,” those having to do with the home, and “non-intimate industries” such as mining, iron & steel, and transportation, arguing that the non-intimate industries have tended to be mechanized earlier than the intimate ones…not sure this paradigm is really consistent with the very early mechanization of textile spinning and weaving.) There’s an intriguing observation about the emergence of the automobile industry and the characteristics of different American regions:

    It is a rather interesting side light on New England industry that the building of automobile bodies first started in the carriage and buggy shops of Amesbury and other parts of northern Massachusetts, while the first gasoline motors and steam engines were made in the machine shops of Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport.  New England had the genius to invent and develop the highly skilled product that was the forerunner of the modern automobile.  New England, however, fell short in vision and daring, and her factories were unwilling to venture their capital and reputation in such as risky experiment as the building of “horseless carriages” that were considered only as a luxury.  It required the daring and venturesome spirit of the Middle West to nurture and develop the tremendous automobile business of Detroit and the neighboring cities.

    This is probably long enough for a single post…I’ll continue with excerpts and comments in a later post, to include the magazine’s articles on aviation, railroads, sea transportation, and machine shops…also, some additional social/political commentary.

    Posted in Energy & Power Generation, History, Tech, USA | 19 Comments »

    Consistent Group Membership for Epidemic Control

    Posted by David Foster on 30th April 2020 (All posts by )

    This paper argues that having a mutually-consistent and reasonably small network of contacts can help in controlling coronavirus spread…for example, if a group of 7 people work together and also socialize together, they are better-off from a potential infection standpoint than if individuals in the group are socializing with different, and frequently changing, sets of people.

    Somewhat related:  the Federal Aviation Administration is taking steps to limit the spread of coronavirus in air traffic control facilities:

    Each air traffic control facility is establishing separate teams of controllers that will stay together throughout the duty week. Each crew will contain the same employees, limiting the possibility of cross-exposure to COVID-19 that would come through normal shift rotations. If a person on one team gets sick, the only people who would be exposed are the other people on that team.

    So, presumably, if one member of a team gets sick, all the team members would go home until they can get tested and found coronavirus free, and a new team will be swapped in to support operational needs. Not sure how large these teams are: in a control tower for a medium-sized airport, a team might consist of all the people working on a particular shift, but for a large facility like Potomac Approach or Kansas City Center, I imagine that the teams must comprise only subsets of the total workforce; probably people who work in close proximity to one another.

    Posted in Aviation, COVID-19, Transportation | 4 Comments »

    Law, Interpretation, Code, Checks

    Posted by David Foster on 26th April 2020 (All posts by )

    Many people in government–including President Trump and several Congresspeople–have expressed dismay about the ‘stimulus’ checks sent to organizations such as Harvard University and Shake Shack.  I haven’t observed much curiosity, though, about why these checks got sent out in the first place.

    Was the CARES act so written as to require money to be sent to such organization?  I haven’t read through this very large document, but here it is if anyone feels inspired to do so.

    Was the language of the law so ambiguous that it was interpreted by the detailed implementers as requiring such funding, even though that was not Congressional intent?

    Was it simply a matter of a coding error in a program that had to be written or modified very hastily in order to send out millions of checks?

    I’m curious about the lack of curiosity re this matter.

    Posted in Big Government, COVID-19, Law, Tech | 8 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading

    Posted by David Foster on 22nd April 2020 (All posts by )

    Waiting for Good Dough.  Excerpts of some thoughts on central banking and monetary policy, from a newsletter issued by Paul Singer’s hedge fund, Elliott Management.  Best post/article title I’ve seen in a long time.

    Remote work in industry during the pandemic and maybe afterwards…some thoughts from the CEO of GE Digital.

    Skills development in industry.  Career progression doesn’t always have to involve college education.

    Grim excerpts and critiques an Atlantic article which is a rather hysterical attack on a class of people who are very different from the author.

    Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen (he was coauthor of the first widely-used web browser and cofounder of Netscape) writes about the need for America to focus on building things. Surely most of us here will agree with that spirit, but a lot of his specifics seem dubious to say the least. Stuart Schneiderman offers some thoughts; worthwhile comment thread.

    A cat and a dog offer differing views about the merits of the work from home approach.

    Posted in Big Government, COVID-19, Deep Thoughts, Economics & Finance, Education, Leftism, Tech, USA | 11 Comments »

    This Post Has Absolutely Nothing to do with Coronavirus

    Posted by David Foster on 18th April 2020 (All posts by )

    The US Naval Institute has posted some links to their archives.  This one is interesting:  a 1912 think piece on the future of the submarine, written by then-lieutenant C W Nimitz.

    Link

    Posted in History, Military Affairs, Tech, War and Peace | 8 Comments »

    The Shape of the Future?

    Posted by David Foster on 8th April 2020 (All posts by )

    Historian Niall Ferguson cites “the most succinct statement I’ve yet seen of the “massive enduring social and economic change post-pandemic” hypothesis.”

    Offices>>Remote Work
    NFL, NBA>>Esports
    Movie Theaters>>Streaming
    TV News>>YouTube stars
    College>>ISAs, MOOCs
    K-12>>Internet homeschooling
    Corporate journalism>>Citizen journalism
    EU/EEC>>27 sovereign states

    I’m surprised he didn’t also include Stores>>Home delivery.

    Of course, the degree to which these changes happen and are sustained will be largely a matter of how long the coronavirus pandemic lasts and how definitively it is suppressed.  But even if coronavirus continues as a recurrent plague, none of these trends are likely to be absolute.  For example: Offices>>Remote work…my own experience with new-business initiatives, both in existing corporations and in startups, suggests that there really is a lot of advantage in the in-person human interaction. Some of these never would have gotten started in the first place unless such interaction had taken place.  And, of course, there are a lot of things that can’t be done at home, including most manufacturing and all construction work. Ditto transportation.  And I’m not sure what TV News>>YouTube stars has to do with coronavirus or other epidemics, given that neither modality need involve person-to-person contact.

    Assuming that coronavirus is largely or completely suppressed, what are the long-term effects likely to be?  Are there now so many people who will have been exposed to the convenience of on-line grocery shopping that they will feel little need to visit physical grocery stores?  Will spending half a day at the mall ever again be a thing?  Will people want to be densely packed into a movie theater or will they just decide that streaming movies at home (especially with large screens that I bet a lot of people are buying under the current circumstances) is just as good and a lot cheaper?  How about airline travel (or sea travel) for vacations?

    Colleges..traditionally, the on-campus college experience was (at least supposed to be valued) for free discussion and interaction with professors.  Yet much of this has already been suppressed, both via giant lecture classes and by fear of creating offense.  College was also valued for its social opportunities, especially those involving dating and mating and the finding of spouses.  Yet reports indicate that this has become pretty awkward due to the administrative sex police and their frequent condemnation of people (especially men) with no form of due process.  Plus, people are now getting married a lot later, so the pressure to find someone during one’s college years is less-strong than it used to be.

    In his tweet, Niall Ferguson also makes the excellent point that “I’d be more persuaded if there were evidence of comparable changes after the (much more lethal) 1918-19 influenza pandemic.”  Although media influence in those days was much less comprehensive and continuous; also, many alternatives that exist today (such as work-from-home as opposed to work-at-the-office) really weren’t feasible in those days.

    Thoughts?

    Posted in COVID-19, Deep Thoughts, History, Society, Tech | 33 Comments »

    Supply Chain Management in a Time of Crisis

    Posted by David Foster on 3rd April 2020 (All posts by )

    GE Healthcare, which is ramping up ventilator production, is using 3-D printing both to make parts directly and to make molds for injection molding.  However, the chief engineer for advanced manufacturing at Healthcare says that some of the 3D-printing companies he has been talking to are shut down due to government edicts that deemed their work nonessential.

    It sounds like they will get around this barrier…“We have a map of all the companies that have excess capacity, and so we’ll divert whatever print work we need to whatever company has got the ability right now, on top of the equipment we have at GE”…but I expect that there is going to be a lot of this sort of thing. There is no way that local or state officials can understand the supply chain dependencies that exist between a seemingly-minor local business and a major national priority somewhere up a level or two (or more) in the product structure. In some cases, all it might take is a letter from the top-tier manufacturer certifying the importance of the work the supplier is doing, but in many cases I suspect that the only rapid solutions will require Federal involvement.

    Posted in Big Government, Business, COVID-19, Current Events, Management, Tech, USA | 5 Comments »

    American Has an Autoimmune Disease

    Posted by David Foster on 31st March 2020 (All posts by )

    An autoimmune disease is an illness that occurs when the body tissues are attacked by its own immune system.  The US today has this condition big-time.  Historically, the condition has arisen and reached toxic levels in other countries; as an example, France, during the run-up to the Second World War and even during the campaign of 1940.

    General Edward Spears, who was Churchill’s military liaison with France, was told by Georges Mandel, the combative interior minister, about the mayor of a district in Paris which had been bombed who went about the lobbies, screaming:  I will interpellate the Government on this outrage as soon as the chamber meets!  Mandel expressed his contempt for this kind of behavior, saying sarcastically “Paris is bombed by the German?  Let’s shake our fists at or own government.”  Spears notes that “The other way, that of silently going off to collect a gun and have a shot at the enemy, was a solution that occurred only to a few…How Hitler must have laughed, I told myself.”

    A few months earlier, an interviewer asked Paul Reynaud, who had just become Prime Minister of France, about his long-standing and bitter rivalry with Edouard Daladier.

    Nevertheless, ”the interviewer  said, “Daladier is certainly a man who loves his country.”

    “Yes,” Reynaud replied, “I believe he desires the victory of France, but he desires my defeat even more.”

    This may have been a bit unfair to Daladier, who was far from the worst of the leading French politicians of the day. But it gives an accurate impression of the state of things in the late Third Republic.  And it may actually understate the state of things in America today, where for many politicians and journalists, the well-being of America and of Americans doesn’t seem to enter into the equation at all compared with the search for political advantage.

    The obsession with political power, and with the denunciation of opponents, is not today limited to politicians, journalists, and ‘activists’…it has spread to a large proportion of the population.  Millions of Americans, it seems, are in a state of visceral rage against not only Trump, but against any and all of his supporters.  There is no activity, of any sort, that is safe from volcanic overflowings of political rage…not even knitting, as strange as that may seem.

    It often seems impossible to find any point of entry for an attempt to get Progs to reconsider their beliefs, in however small a way.  I’m reminded of something written by Arthur Koestler, himself a former Communist, on the subject of intellectually closed systems:

    A closed system has three peculiarities. Firstly, it claims to represent a truth of universal validity, capable of explaining all phenomena, and to have a cure for all that ails man. In the second place, it is a system which cannot be refuted by evidence, because all potentially damaging data are automatically processed and reinterpreted to make them fit the expected pattern. The processing is done by sophisticated methods of casuistry, centered on axioms of great emotive power, and indifferent to the rules of common logic; it is a kind of Wonderland croquet, played with mobile hoops. In the third place, it is a system which invalidates criticism by shifting the argument to the subjective motivation of the critic, and deducing his motivation from the axioms of the system itself. The orthodox Freudian school in its early stages approximated a closed system; if you argued that for such and such reasons you doubted the existence of the so-called castration complex, the Freudian’s prompt answer was that your argument betrayed an unconscious resistance indicating that you yourself have a castration complex; you were caught in a vicious circle. Similarly, if you argued with a Stalinist that to make a pact with Hitler was not a nice thing to do he would explain that your bourgeois class-consciousness made you unable to understand the dialectics of history…In short, the closed system excludes the possibility of objective argument by two related proceedings: (a) facts are deprived of their value as evidence by scholastic processing; (b) objections are invalidated by shifting the argument to the personal motive behind the objection. This procedure is legitimate according to the closed system’s rules of the game which, however absurd they seem to the outsider, have a great coherence and inner consistency.

    The atmosphere inside the closed system is highly charged; it is an emotional hothouse…The trained, “closed-minded” theologian, psychoanalyst, or Marxist can at any time make mincemeat of his “open-minded” adversary and thus prove the superiority of his system to the world and to himself.

    In attempting to debate with “progressives,” one often encounters this kind of closed-system thinking:  there is absolutely no way you are going to change their minds, whatever the evidence or logic.  (I don’t think this is true of  all  “progressives”–otherwise the situation in America today would be even more grim than it actually is–but it’s true of a lot of them.)

    But today’s Progressivism is not a coherent intellectual system with definable axioms like Marxism or a Christian theology; it seems much more a cluster of emotional reactions.

    Certain Progs have gone so far out on the limb that there seems no hope they could ever come back; this certainly is true of most commentators on CNN and MSNBC…they will just become angrier and more extreme, and it will all be broadcast to millions as long as their owners (AT&T and Comcast, respectively) keep the money flowing.  But what about ordinary people, those whose lives do not center (or at least previously have not centered) around politics?…Is there any sign that some may be willing to reconsider some of their beliefs, specifically in the midst of the Cornavirus crisis?  I have seen comments by people saying they have friends who have recently been willing to reconsider their support for open borders, or for offshoring most American manufacturing to China, in the light of current events.  I haven’t seen much of this, personally.  What I see is more people who are so completely aligned with their ‘side’, that they view events largely through the light of how they can be interpreted to support that side.  These are often people who were not particularly interested in politics or political philosophy  prior to recent years.

    This isn’t one of my more coherent posts, but I’d like to discuss: Can the American autoimmune disease be cured?  Why did it develop and get so bad?  What, as individuals, can we do to help with the cure or at least the mitigation?

    Posted in Current Events, Leftism, Political Philosophy, Politics, Society | 15 Comments »

    Ruin and Recovery

    Posted by David Foster on 21st March 2020 (All posts by )

    A brokerage note I received recently included the following quote:

    What has so often excited wonder, is the great rapidity with which countries recover from a state of devastation, the disappearance in a short time, of all traces of mischief done by earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and the ravages of war. An enemy lays waste a country by fire and sword, and destroys or carries away nearly all the moveable wealth existing in it: all the inhabitants are ruined, and yet in a few years after, everything is much as it was before.

    John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, 1848

    Questions for discussion:

    –How well has Mill’s assertion held up over the 170 years since he wrote the above?

    –Will American recovery from the Coronavirus follow Mill’s pattern, or is there reason to think that it will be different this time, and not in a good way?

    Posted in COVID-19, Current Events, Economics & Finance, History, Human Behavior | 7 Comments »

    The Media-Focus Problem

    Posted by David Foster on 18th March 2020 (All posts by )

    It’s well understood that media entities like to focus on the negative–‘if it bleeds, it leads.’  But there’s also another media behavior problem worth noticing…

    Cable TV networks, especially, tend to focus obsessively on whatever the hottest issue is at the moment, and absolutely beat it to death to the exclusion of any attention to *other* important things going on…until one of those other things get so important and so bad that it displaces the previous obsession and the cycle repeats.  To borrow a term from the field of computer operating systems, you could think of it is a single-thread way to approach the world. And in the field of combat aviation, there is a phrase, Target Fixation, to describe the situation where a pilot is so focused on his target that he flies into a mountain or does something equally disastrous.

    Posted in COVID-19, Current Events, Human Behavior, Media, Miscellaneous | 4 Comments »

    Book Review: The Year of the French (St Patrick’s day rerun)

    Posted by David Foster on 17th March 2020 (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 Caslebar.  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 Irishman…”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 | 1 Comment »

    Crisis Remote Working: What Will be the Long-Term Effects?

    Posted by David Foster on 13th March 2020 (All posts by )

    A lot of people…office workers, students…are going to be getting their first experience of remote working, and a lot of organizations are going to be getting either their first experience or a greatly expanded experience in managing this kind of work.  What will be the long-term effects of this?…will people eagerly return to their brick-and-mortar working environment as soon as it is safely possible?

    Certainly, there are a lot of workers who would welcome the opportunity to avoid their daily commutes.  And there are a lot of employers who would be happy to save a lot of money on office space.

    And there are surely some parents who would welcome the opportunity to keep their kids at home…there are also more than a few who have arranged their lives and their work schedules around the assumption that their kids will be in school for several hours every weekday.

    Many of the remote working experiences are surely going to be suboptimal, however, given that there has been little if any leadtime to prepare systems, content, and procedures.

    So what do you think?..a return to things the way they were, or permanent change?

    Posted in Business, COVID-19, Education, Management, Medicine, Tech | 25 Comments »