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    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 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 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, Education, Management, Medicine, Tech | 25 Comments »

    Schumer’s Threats, in Context

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

    Democrat Charles Schumer, speaking to “protestors” outside the Supreme Court: “I want to tell you, Gorsuch, I want to tell you, Kavanaugh, you have released the whirlwind, and you will pay the price. You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.”

    This statement was clearly a threat, but what kind of threat? Perhaps a direct physical threat, but more likely, I think, a threat to subject the two justices to the kind of orchestrated slander campaign that was already unleashed against Justice Kavanaugh; a slander campaign the would result in great emotional pain to the Justices and their families and great disruption to the operations of the Court.

    The crowd to which Schumer was speaking is typically referred to as “protestors” in news reports, but what are they protesting? No decision has been made in this case. Evidently they are protesting the willingness of the Court to even consider the arguments made by the two sides in this case.

    I’d call them a mob. Judge Andrew Napolitano, who does not believe Schumer’s statement violated any laws, nevertheless called the statement an “effort to politicize the court, to make them look like they can be intimidated by a mob outside of the courthouse.”

    The present-day Democratic Party together with its media/academic/activist archipelago has become quite friendly toward mob action and mob intimidation. One especially appalling event was the attempt to shut down law professor Josh Blackman’s talk at the City University of New York law school. When Blackman said the way to deal with a law you don’t like is to change the law…

    A student shouted out “[expletive] the law.” This comment stunned me. I replied, “[expletive] the law? That’s a very odd thing. You are all in law school. And it is a bizarre thing to say [expletive] the law when you are in law school.” They all started to yell and shout over me.

    There has been an awful lot of this sort of thing, and it seems to have been increasing exponentially over the last several years.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Current Events, Germany, History, Human Behavior, Law, Leftism, USA | 13 Comments »

    Politics, Demographics, and Milkshakes

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

    Much political media coverage these days focuses on demographic categories:  How will candidate X do among women…among Black people…gay people…low-income people…etc?  And much if not most political marketing is also aligned along these categories.

    Demographic and targeting are also used in business marketing, of course.  But that’s not the *only* approach that can be used.

    In his book The Innovator’s Solution, the late Dr Clayton Christensen told of a restaurant chain which was trying to improve sales results for its milkshake product line. “The chain’s marketers segmented its customers along a variety of psychobehavioral dimension in order to define a profile of the customer most likely to buy milkshakes. In other words, it first structured its market by product–milkshakes–and then segmented it by the characteristics of existing milkshake customers….both attribute-based categorization schemes. It then assembled panels of people with these attributes, and explored whether making the shakes thinker, chocolatier, cheaper, or chunkier would satisfy them better.”  Marketing 101 stuff, but it didn’t yield much in terms of results.

    A different team of researchers. found that, surprisingly, most of the milkshakes were being bought in the early morning. Customer interviews indicated that these were people who faced a long, boring commute and wanted something to eat/drink on the way. Milkshakes were superior to alternatives because they didn’t get crumbs all over (like bagels) or get the steering wheel greasy (like a sausage & egg sandwich.)  And the morning milkshake buyers wanted shakes that were thick, in a large container, whereas the customers at other times preferred less-viscous shakes and smaller containers.  (Even though the morning and non-morning customers might be the very same individuals)

    Christensen observed that a product can be thought of in terms of the ‘job’ it is doing for the customer:  what is a customer trying to accomplish when he ‘hires a milkshake’?

    The parallel isn’t perfect, but something like the same thought process might be applicable in political marketing:  What is a voter trying to accomplish when he ‘hires’ a candidate for X position?

    For example, there are a lot of voters who lives in areas with poor public schools and who are not in a position to send their kids to private school.  Maybe the ‘job’ they want to ‘hire’ a politician for is to give them realistic alternatives.  And maybe the appeal of this message is pretty independent of whether the voters are male, female, black, or white, and of whatever sexual preference they have.

    There are a lot of voters who own small business.  They have a lot of broadly-similar issues that are relevant to politics, and, again, these are mostly independent of the usual demographic categories.

    Seems to me that a lot more could be done with this kind of cross-demographic-category marketing…not that demographics can be totally ignored, but that other voter-behavior factors need more consideration.

    Also, it’s important to note that the Democrats are, because of their emphasis on top-down planning, inherently much more focused on demographic categorization than are the Republicans.  As Rose Wilder Lane wrote:

    Nobody can plan the actions of even a thousand living persons, separately. Anyone attempting to control millions must divide them into classes, and make a plan applying to these classes. But these classes do not exist. No two persons are alike. No two are in the same circumstances; no two have the same abilities; beyond getting the barest necessities of life, no two have the same desires.Therefore the men who try to enforce, in real life, a planned economy that is their theory, come up against the infinite diversity of human beings.

    But people who think in categories…and rigid categories, at that….tend to communicate in those same categories.  Which may not always be to their interest.

    Your thoughts?

    Posted in Miscellaneous | 6 Comments »

    Wages, Employment, and Productivity

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

    I think President Trump is quite sincere about his oft-stated desire to drive up the wages of low-income workers…especially young and non-college workers…and he does seem to be having some success at this quest.  It has struck me for a while that while this is a very good thing from the standpoint of the overall society, it is also likely to pressure business profit margins, with possible consequences for the stock market as well as for Fed policy.

    Yesterday the WSJ noted that “wages for 20- to 24-year olds are increasing twice as fast as for other workers…Overall job satisfaction in 2018 was the highest since 1994.”  At the same time, “90% of blue-collar businesses report operating with unfilled positions, and 29% say this has made them reduce output or turn down business.  Rising wages together with sluggish productivity growth are crimping corporate profits.  Between the fourth quarter of 2014 and the second quarter of 2019, profits for nonfinancial corporations  declined 17% and 46% for manufacturers.   The article quotes the Conference Board:  “The US will not be able to maintain its current standard of living unless the US government acts to significantly increase immigration, improve labor force participation, and, together with employees, raise labor productivity growth.”  To which the WSJ writer adds:  “Maybe the only short-term fix is to increase legal immigration–unless Americans want to see their living standards decline and more jobs exported.”

    Higher wages do of course drive productivity improvement…the US has been a pioneer in the mechanization of work in large part because it has been a high-wage country, and that mechanization has helped to enable further wage increases.  This doesn’t always require any new inventions:  there are always productivity tools available that will make sense to a business that is paying $25/hour for labor but would not make sense to one paying $15/hour.  The process isn’t instantaneous, though.

    Concerning immigration as a solution to labor shortages: commentators sometimes lose sight of the fact that GDP per capita matters for broad-based prosperity, not just absolute GDP.  And the only way to increase GDP per capita is through productivity improvements and higher labor force participation rates.  Increasing the raw number of workers doesn’t do this.

    The Conference Board statement appears to put a lot of emphasis on things that the government should do, and the WSJ emphasizes more (legal) immigration.  Some increases in legal immigration may well be a good idea…as would increases in American fertility rates…but the main issues, I think, are productivity and the labor force participation rate.  The actual productivity numbers don’t reflect all the talk about (and even the realities of) robotics and AI.  Maybe this is largely just a matter of implementation lags, maybe it reflects increasing bureaucratization and ‘compliance’ costs throughout our economy.

    My concern is that margin pressure may lead (in conjunction with other factors, like already-high valuations) to a sharp stock-market decline, which could have electoral implications.  Such decline might also lead to many deferrals of productivity-improving investments.  Alternatively, Fed concerns about rising wage rates as a possible signal of incipient inflation could lead the central bank to increase interest rates excessively as a preventative.

    And any electoral result which substantially increases Democratic party power could lead to massive upsurges in legal and illegal immigration, with consequent wage pressures, demoralizing many workers who are now on an positive track and deferring the need for productivity investments.  Any attempt to deal with such wage pressures by establishing high Federal-level minimum wages would add much rigidity to the systems, creating problems of many kinds.

    Discuss, if you feel so inclined.

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Elections, Tech, Trump, USA | 21 Comments »

    Meme Wars

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

    Michael Bloomberg is apparently spending a bunch of money on the development and deployment of memes.

    A meme could, potentially, neatly encapsulate and summarize a real, meaningful argument.  Or it could have the appearance of offering a conclusive argument when no such argument has actually been made.  Or it could be so ridiculous that it has no effect–or an opposite effect from that intended–on its target audience.

    William “Boss” Tweed was very upset by the cartoon of Thomas Nast, because, as he famously said:  “I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles; my constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.”  Perhaps in our own era, there are plenty of people who do know how to read–who may well be college graduates–but whose attention spans are so limited, and who have so little exposure to logical discussion, that memes are the most effective way to reach them.

    Discussion question:  What memes have you seen that (a) effectively make a valid argument, (b) look like they are making an effective argument, but are actually doing no such thing, or (c) are so silly that they could convince basically nobody at all?

    Posted in Advertising, Elections, Media, USA | 27 Comments »

    Strange Bedfellows?

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

    There seems to be a very large overlap between the political and social opinions of academics–a group which is very highly-educated, at least if we measure by time spent in the classroom–and the opinions of entertainers/celebrities–not typically distinguished in their educational level by that same metric, to put it mildly.  (Although with individual exceptions, of course)

    Why?

    Posted in Academia, Leftism, Media, Politics | 15 Comments »

    The Roaring Twenties, Revisited

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

    Here’s a piece that mentions some of the technological, social, and economic trends that were important in the 1920s, and goes on to discuss seven tipping points that the author thinks will be key in the 2020s.

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Energy & Power Generation, History, Society, Tech, USA | 13 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading & Viewing

    Posted by David Foster on 29th January 2020 (All posts by )

    It is unwise to let your dislike for certain individuals to run away with you to the point that you publish attacks that can be refuted with a few seconds of research.

    Speaking of publishing dumb things…

    Philosophers and philodoxers

    Thoughts on personal productivity from Marc Andreessen

    This 19th century French philosopher sounds worth reading.  From Tyler Cowen’s summary:

    He explicitly considers the possibility that the rate of scientific innovation may decline, in part because the austere and moral mentality of semi-rural family life, which is most favorable for creativity in his view, may be replaced by the whirlpool of distractions associated with the urban lifestyles of the modern age.

    The 10 worst colleges for free expression…the 2020 edition.

    Using albatrosses to track down illegal fishing boats.  A little advice for the captains of those boats: do not, under any circumstances, shoot an albatross.

    France’s most beautiful stained-glass windows

    Posted in Academia, Arts & Letters, Christianity, Media, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Society | 13 Comments »

    Book Review: The Good Jobs Strategy, by Zeynep Ton

    Posted by David Foster on 19th January 2020 (All posts by )

    Retail businesses are associated with low pay and high employee turnover–especially in the case of those retailers who offer low prices–and the same is largely true of customer-service call centers.  It has been generally assumed that low wages in these operations are a necessary concomitant of low prices for consumers, and that only businesses serving a premium-price customer base can afford to pay high wages.

    Comes now Zeynep Ton, arguing that the low-wage strategy is not the only one available to retailers and other customer-service businesses that need to offer low prices, and that indeed often–usually–it is not the best strategy.  She draws connections between the pay and hiring strategy of a business and the operational basis on which it is managed.  To wit:

    Low pay and high turnover implies minimal employee training, because you can’t afford extensive training for employees who are going to leave in a matter of months.  Minimal training implies less operational flexibility, because employees will not be cross-trained for other functions.  An environment of high turnover and not-well-trained employees implies that employee functions must be strictly proceduralized, often to the point of excessive rigidity.  And the lack of flexibility driven by minimal training and experience makes it harder to build in appropriate staffing “slack” to handle peak demand situations.  The lack of slack and flexibility leads to endless emergency rescheduling of personnel, reducing morale and further increasing turnover.  (She provides some vivid examples of what this endless and short-notice rescheduling can mean to the personal lives of employees.)

    On the opposite site, higher pay can contribute to lower turnover, making more-extensive training economically viable.  Better-trained employees can more easily perform multiple functions, so that absences or staffing imbalances have a less-harmful effect.  Better-trained and more highly-motivated employees don’t need micromanagement, either by human managers or by systems and procedures.

    Ho, hum, you say, what’s new?…people, especially consultants and professors, have been writing for years about why employees should be treated well and how it pays off to do so.  How is this book different from a million of others?

    The Good Jobs Strategy is, in my view, something quite different from the typical “just treat ’em right” sort of soft, warm, and cuddly advice often found in books and LinkedIn posts.  The author ties the feasibility of the high-pay / high-expectations strategy to effective operational management, with the right systems, procedures, and incentives to enable such operational excellence.

    An interesting example the author mentions is that of Home Depot. She credits much of the chain’s early success to its high-quality associates–“knowledgeable and helpful and willing to do whatever it took to help you, even if that meant explaining to you that you didn’t actually need what you came to buy.”  The associates tended to be former plumbers, electricians, etc–and they were employed full-time.  HD grew very rapidly–“customers were driving two hours to go to its stores and, once they experienced the service and great prices, they kept coming back”

    But, with the growth came problems.  There was a lack of discipline in the stores, in how the stores communicated with headquarters, how the company selected its products, and how it communicated with suppliers.  “In 2000, bills and invoices were still processed by hand, and headquarters communicated to 1134 stores via fax because there was no companywide email.”  In 2008, two senior IT executives (newly hired from Walmart) concluded that Home Depot’s IT systems were about where Walmart’s had been in 1991.  In summary, HD had become “a classic example of a service company that did not fully appreciate the role of operations in making customers and investors happy…Operations are all those factory-like activities that a business has to carry out in order to provide whatever it is that it sells. ..In a retail store, for example, operations involves things like having the right product in the right place, having a fast checkout, and having a clean store.” Zeynep Ton says that internal measurement systems often don’t focus on such matters–at one retailer she worked with, “Twenty percent of the (store manager’s) score had to do with the store’s customer interactions.” In this chain, “mystery shoppers” would score the store on things like how the employees greeted customers and made eye contact.  But, she notes, “kindness or friendliness won’t make up for operational incompetence. ..It is hard for your dry cleaner to make you happy if you can’t wear your favorite suit to an important interview because they didn’t get it cleaned on time.”

    When Robert Nardelli became HD’s CEO in 2000, the systems and procedures problems were rapidly addressed.  Gross margins and net profit margins increased substantially.

    BUT, “the culture of cost-cutting was soon felt at the local level, where store employees, who were once at the center of Home Depot’s success and at the top of Home Depot’s inverted pyramid, became a cost to be minimized.”  The company started hiring part-timers, in the name of both staffing flexibility and cost…the knowledge level of the typical employee encountered by a customer fell noticeably.  By 2005, HD was ranked lower in customer satisfaction than was K-mart.  Same-store sales growth fell and even became negative.  Nardelli left the company in 2007.

    Zeynep Ton summarizes:  Operational designs don’t execute themselves.  They depend on having the right people, and having those people motivated to do the right things.

    The book discusses the actual complexity that exists in many seemingly-simple businesses, and the fact that individual employee decisions do make a difference. “If you are a supermarket employee shelving a case of toothpaste and all but two of the tubes fit on the shelf, should you take the two extras back to storage or would it be better to squeeze them onto the the shelf, even if it doesn’t look so good?  If a tomato looks just a little soft, should you take it to the back room now or wait until it looks worse?  Maybe it will be just fine for a customer who wants to make tomato sauce…it is hard, if not impossible, to make such work so simple and simple and standardized that anyone can do it without exercising judgment.  Things happen in real time at retail stores, and employees have to learn to react.”

    (It is incredibly refreshing to see a B-school professor thinking and writing at this level of detail and specificity)

    One interesting company discussed in the book is QuikTrip, a large chain of convenience stores combined with gas stations.  The company is very selective in its hiring….the author compares getting hired there with the difficulty of getting into an Ivy League college.  In the Atlanta area, 90% of applicants don’t even quality for an interview, and of those who do, only one out of five is selected.  Turnover rate among QuikTrip employees is only 13%, far lower than the industry as a whole.  The chain emphasizes speed and flexibility…”QuikTrip’s fast checkout is a site to behold.  One thing that makes it so fast is that any employee can use any register at any time without making the customer wait.  If you regularly shop at a supermarket, you know it’s no fun waiting for the cashier do a changeover.  The other thing that makes QuikTrip so fast is that employees have been trained to ring up three customer per minute.”  She says that the employees can even calculate change in their heads!

    Other examples discussed include Costco, Trader Joe’s, In-N-Out Burger, and the Spanish supermarket chain Mercadona.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Business, Customer Service, Human Behavior, Management, Tech | 31 Comments »

    Shovel That Code

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

    …into that server!

    Joe Biden gave coal miners facing possible unemployment some advice:  learn to code.

    In reality, of course, programming/coding is a skill that can exist on multiple levels.  Someone writing a simple spreadsheet model for some kind of repetitive tracking problem is working at a different level from someone writing a well-defined module within a large system for a bank, who is in turn working at a different level from someone writing interrupt-level hardware drivers for an operating system, or for someone creating the idea and user interface, as well as the code, for a new consumer-facing product.  Some of these tasks will usually pay less than what a skilled coal miner is paid, some of them will pay considerably more.

    And also, programming is not an infinite reservoir of job demand. Much work that previously required considerable high-skill programming has now been largely automated by software tools and/or by complete application systems, and considerable programming work is being offshored–see my post telemigration.

    Biden also asserted that:  “Anybody who can throw coal into a furnace can learn how to program, for God’s sake!”

    Ignoring the inherent ridiculousness of this claim as a factual assertion…does Biden actually think that manual stoking of coal furnaces is a thing in today’s economy?  Does the Bureau of Labor Statistics show a large count of people employed as stokers?

    In reality, the mechanical stoker was invented well over a century ago.  They were common in high-horsepower steam locomotives by 1900, and were and are used in coal-fired power plants.  I doubt if there was much manual stoking going on by 1940, except on steamships…and coal as a fuel for ships was rapidly on its way out by that point, as it was being displaced by oil

    Plus, Biden was talking about coal miners.  Does he think that there are coal-fired furnaces in coal mines?  If there were, you would likely get a massive explosion from igniting of any gas in the mine.

    Biden clearly understands as little about the software industry as he does about the energy industry.

    This is the man who says he was Obama’s point man on a “jobs of the future” initiative.

    Can you imagine what these people would do to the economy if they ever achieved the degree of power that they so avidly seek?

     

     

    Posted in Big Government, Economics & Finance, Elections, Energy & Power Generation, Tech | 24 Comments »

    What Future for the Global Auto Industry? Discussion Post

    Posted by David Foster on 7th January 2020 (All posts by )

    In December, I announced an upcoming discussion of the future of the auto industry and, in particular, of the role and impact of electric cars.  In that post, I included a number of links to worthwhile reading on the subject.  Let’s do the discussion this week, in comments to this post.  I have a few thoughts to get things going:

    –It is true, as Vitaliy Katsenslson points out in his essay, that electric cars are much simpler than conventional cars…but I would qualify this statement as mechanically simpler than conventional  cars.  They are significantly more complex electrically and especially in terms of the electrochemistry of the battery…a hidden kind of complexity, but important nonetheless. From what I have read, there seems to be considerable uncertainty about the expected lifespan of new lithium-ion battery models..which lifespan, of course, has a major impact on the overall economics of electric cars.

    EVs are expected to have lower maintenance costs and requirements than conventional vehicles, based on their relative mechanical simplicity.  This is probably true, in general, although a lot of the problems with cars these days seem to be with systems other than the engine and drivetrain..airbag sensors, seat actuator motors, various sensors, etc.

    –Range limitations and “range anxiety” have been significant inhibitors to EV sales.  Vitaliy K makes the excellent point that it is much easier to set up an electric-vehicle charging station than a conventional gas station, with its underground tanks and consequent regulatory complexities, and he believes we will see tremendous growth in the number of such charging stations and consequent reductions in EV range anxiety.

    It takes about 45 minutes to an hour to fully charge an EV (using Tesla as a model and assuming a high-power charger such as Tesla’s “Supercharger’), which implies that people are going to need something else to do while their vehicles are charging, away from home or the office.  Restaurants and shopping centers become obvious venues for charging; however, this leads to another issue, that the driver may wind up being away from the car for a couple of hours or more, tying up the charger for that whole interval: this issue would need to be reflected in the pricing of the charging facility.

    Also, while it is true that setting up EV charging is simpler than opening a gas station, it is not necessarily trivial if one is setting up multiple high-capacity chargers.  A Tesla supercharger draws 150KW, so putting 30 of them in a parking lot would result in an incremental peak demand of up to 4.5 megawatts.  I doubt if the electrical systems feeding many restaurants, or even shopping centers, could accommodate 4.5MW of additional demand without some work by the utility supplying the power.

    –Efficiency:  It is true that the conversion of stored energy into motion is much more efficient in an EV than an internal-combustion-engine vehicle; this is mainly a matter of the engine thermodynamics.  BUT, if the charging electricity comes from a natural gas plant of a coal plant, you are looking at best at a 60% fuel-to-electricity conversion efficiency, and there will also be losses in power transmission and distribution.  If the electricity comes from solar or wind, then..depending on the time of day and weather conditions of the charging..you may be faced with a double battery storage situation, where energy is stored in a utility or home battery until needed for charging, and then stored again in the vehicle’s battery.  That double-storage situation carries both efficiency losses and, more significantly, additional capital costs.

    EVs do have the ability to capture much of the energy that would otherwise be lost in braking, and this is especially valuable in start-stop driving situations, as with local delivery operations, and probably extends the lifetime of the mechanical brakes.

    –Performance…EVs have excellent acceleration capability (when adequately powered) due to the torque characteristics of electric motors.  They may be able to achieve very good handling if battery installation provides for a very low center of gravity.

    –Climate…not speaking here about ‘climate change’, but about climate in its ordinary meaning.  In a conventional car, heating is basically free, using rejected heat from the engine (ignoring the energy used to power the fan, but that’s a small part of the picture), whereas in an electric car, heat must be generated using electricity from the battery, which of course has a negative impact on range.  Also, the battery itself will have lesser performance in cold weather.  (And the regenerative braking feature is also limited in very cold weather.)

    –Relative Costs…a high % of EVs today are either sold with subsidies by national/local governments, are built and sold in response to government edicts, or are bought in significant part for status purposes by individuals and organizations. Can EVs compete on cost head-to-head with IC vehicles on a nonsubsidized, free-choice basis?  This would seem to be largely a matter of how successfully battery costs are further driven down and how long battery lifespans turn out to be in actual service.

    It should be noted that electric vehicle sales in China have cooled rapidly…down 44%…since the government reduced most subsidies at the end of June.  What would be the ‘true’ demand in the US without consumer incentives and mix requirement on the manufacturers?

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Energy & Power Generation, Environment, Marketing, Transportation | 43 Comments »

    Life Without Smartphones

    Posted by David Foster on 5th January 2020 (All posts by )

    A college instructor, concerned about how poorly his students were doing in the philosophy class he was teaching, tried an experiment:  for extra credit, students could give up their phones for nine days and write about living without them. Twelve students, about a third of the class, took him up on the offer.

    Without their phones, most of my students initially felt lost, disoriented, frustrated, and even frightened. That seemed to support the industry narrative: look how disconnected and lonely you’ll be without our technology. But after just two weeks, the majority began to think that their cell phones were in fact limiting their relationships with other people, compromising their own lives, and somehow cutting them off from the “real” world. 

    See some of the student comments at the link.  Note that ten of the 12 students said their phones had been compromising their ability to have real-world relationships.  And in response to a student’s comment about safety concerns when phone-less, the instructor said:

    What’s revealing is that this student and others perceived the world to be a very dangerous place. Cell phones were seen as necessary to combat that danger. The city in which these students lived has one of the lowest crime rates in the world and almost no violent crime of any kind, yet they experienced a pervasive, undefined fear.

    For perspective, though, we should consider:  How would students in say, the 1950s through the 1980s have responded if they had been temporarily denied access to dorm or apartment phones and also to pay phones?  Because since smartphones became common, pay phones have largely disappeared, and I’d imagine that dorm and apartment phones are pretty rare as well.

    I’d hazard a guess that 1950s-1980s students who were denied access to conventional telephony would have felt somewhat disconnected, but not nearly so much as present-day students without their smartphones.

    When the telegraph was first invented, a journalist marveled that “This extraordinary discovery leaves…no elsewhere…it is all here.”

    As I’ve noted before, it seems that if the wired communications reduced the sense of elsewhere, it seems that wireless communications reduces the sense of the here and now.

    Posted in Academia, Deep Thoughts, Education, Human Behavior, Internet, Tech | 5 Comments »

    The Multi-Front Attack on Free Speech

    Posted by David Foster on 4th January 2020 (All posts by )

    Free speech…free expression generally…is under attack in America and throughout the Western world to a degree not seen in a long time. I think there are some specific phenomena and (partially-overlapping) categories of people which are largely driving this attack–I’ve written about this subject previously, here, but the situation has gotten even more serious since that post, and some of the important factors were underemphasized.  Here are the current fronts, as I see it, in the war (not too strong a word, I’m afraid) on free speech.

    The Thugs. As I pointed out in my post The United States of Weimar?, illegal actions against political opponents, ranging from theft of newspapers to direct assault and battery, have in recent decades become increasingly common on university campuses, and now are well on track to being normalized as aspects of American politics. Incidents of political thuggery are reported almost daily: just the other day, pro-Trump women at an upscale DC hotel were verbally attacked and apparently physically assaulted by members of a wedding party that was heavy on Democrat attendees; including, reportedly, some top officials from the DNC. A pro-free-speech film was reportedly interrupted by two men wearing masks. Interruption of movies they didn’t like was a tactic used by the Nazis prior to their obtaining official censorship powers. The film “All Quiet on the Western Front” was plagued by Nazi disruptions when released in Germany in 1930. And attempts to shut down dissident speakers on college campuses, such as this, have become so common as to now be almost the default expectation.

    The Assassins. These individuals go beyond the level of violence practiced by the Thugs, and make credible death threats they attempt to carry out against those whose actions or believe they view as unacceptable. The majority of threats and attacks falling in this category have certainly been the doing of radical Muslims; however, some of the more extreme ‘environmentalist’ and ‘animal rights’ groups have also demonstrated Assassin tendencies. At present, however, it is those Assassins who are radical Muslims who have been most successful in inhibiting free expression. Four years in hiding for an American cartoonist. But see also Ecofascism: The Climate Debate Turns Violent, how long until this justification and practice of violence reaches the level of justifying and carrying out actual murders?

    The Enclosure of the Speech Commons. Whereas the Internet and especially the blogosphere offered the prospect of political expression and discussion unfiltered by the traditional media, the primary social-media providers have taken various levels of controlling attitudes toward free speech; Twitter, in my opinion, is especially bad. Partly this is ideological; partly, it probably reflects their ideas about protecting their brands. Yes, there are plenty of ways to communicate online outside of the social media platforms, but their growth has been so rapid that a large proportion of the potential audience is not easily reached outside their domains. Note also that conversations that one would have been private friends talking at home, or over the telephone are now semi-public and sometimes made fully public. Plus, they become part of an individual’s Permanent Record, to use the phrase with which school officials once threatened students.

    The Online Mobs. The concerns of the social media providers about providing online “safe spaces” does not seem to have in the least inhibited the formation of online mobs which can quickly make life unpleasant for their targeted individuals, and even destroy the careers of those individuals. Decades ago, Marshall McLuhan referred to the technology-enabled Global Village; unfortunately, it turns out that this virtual village, especially as mediated through the social media platforms, has some of the most toxic characteristics of the real, traditional village. See my post Freedom, the Village, and the Internet.

    And the mobs do not limit themselves to attacks on the target individual: they frequently attack other individuals who fail to participate in the shunning of that target person. As an example:

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

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

    Increasingly, it’s not just a matter of limiting what a person can say, it’s also a matter of edicting what they must say.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Big Government, Business, Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Education, Environment, Feminism, Media, Society, Tech, Terrorism, USA | 14 Comments »

    Community Size and True Diversity

    Posted by David Foster on 29th December 2019 (All posts by )

    Interesting remarks from Tim Harford, summarizing a study of friendships among college students:

    They found that students in a large, diverse campus sought out and befriended other students very much like themselves. In smaller universities with fewer friendship options, young people had more varied groups of friends because the alternative was to have no friends at all. 

    (link)

    This reminded me of something Chesterton said:

    The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing that is really narrow is the clique….The men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment like that which exists in hell.

    I think that Chesterton’s words represent an important truth, but by no means the whole truth. It is true that much is lost in modern society to the extent that people only associate with others like them. But it is also true that much is lost in traditional societies to the extent that people are denied the opportunity to seek out others of similar interests. And also, in traditional societies, the “fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences” of which Chesterton writes are often to a large extent mediated by standardized and ritualistic behavior.

    Posted in Academia, Deep Thoughts, Human Behavior, Organizational Analysis | 13 Comments »

    A Christmas Reading From Thomas Pynchon

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

    I’ve always liked this passage from Thomas Pynchon’s great novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

    The setting: it is the grim winter of 1944, just before Christmas. The military situation in Europe is not good, and WWII seems as if it will never end. London is under attack by V-2 rockets and V-1 cruise missiles (as they would be called today.) Roger and Jessica, two of the main characters, are driving in a rural area in England and come upon a church where carols are being sung. They decide to go inside.

    They walked through the tracks of all the others in the snow, she gravely on his arm, wind blowing her hair to snarls, heels slipping once on ice. “To hear the music,” he explained.

    Tonight’s scratch choir was all male, epauletted shoulders visible under the wide necks of white robes, and many faces nearly as white with the exhaustion of soaked and muddy fields, midwatches, cables strummed by the nervous balloons sunfishing in the clouds, tents whose lights inside shone nuclear at twilight, soullike, through the cross-hatched walls, turning canvas to fine gauze, while the wind drummed there…..The children are away dreaming, but the Empire has no place for dreams and it’s Adults Only in here tonight, here in this refuge with the lamps burning deep, in pre-Cambrian exhalation, savory as food cooking, heavy as soot. And 60 miles up the rockets hanging the measureless instant over the black North Sea before the fall, ever faster, to orange heat, Christmas star, in helpless plunge to Earth. Lower in the sky the flying bombs are out too, roaring like the Adversary, seeking whom they may devour. It’s a long walk home tonight. Listen to this mock-angel singing, let your communion be at least in listening, even if they are not spokesmen for your exact hopes, your exact, darkest terror, listen. There must have been evensong here long before the news of Christ. Surely for as long as there have been nights bad as this one–something to raise the possibility of another night that could actually, with love and cockcrows, light the path home, banish the Adversary, destroy the boundaries between our lands, our bodies, our stories, all false, about who we are: for the one night, leaving only the clear way home and the memory of the infant you saw, almost too frail, there’s too much shit in these streets, camels and other beasts stir heavily outside, each hoof a chance to wipe him out…….But on the way home tonight, you wish you’d picked him up, held him a bit. Just held him, very close to your heart, his cheek by the hollow of your shoulder, full of sleep. As if it were you who could, somehow, save him. For the moment not caring who you’re supposed to be registered as. For the moment, anyway, no longer who the Caesars say you are.

    O Jesu parvule
    Nach dir is mir so weh…

    So this pickup group, these exiles and horny kids, sullen civilians called up in their middle age…….give you this evensong, climaxing now with its rising fragment of some ancient scale, voices overlapping three and fourfold, filling the entire hollow of the church–no counterfeit baby, no announcement of the Kingdom, not even a try at warming or lighting this terrible night, only, damn us, our scruffy obligatory little cry, our maximum reach outward–praise be to God!–for you to take back to your war-address, your war-identity, across the snow’s footprints and tire tracks finally to the path you must create by yourself, alone in the dark. Whether you want it or not, whatever seas you have crossed, the way home…

    Posted in Christianity, History, Holidays, War and Peace | 8 Comments »

    Media and Young Children

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

    An MRI-based study looked at the effects of:

    –simply reading a story to a child

    –telling the story with the kind of animation that might be presented on a tablet or a TV screen

    –telling the story with the aid of a traditional picture book

    For the 4-year-old kids who were studied, the MRI data was said to suggest better patterns of mental development for the third type of storytelling than for either of the other two.  Note that it was a very small study: only 27 kids, probably too few to draw any kind of definitive conclusions…but interesting.

    From the WSJ article:

    The sound of the storytelling voice on its own seemed to be “too cold” to get the children’s brain networks to fully engage. Like the second bowl that Goldilocks samples, animation of the sort that children might see on a TV screen or tablet was “too hot.” There is just too much going on, too quickly, for the children to be able to participate in what they were seeing. Small children’s brains have no difficulty registering bright, fast-moving images, as experience teaches and MRI scanning confirms, but the giddy shock and awe of animation doesn’t give them time to exercise their deeper cognitive faculties.

    There is a bit of pleasurable challenge in making sense of what he’s seeing and hearing. There is time to reflect on the story and to see its reverberations in his own life—a transaction that may be as simple as the flash of making a connection between a real donkey he once saw with the “honky tonky, winky wonky donkey” of Craig Smith’s picture book. The collaborative engagement that a child brings to the experience is so vital and productive that reading aloud “stimulates optimal patterns of brain development,” as a 2014 paper from the American Academy of Pediatrics put it, strengthening the neural connections that will enable him to process more difficult and complex stories as he gets older.

    This ties in with some comments I made on my post Metaphors, Interfaces, Memes, and Thinking, which expands on some of Neal Stephenson’s ideas:

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

    Posted in Deep Thoughts, Human Behavior, Media | 5 Comments »

    The Old Navy, by Daniel Pratt Mannix III

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

    Admiral Mannix served in the Spanish-American War, the conflicts in Cuba and the Philippines, and the First World War.  His career spanned the years of America’s emergence as a major player on the world stage, and this book offers memorable portraits of the Navy and of America…and of much of the world…during this period.

    After spending his childhood in China (his father was a torpedo expert working for the Chinese government), Mannix entered the US Naval Academy in 1885. When the battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor and the Spanish-American war erupted in 1898, he requested permission to leave the Academy early, and joined the battleship USS Indianapolis.

    The war resulted in a rapid American victory, despite some serious deficiencies in the American conduct of operations (such as the failure to use smokeless powder), and Mannix observed the sad passage of the Spanish admiral into American captivity, in an open boat, wearing civilian clothes loaned to him by an American captain and with his head lowered in deep dejection: “I was never so sorry for anyone in my life.”  He was impressed by the exquisite courtesy of a badly-wounded Spanish officer who had lost a leg:

    As though making his adieux after an enjoyable evening, he thanked us for our “hospitality” (no, he wasn’t being sarcastic) and expressed his profound regret for the annoyance that his unfortunate arrival had caused…I have met men of all nationalities during my years in the Navy; in “good breeding” none of them could equal the upper-class Spaniards.

    After returning to Annapolis, Mannix graduated in 1900, and he sketches what life was like in America at the turn of the last century: some of the popular songs and comedy acts, the Gibson Girl (“the loveliest of all feminine ideas”, in his view), but also the fear of riots and attempted revolution when President McKinley was assassinated in 1901…New York’s ‘streetcar rowdies’, who molested women and beat up any man who tried to stop them…and a riot in Pensacola’s red-light district which involved civilians, soldiers, and sailors (“a far rougher lot than today’s bluejackets”) and which Mannix led a landing party to suppress.

    In 1903, Mannix was assigned to a “friendly mission” of four warships to German ports, as ordered by Theodore Roosevelt.  “These ‘friendship tours’ were quite common in those days and paradoxically served a dual purpose:  they reminded the foreign power that we had a powerful Navy that could reach their home waters while at the same time allowed the people to meet Americans and learn that we were not all strange, uncivilized barbarians.”

    Assigned as an aide on the Admiral’s staff, aboard the battleship Kearsage, he met many German officers and found them mostly friendly.  The Kaiser also visited Kearsage, and Mannix was impressed that he chatted with the enlisted men as well the officers.  “Much to my surprise, he showed a sense of humor.”

    One potentially-disastrous incident involved a collision between a German (or at least Prussian) custom:  civilians on the street were supposed to give way to any uniform-wearing officer…and an American naval custom:  officers generally did not wear their uniforms when ashore.  This collision of customs lead to a physical collision, followed by the use of fists by the American officer, and a challenge to a duel.  The situation could have led to a serious diplomatic incident had it not been defused.

    Throughout his travels, Mannix enjoyed meeting people from other countries…a view that he says was far from universal.  Speaking of a luncheon given by the Lord Mayor of London, he says, “To my astonishment, most of the junior officers were reluctant to attend the luncheon and would far  rather have spent their time playing cards together or chatting in the wardroom mess.”

    Some of the officers he met at the luncheon were members of the First Life Guards, an “elite” regiment that was open only to the wealthy and titled…”Kipling referred to them contemptuously as the “fatted flunkies of the Army.”  But:

    Twenty years later I was in Constantinople and the Household Brigade of the British Army was stationed there.  I looked over the list to see if I could recognize any old acquaintances.  Among all those names there were only two or three who had titles…Where were all those young earls and baronets and honorables?  They were dead.  Most of them had died in August 1914 during the terrible retreat from Mons when the old British Regular Army virtually ceased to exist.  They were not “fatted flunkies” there.”

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Americas, Britain, China, Europe, Germany, History, Middle East, Military Affairs, USA, War and Peace | 22 Comments »

    Thoughts About Globalization and Borders

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

    Richard Fernandez:

    The componentization phase of globalization has begun. One can’t roll the world back to pre-globalization days, but for it to be sustainable, things have to be encapsulated to safeguard protected memory spaces. There is a need for standard interfaces, not “open borders.” The networked world has been overwhelmed by complexity, whether it takes the form of the breakdown of trusted authority or the dazzling profusion of “collusion.” The intellectual challenge is how to make it safe for people to deal with strangers in a connected world. The problem can be solved but it can’t be solved by people who don’t think it’s a potential problem.

    See also Sarah Hoyt’s post Imagine There’s No Nations and my post Coupling.

    Additionally, a relevant article at Commentary: The Global Citizen Fraud.

    Posted in Britain, Deep Thoughts, USA | 13 Comments »

    Robot of the Week

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

    Machine made out of Legos sorts Legos.

    There are apparently 3000 different types of Lego components.

    Posted in Tech | Comments Off on Robot of the Week

    Interesting

    Posted by David Foster on 10th December 2019 (All posts by )

    An artist named Jayne Riew observed that “In the days after the election, people around me struggled to make sense of what had happened. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the female vote. Among women who cast ballots, 42% were with him, not with her. Most of the women and mothers I knew were shocked or angry that other women and mothers could choose Trump over Clinton.”  The common assumption was that Trump voters must be “people who haven’t seen the world,” “resentful of our success,” “unskilled and no-tech,” “old and behind the times,” “white people who are afraid,” etc etc.

    She notes that “to reach 42%, Trump had to have drawn in women who didn’t fit the stereotype,”  and set out to do some actual research.  The resulting website, She’s With Him, is a photo essay based on interviews with 7 female Trump voters.  Worth taking a look.

    Riew’s own website is here.

    Posted in Academia, Civil Liberties, Elections, Politics, Trump, USA | 19 Comments »

    Business Stories

    Posted by David Foster on 8th December 2019 (All posts by )

    We’ve talked before here about the point that most fiction seems to be about people who are lawyers, policemen, criminals, soldiers, spies, students, politicians, and noble but struggling writers. But there are indeed some works of fiction, and some vivid personal memoirs, in which business plays a central role without being portrayed simplistically or as stereotypically evil. Here are some that I like…please add your own favorites in the comments.  (I posted this at Ricochet, in slightly different form, about a week ago)

    The Current War, a recent movie about the late-1800s power struggle to determine which technology…AC or DC…will dominate America’s electrical distribution system. Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla are the key characters, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, and Nicholas Hoult respectively. My review is here.

    The Big Short, a 2015 film about the 2007-2008 financial crisis, based on Michael Lewis’s book. A hedge fund manager concludes that the subprime-loan market is not sustainable, and makes a billion-dollar bet against the relevant mortgage-backed securities. Based on real events. I thought it was very well done.

    God is an Englishman, R F Delderfield. Following his return to England from the Crimean War, Adam Swann identifies a business opportunity: although railroads are being built throughout the country, there will always be sources and destinations of freight which are not on the tracks. Hence, the potential for a nationwide gap-filling road haulage business based on the systematic use of horse-drawn wagons. (This is the first book of a three-book series called the Swann Family Saga.)  Reviewed here.

    Oil for the Lamps of China, Alice Tisdale Hobart. This 1933 novel is about a young American working as a sales rep in China, focused on selling oil for his employer (unnamed, but clearly based on Standard Oil) and increasing volumes by promoting the kerosene lamp as a better alternative to traditional lighting methods. The book was the basis for a 1935 movie of the same name…the film has its moments, but overall is not worthy of the book.

    Father, Son, and Company, by Thomas Watson Jr. This is the best business autobiography I’ve read. It’s about Watson Jr (the long-time CEO of IBM), his difficult relationship with his father, the company they built, and the emergence of the computing industry. It is an emotional, reflective, and self-critical book, without the kind of “here’s how brilliant I was” tone that afflicts too many executive autobiographies. I reviewed it here.

    A Man in Full, by Tom Wolfe. The central character of this 1988 novel is Charlie Croker, an Atlanta real-estate developer who has gotten himself into way too much debt. Other characters include Charlie’s current and former wives, the Black mayor of Atlanta, the bankers who must deal with the debt problem, and a warehouse worker at one of the Croker enterprises. The book also casts a not-very-complimentary light on the Atlanta society/arts scene.

    Trial by Fire, Stephen Buck. The adventures of a Honeywell field engineer in the early days of process-control computing. The book’s title reflects the point that the industrial processes being controlled frequently involved combustion, sometimes in scary circumstances. Much of the author’s work took place outside the US, in countries ranging from Poland to Brazil.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Arts & Letters, Aviation, Biography, Book Notes, Britain, Business, Economics & Finance, Film, Tech, Transportation, War and Peace | 8 Comments »

    What Future for the Global Auto Industry?

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

    **An upcoming Chicago Boyz group discussion**

    There is much media and analyst discussion lately concerning possible sea changes in the auto industry..which would, of course, likely have major impacts throughout the economy and on society as a whole.  Some of the driving factors worth considering include:

    –The government incentives put in place in many countries…in some cases not just incentives but absolute requirements…in favor of electric cars

    –The emergence and growth of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft

    –The development of partial ‘autopilot’ functions for cars, and the anticipated development of full automatic driving at some future point

    –The apparent reduction of interest among young adults and older children in driving and automobile ownership

    –Technological factors, including the continued improvements in battery energy storage capacity–but still very limited in comparison to liquid fuels…the continued incremental improvements in internal-combustion engines…and the emergence of new manufacturing technologies, including 3-D printing aka ‘additive manufacturing’.

    I’d like to have a group discussion of the possible future direction and shape of the industry…let’s do this sometime next week.  If you’re interested in participating, here are some links that are worthwhile thought-starters.

    Vitaliy Katsenslson is a fund manager; his blog is Contrarian Edge–I generally like the way he thinks.  Concerning electric cars in general and Tesla in particular, he says:

    You don’t really know the company until you buy the stock. It has happened to mea few times. We did hundreds of hours of research, bought a stock, and that act of buying activated new senses. I started seeing new angles. Something similar happened to me with Tesla, except I didn’t buy the stock, I bought a car.

    His ownership experience, and the thoughts triggered by the “activated new senses”, are captured in an 11-part series of posts.  You can get it emailed to you by signing up here.

    https://contrarianedge.com/signup-for-tesla-article/

    Concerning self-driving cars, here are three articles reflecting various degrees of enthusiasm versus caution:  from Forbes, from Investor’s Business Daily, and from Road/Show.  Also this Financial Times article, which is about the difficulties involved in the interaction of automated systems with humans in other cars or with human pedestrians.

    An interesting general discussion of AI misinformation and hype…not primarily focused on driverless cars although it does touch on that subject.

    Concerning battery technology, here’s a link on the trends in $/kWh and the future possibilities.  See also my 2017 post on battery materials constraints.

    Homework:  Please take a look at the above articles, at least the ones that aren’t behind paywalls..  I’ll put up a post as a place for discussion sometime next week.

    Posted in Business, Energy & Power Generation, Tech, Transportation | 20 Comments »