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    Even Smart People Get It Wrong Sometimes

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

    Economist Art Laffer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Read the rest of this entry »

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

    Financial Markets Commentary

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

    John Hussman on valuations

    The saga of Broker Joe, from 2007

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

    Worthwhile Reading

    Posted by David Foster on 27th January 2019 (All posts by )

    Why do journalists love twitter and hate blogging?

    The legacy of China’s Confucian bureaucracy.  Related:  my previous post on the costs of formalism and credentialism.

    Stroking egos does nothing for students — raising expectation does.

    Magic and Politics.

    Related to the above:  Witches: the new woke heroines.

    Legos, marketing, and gender.  “In 1981,” says a woman who as a child was pictured in a Legos ad back then, “LEGOs were ‘Universal Building Sets’ and that’s exactly what they were…for boys and girls. Toys are supposed to foster creativity. But nowadays, it seems that a lot more toys already have messages built into them before a child even opens the pink or blue package.”

    What will be the economic impact of China’s increasing emphasis on economic control and preferential treatment for state-run enterprises?

    What is the fastest the US economy can grow?

    Midnight at the Gemba. Kevin Meyer visits the night shift at the medical-device molding plant he was running.

    Posted in Blogging, Business, Capitalism, China, Culture, Economics & Finance, Management, Media, Religion | 12 Comments »

    Do You Have Lamarr in Your Car?

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

    It has been suggested that the short-range wireless protocol known as Bluetooth should instead have been called Lamarr, in honor of the actress/inventor Hedy Lamar.

    Hedy (maiden name Kiesler) was born in Vienna in 1914. From her early childhood she was fascinated by acting–and she was also very interested in how things worked, an interest which was encouraged by her bank-director father.  She began acting professionally in the late 1920s, and gained fame and notoriety when she appeared–briefly nude–in the film Ecstasy.  It was followed by the more respectable Sissy, in which she played the Empress Elisabeth of Austria.

    In 1933, Hedy married the arms manufacturer Friedrich Mandl, finding him charming and fascinating and also probably influenced by his vast wealth.  She was soon turned off by his Fascist connections and his extremely controlling nature–rather ridiculously, he even tried to buy up all copies and negatives of Ecstasy.  He did not allow her to pursue her acting career, but did require her to participate, mainly as eye-candy, in high level meetings with German and Italian political leaders and with people involved in military technology.  What she heard at these sessions both interested and alarmed her.

    Finding her marriage intolerable and the political situation in her country disturbing, Hedy left and first came to London. There she met MGM head Louis B Mayer, who offered her an acting job at $125/week.  She turned down the offer, but booked herself onto the same transatlantic liner as Mayer, bound for the USA.  On shipboard, she impressed him enough to receive a $500/week contract.  He told her that a name change would be desirable, and she settled on “Lamarr”…the sea.

    With the outbreak of war in Europe, Hedy followed the news closely.  For reasons that are not totally clear, she began thinking about the problems of torpedo guidance:  the ability to correct the weapon’s course on its way to the target would clearly improve the odds of a hit.  She had heard the possibility of a wire-guided torpedo discussed over dinner at Mandl’s…but this approach had limitations.  Radio was an obvious alternative, but how to prevent jamming?

    As an anti-jamming technique, she hit on the idea of having the transmitter and the receiver change frequencies simultaneously and continuously…she may have been inspired partly by the remote-control radio receiver which was available at the time, possibly either she owned one or had seen one at somebody else’s home.  With synchronized frequency changes at both ends of the radio link, jamming would be impossible unless an enemy knew and could emulate the exact pattern of the changes.  But how to synchronize the transmitter and the receiver?

    Enter Hedy’s friend George Antheil, who called himself “the bad boy of American music.”  Antheil was fascinated by player pianos and had created and performed compositions which depended on simultaneous operation of several of these players.  Maybe the punched paper strips used by player pianos could provide a solution to the frequency-hopping problem?

    US Patent 2282387, issued to Hedy Kiesler Markey (the name reflecting a brief unsuccessful marriage) and George Antheil, implemented this approach.  The feeding of the paper strip on the launching ship and that inside the torpedo would be started simultaneously, and the holes in the strips would select the frequencies to be used at any given time…88 rows are mentioned, offering 88 frequency choices, but obviously this number could be smaller or larger.  Commands to the rudder of the torpedo would be sent via modulation of a carrier wave on the always-changing frequency selected.  (The two inventors had retained an electrical engineer to assist with specification of some of the details.)

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Biography, Book Notes, Culture, Film, Media, Tech, War and Peace | 18 Comments »

    2018 Reading

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

    Some books that I read and liked over the last year…

    The Future is History, Masha Gessen.  Russia during the last days of Communism, during the transitional age, and under Putinism, viewed through the personal stories of numerous individuals.

    On Tangled Paths, Theodor Fontane.  The author has been called “The Jane Austen of Germany.”  In this novel,  it is the *male* protagonist who is under pressure to marry into money to save his family from financial disaster.  Good character development and a vivid portrayal of Berlin in the 1870s

    The Bounty:  The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, Caroline Alexander.  The famous mutiny, the events leading up to it, and its aftermath.  A much more favorable interpretation of Captain Bligh’s character than the usual view.

    Red Star Under the Baltic, Victor Korzh.  Memoirs of a Soviet submarine commander who served in a little-known theater of WWII.  The author writes largely from an engineering perspective, and in addition to combat episodes he describes the remarkable efforts that were necessary to keep the submarine in operating condition–including such things as repurposing the bow thruster drives, while at sea, to replace the failed stern thruster drive system.

    A Pocketful of Stars and other books in the Applied Topology series by Margaret Ball, which I reviewed here.  Don’t let the Applied Topology tag scare you off; no math is required to read and enjoy.

    Born Fighting:  How the Scotts-Irish shaped America, James Webb.  Some interesting history and perspectives.  It’s worthwhile to read this book in conjunction with Thomas Sowell’s Black Rednecks and White Liberals.

    A Vagabond Journey Around the World, Harry Franck.  In 1904, this recent college graduate decided to travel around the world starting with no money at all.  (He modified this plan to carry enough cash to pay for photographic supples.)  Very interesting, though long.  Franck made and wrote about numerous other trips, including a 1930s visit to the Soviet Union which he documented in A Vagabond in Sovietland.

    A World on Edge:  The End of the Great War and the Dawn of a New Age, Daniel Schoenpflug.  The author paints the environment in the immediate aftermath of the War by telling the stories of individuals ranging from Harry Truman, Ferdinand Foch, Crown Prince Willhelm of Prussia, Arnold Schönberg, Kathe Kollwitz, Walter Gropius, and Ho Chi Min to many lesser-known individuals such as a former sailor of the German Navy and a Cossack woman named Marina Yurlova.

    Tragedy & Challenge:  An Inside View of UK Engineering’s Decline, Tom Brown.  The problems and fate of British manufacturing companies, as seen by an individual with extensive experience as an executive and board member.  There’s a review here.

    The Tyrant’s Daughter, J C Carleson.  Fifteen-year-old Laila lived a privileged life in her unnamed Middle Eastern country, where her father was absolute ruler.  Then he was killed in a coup, and she escapes with her mother and brother to a suburb of Washington DC…where she faces both the problems of fitting in at her new school and the haunting question of whether her father was indeed the monster that he is portrayed by the American news media.  This is positioned as a YA (teenager)  book, but is IMO also good reading for adults.  The author is a former CIA agent.

    The Theme is Freedom, John Dos Passos.  A collection of essays by this “Lost Generation” writer.  I quoted his observations about some of his Leftist comrades of the 1920s, here.

    Several more, which I may review individually and/or in a future batch.

    I’m currently reading a novel of the American Revolution called Celia Garth, which I learned about from a discussion at Bookworm.  It was highly recommended by Sgt Mom, among others.  I’m really liking it so far.

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Book Notes, Business, Civil Liberties, Europe, History, Management, Russia, War and Peace | 29 Comments »

    Sneaky Robots and Robotic Bureaucrats

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

    An artificial intelligence program was assigned the task of turning satellite images into street maps.  It was graded by comparing reconstructed images (reconstructed from the map) and comparing them with the original; also, by the clarity of the street map.  The grades were used by the program to continually improved its performance.

    But what the program sneakily learned to do was to encode details of the original image into the street map, in a manner invisible to humans, thereby optimizing its grade on the reconstructed image…independently of how well the street map…which was the actual desired product…actually reflected the original image.

    Humans, also, often respond to incentives in ways very different from those expected by the designers of those incentives…as many creators of sales commission plans and manufacturing bonus plans have discovered.  Bureaucracies, especially, tend to respond to the measurements placed on them in ways that are not consistent with the interests of the larger organization or society that they are supposed to be serving.  See Stupidity, Communist-Style and Capitalist-Style and The Reductio ad Absurdum of Bureaucratic Liberalism.

    Posted in Big Government, Business, Deep Thoughts, Management, Russia, Tech | 1 Comment »

    Conservative Populism: Tucker Carlson vs David French

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

    Links at Ricochet, where the is an extensive (and pretty contentious) discussion.

    Posted in Conservatism, Media, Political Philosophy, Trump, USA | 23 Comments »

    Aunt Sally versus Huck Finn

    Posted by David Foster on 4th January 2019 (All posts by )

    A thoughtful article at The Wall Street Journal.

    Posted in Book Notes, Civil Liberties, Deep Thoughts, USA | 18 Comments »

    Why So Much Anger and Resentment?

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

    2018–The Year of Living Hatefully is the title of a recent post by Roger Simon:

    Practically no one was happy. Or if they were, they didn’t show it. All they wanted to do was vilify the opposition or even their neighbors.  Democrats hating Republicans (see the new movie “Vice”) and vice versa were just the tip of a rancid iceberg. Never Trumpers hate Trumpers and the reverse, Sanders supporters hate Beto supporters, Antifa hate the bourgeoisie, the Proud Boys hate Antifa, FOX hates CNN and MSNBC hates FOX…It goes on and on. Families and friends split from each other. People shut up at work for fear they’ll be fired. Thanksgiving is a festival of hostility, Christmas (when we’re allowed to speak its name) is only slightly better.

    Roger attributes the toxic atmosphere in large part to the decline in religiousness.  I’m not convinced by that explanation; there are plenty of examples of religion as a cause of mutual hostility as well as cases where it has served as part of a cure.

    One factor in the development of the toxic atmosphere, IMO, has been the cult of “self-esteem development” carried to an excess…this seems to have resulted in a large number of people who simply cannot stand challenge or disagreement.

    Still, there are plenty are angry and hostile people who are old enough to have missed the era of self-esteem indoctrination.

    Another factor is social media,which seems to lend itself to the formation of on-line lynch mobs, as I discussed in my post freedom, the village, and social media.

    Economic fear and uncertainty surely also plays a role.  Although Roger remarks that “all this (craziness and anger) is happening in a country awash in affluence, also as almost never before, with close to full employment for all ethnic and racial groups,” it remains true that many people are highly disappointed in their failure to advance more economically, and many who feel that their children will be less-well-off than themselves.  Economic factors aside, there are also many who have been severely disappointed in their relationships and blame this disappointment in large part on society.

    A friend of mine once remarked that “if someone is bitter, then he is publicly announcing that in his own eyes he is a failure.”  I thought this was a profound comment, and by that measure, there are a lot of people in America today who consider themselves to be failures.

    But still, there are a lot of people who are doing very well economically, who seem to have excellent relationships/family lives, but who also have a lot of anger at a large number of their fellow Americans.

    Also,  I remember something Ralph Peters wrote many years ago:

    Man loves, men hate. While individual men and women can sustain feelings of love over a lifetime toward a parent or through decades toward a spouse, no significant group in human history has sustained an emotion that could honestly be characerized as love. Groups hate. And they hate well…Love is an introspective emotion, while hate is easily extroverted…We refuse to believe that the “civilized peoples of the Balkans could slaughter each other over an event that occurred over six hundred years ago. But they do. Hatred does not need a reason, only an excuse.

    This also is, I think, a profound remark.  And today’s intense focus on group identities has surely led to much more viewing of people as avatars of a group, rather than individuals–making it that much easier to despise and attack them.

    And a significant part of American academia is endlessly busy manufacturing new and revised group identities, and stirring up resentments based thereon.

    Do you agree with Roger that 2018 was the most Hateful year in recent history?  If so, what do you see as the primary causes and the potential remedies, if any?

     

    Posted in Current Events, Deep Thoughts, Society, USA | 4 Comments »

    New Year’s Eve

    Posted by David Foster on 31st December 2018 (All posts by )

    Posted in Deep Thoughts, Holidays | 19 Comments »

    Christmas 2018

    Posted by David Foster on 24th December 2018 (All posts by )

    Newgrange is an ancient structure in Ireland so constructed that the sun, at the exact time of the winter solstice, shines directly down a long corridor and illuminates the inner chamber. More about Newgrange here and here.

    Grim has an Arthurian passage about the Solstice.

    Don Sensing has thoughts astronomical, historical, and theological about the Star of Bethlehem.

    Vienna Boys Choir, from Maggie’s Farm

    Lappland in pictures…link came from the great and much-mourned Neptunus Lex

    Snowflakes and snow crystals, from Cal Tech. Lots of great photos

    In the bleak midwinter, from King’s College Cambridge

    Rick Darby has some thoughts on the season. More here.

    The first radio broadcast of voice and music took place on Christmas Eve, 1906. (although there is debate about the historical veracity of this story)

    An air traffic control version of  The Night Before Christmas.

    O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, sung by Enya

    Posted in Christianity, Holidays, Poetry | 6 Comments »

    Dating While Being a Trump Supporter, in Manhattan

    Posted by David Foster on 20th December 2018 (All posts by )

    Pamela Garber write about her experiences.

    What motivates the people who are expressing such rage about the President and his supporters?  While surely some of them have thought through the issues and come to their opinions through their own reasoning processes, I think that for many of them, the explanation can be found in a comment at this post, which is about the “progressive” anger at Israel:

    Leftist political dynamics are, in my opinion, as clear an example of emergence (i.e, an apparently complex property of a collective possessed by none of the individuals, but caused by simple interactions between the parts) as exists. Like the schooling of fish, or the beautiful murmurations of starlings, Progressives can intellectually turn on a dime in the most amazing and – if you’re viewing from a distance – beautiful ways. While scuba diving, I loved poking my finger in a school of brilliantly colored reef fishes and watching the entire school turn in perfect simultaneity like the members of a North Korean dance troupe or dancers in a Busby Berkeley film. To achieve this level of perfection, each individual in the collective needs to know nothing about about the larger picture, only what the immediate neighbors are doing. From a distance, Democratic “talking points of the day” murmurations require no intellect, no opinions to “re-examine”, but are more akin to crystal formation on a window in wintertime.

    Garber, who is a therapist, offers her own thoughts about the psychological dynamics at work in the anger.

    Posted in Civil Society, Culture, Human Behavior, USA | 36 Comments »

    The Costs of Formalism and Credentialism

    Posted by David Foster on 16th December 2018 (All posts by )

    Via Grim, an interesting post at the Federalist:  Our Culture War Is Between People Who Get Results And Empty Suits With Pristine Credentials.

    Subtitle:  Donald Trump declines the authority of the cultural sectors that most assertively claim it. That’s the real conflict going on.

    I’m reminded of an interchange that took place between Picasso and Monet as the German Army advanced through France in 1940.  Monet was shocked to learn that the enemy had already reached Reims.  “But what about our generals?” asked Monet. “What are they doing.”

    Picasso’s response: “Well, there you have it, my friend. It’s the Ecole des Beaux-Arts”

    …ie, formalists who had learned one set of rules and were not interested in considering deviations from same.

    It was an astute remark, and it fits very well with the observations of Andre Beaufre, who before the invasion had been a young captain on the French General Staff. Although he had initially been thrilled to be placed among this elevated circle…

    I saw very quickly that our seniors were primarily concerned with forms of drafting. Every memorandum had to be perfect, written in a concise, impersonal style, and conforming to a logical and faultless plan–but so abstract that it had to be read several times before one could find out what it was about…”I have the honour to inform you that I have decided…I envisage…I attach some importance to the fact that…” Actually no one decided more than the barest minimum, and what indeed was decided was pretty trivial.

    The consequences of that approach became clear in May 1940.

    In addition to the formalism that Picasso hypothesized (and Beaufre observed) on the French General Staff, the civilian side of the French government was highly credential-oriented.  From the linked article:

    In the first days of July, 1940, the American diplomat Robert Murphy took up his duties as the chargé d’affaires at the new U.S. embassy in Vichy, France. Coming from his recent post in Paris, he was as impressed as he expected to be by the quality of the Vichy mandarinate, a highly credentialed class of sophisticated officials who were “products of the most rigorous education and curricula in any public administration in the world.”

    As the historian Robert Paxton would write, French officials were “the elite of the elite, selected through a daunting series of relentless examinations for which one prepared at expensive private schools.” In July 1940, the elite of the elite governed the remains of their broken nation, a few days after Adolf Hitler toured Paris as its conqueror. Credentials were the key to holding public office, but not the key to success at the country’s business.

    It certainly appears that the current protests and riots in France are at least in part due to long-simmering resentment at that country’s credentialed class, whose performance has not matched their pretensions.  An interesting anecdote about Macron, in the Sunday Express:

    This is a man who chastised a teenager at an official event for calling him “Manu” (the friendly diminutive of Emmanuel), saying that he should not express a view until he has acquired a degree and a job.

    and

    Macron is a graduate of the Ecole Normale d’administration (ENA), an elite Grande Ecole created by General De Gaulle in 1945 to break the upper class control of top Civil Service positions. 

    In reality, only nine percent of ENA the graduates that fill the corridors of power in industry and government have a working class background.  The top 12 or 15 students will move to L’Inspection générale des finances (IGF), and then into a career in politics, or finance, Macron’s chosen route since he became a partner with Rothschild and Cie bank.

    Americans should not feel smug about our relatively-lesser obsession with credentials.  I’ve previously quoted  something Peter Drucker wrote in 1969:

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

    and

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

    We as a country are a lot closer to accepting Grande Ecole status for Harvard Law School and similar institutions than we were when Drucker wrote the above.  We haven’t gone as far as France and other European nations, but the trend has clearly been in the wrong direction.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, China, Deep Thoughts, Education, Europe, France, History, Society, Trump, USA | 15 Comments »

    Freedom, the Village, and Social Media

    Posted by David Foster on 9th December 2018 (All posts by )

    This rerun (retitled from the original) inspired by Glenn Reynolds’ decision to deactivate his Twitter account.

    I’ve reviewed two books by German writer Hans Fallada: Little Man, What Now?, and Wolf Among Wolves (the links go to the reviews), both of which were excellent. I’ve also read his novel Every Man Dies Alone, which is centered on a couple who become anti-Nazi activists after their son Ottochen is killed in the war…it was inspired by, and is loosely based on, the true story of  a real-life couple who distributed anti-Nazi postcards and were executed for it.

    I thought this book was also excellent…the present post, though, is not a book review, but rather a development of some thoughts inspired by a particular passage in the story.

    Trudel, who was Ottochen’s fiancee, is a sweet and intelligent girl who is strongly anti-Nazi..and unlike Ottochen’s parents, she became an activist prior to being struck by personal tragedy: she is a member of a resistance cell at the factory where she works.  But she finds that she cannot stand the unending psychological strain of underground work–made even worse by the rigid and doctrinaire man (apparently a Communist) who is leader of the cell–and she drops out. Another member of the cell, who has long been in love with her, also finds that he is not built for such work, and drops out also.

    After they marry and Trudel becomes pregnant, they decide to leave the politically hysterical environment of Berlin for a small town where–they believe–life will be freer and calmer.

    Like many city dwellers, they’d had the mistaken belief that spying was only really bad in Berlin and that decency still prevailed in small towns. And like many city dwellers, they had made the painful discovery that recrimination, eavesdropping, and informing were ten times worse in small towns than in the big city. In a small town, everyone was fully exposed, you couldn’t ever disappear in the crowd. Personal circumstances were quickly ascertained, conversations with neighbors were practically unavoidable, and the way  such conversations could be twisted was something they had already experienced in their own lives, to their chagrin.

    Reading the above passage, I was struck by the thought that if we are now living in an “electronic village”…even a “global village,” as Marshall McLuhan put it several decades ago…then perhaps that also means we are facing some of the unpleasant characteristics that–as Fallada notes–can be a part of village life. And these characteristics aren’t something that appears only in eras of insane totalitarianism such as existed in Germany during the Nazi era. Peter Drucker, in Managing in the Next Society, wrote about the tension between liberty and community:

    Rural society has been romanticized for millenia, especially in the West, where rural communities have usually been portrayed as idylic. However, the community in rural society is actually both compulsory and coercive…And that explains why, for millenia, the dream of rural people was to escape into the city. Stadluft macht frei (city air frees) says an old German proverb dating back to the eleventh or twelfth century.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Blogging, Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Current Events, Deep Thoughts, Media, Tech | 25 Comments »

    Snowballs, Sleds, and Cultures, with Some Thoughts from Goethe and the Kaiser

    Posted by David Foster on 5th December 2018 (All posts by )

    A 9-year-old boy lobbied successfully to get his town’s ban on snowball fights overturned.

    Reminded me again of some comments by Goethe, circa 1828, which were the subject of a post here several years ago. He observed that when Englishmen came to town, they were invariably a hit with the local women. Indeed, when one of them came to visit, Goethe found it necessary to brace himself for the inevitable female tears upon the visitor’s departure. His friend Eckermann objected that Englishmen were not “more clever, better informed, or more excellent at heart than other people.”

    “The secret does not lie in these things, my good friend,” returned Goethe. ““Neither does it lie in birth and riches; it lies in the courage which they have to be that for which nature has made them. There is nothing vitiated or spoilt about them, there is nothing halfway or crooked; but such as they are, they are thoroughly complete men. That they are also sometimes complete fools, I allow with all my heart; but that is still something, and has still always some weight in the scale of nature.”

    Goethe goes on to contrast the upbringing of English boys with that typical in his own country:

    “In our own dear Weimar, I need only look out of the window to discover how matters stand with us. Lately, when the snow was lying upon the ground, and my neighbour’s children were trying their little sledges in the street, the police was immediately at hand, and I saw the poor little things fly as quickly as they could. Now, when the spring sun tempts them from the houses, and they would like to play with their companions before the door, I see them always constrained, as if they were not safe, and feared the approach of some despot of the police. Not a boy may crack a whip, or sing or shout; the police is immediately at hand to forbid it. This has the effect with us all of taming youth prematurely, and of driving out all originality and all wildness, so that in the end nothing remains but the Philistine.

    It’s not obvious to me why Goethe didn’t take up this issue of excessive policing with his very good friend Karl August, who as Grand Duke was pretty much the absolute ruler of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. Still, an interesting remark, given the increasing constraints on childhood in our own present culture.

    What is also very interesting is that almost a century later, former Kaiser Wilhelm II made some rather similar observations in his memoirs:

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Britain, Civil Society, Education, Germany, History, Human Behavior, USA | 24 Comments »

    Heather MacDonald

    Posted by David Foster on 3rd December 2018 (All posts by )

    …on identity politics.  Interview with Mark Levin.  Highly recommended.

     

     

    Posted in Academia, Feminism, Leftism, USA | 2 Comments »

    A Retrotech Adventure

    Posted by David Foster on 2nd December 2018 (All posts by )

    The Essex Steam Train and Riverboat leases 22 miles of railroad track from the state of Connecticut, and owns several steam and diesel locomotives plus various rolling stock. They operate regular passenger excursions plus seasonal specials.  Essex also offers a training and experience program for people who would like to learn a little bit about operating a steam locomotive.  Being interested in steam power, I signed up.

    The program includes some written material to be reviewed at home, a group classroom session of about an hour, and then an individual hour operating a locomotive under the guidance of an experienced engineer.

    On arriving, I was surprised at the scale of the operation.  Although I was there in the off season (early November), judging by the parking lot and the number of railcars the place must be quite busy during prime months.  First was the class, which covers safety rules and basic steam locomotive principles.  It was taught by the railroad’s machinist, who described himself as the “spare parts department.”  Next was a group visit to the locomotive cab to familiarize ourselves with the layout of controls and indicators.

    For our group, the locomotive was #40, a Mikado type built in 1920.  (The name “Mikado” became popular because an early batch of locomotives of this type was sold to the Japanese Railways.)  #40 started its life hauling logs and lumber in the West, then pulled passenger and freight trains in North Carolina until it was retired circa 1950…purchased by the Essex for restoration in 1977.  The locomotive has a rated boiler pressure of 180 psi and can generate a tractive effort of 35,000 pounds.

    On a steam locomotive, the cutoff point of steam admission to the cylinders can be controlled by the engineer.  Early cutoff lets the steam do more of its work expansively, improving fuel economy at the cost of some reduction in power.  The reverser sets the cutoff point as well as controlling the direction of travel–while the reversers on early locomotives were manually-operated and required considerable strength to operate (and sometimes led to broken arms), the reverser on #40 is a fingertip control, using air pressure to do the hard work.

    It was a drizzly and somewhat chilly day, but very comfortable in the locomotive cab. (The boiler backhead is very hot, do not touch!)  Basic controls and indicators include the throttle, the reverser, the boiler pressure gauge, the injectors, the boiler water glass, and the brakes with their associated pressure gauges.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, Energy & Power Generation, History, Tech, USA | 4 Comments »

    What Will be the Fate of Brick & Mortar Retail?

    Posted by David Foster on 24th November 2018 (All posts by )

    The traditional retail industry, and the real-estate operations that provide space for it, are not, for the most part, doing too well these days.  Billions of dollars that would once–not long ago–have been purchased in a local physical space are now purchased online and shipped from a warehouse that may be hundreds or thousands of miles away.  Many services, too, that would formerly have been obtained in a local location are now obtained online…travel agencies, for example, have been largely supplanted by online services.

    So, here’s a question to think about:  What kinds of businesses are likely to continue to require local presence, and perhaps even to increase in their local presence needs?

    And what kind of businesses are currently major users of local space, but are likely to need a lot less in the future?

    An example in the first category would surely be restaurants/bars.

    An example in the second category would be, IMO, branch banks.

    Your thoughts?

    Posted in Business, Real Estate, Tech, USA | 72 Comments »

    A Critique of Electronic Health Records Systems

    Posted by David Foster on 22nd November 2018 (All posts by )

    …with extension to other kinds of application software.

    At the New Yorker, of all place:  Why Doctors Hate Their Computers.

    See also this 2012 article in the Atlantic.

    [Jonathan adds: See also this 2009 Chicago Boyz post and discussion.]

    Posted in Big Government, Business, Medicine, Tech | 8 Comments »

    Coupling

    Posted by David Foster on 15th November 2018 (All posts by )

    (No, this post is not about sex…sorry. Nor is it about electrical engineering, though it might at first give that impression.)

    The often-interesting General Electric blog has an article about drones, linked to a cloud-based AI platform, which are used to inspect power lines and detect incipient problems–for example, vegetation which is threatening to encroach on the lines and short them out, or a transformer with a tendency to overheat.  The article mentions a 2003 event in which an encounter between an overgrown tree branch and a sagging power line resulted in a wide-area blackout that affected 50 million people.

    The inspection drone sounds like a very useful and productivity-improving tool: obviously, inspecting thousands of miles of power lines is nontrivial job. But the deeper issue, IMO, is the fact that one problem in one place can propagate over such a wide area and affect such a vast number of people.  Power system designers and the people who operate these systems are certainly aware of the need to minimize fault propagation:  circuit breakers and fuses, network analysis tools,  and the technologies of protective relaying were developed, by GE among others, precisely for reasons of fault localization.  But experience shows that large-scale fault propagation still sometimes does take place.

    This problem is not limited to electrical systems.  The mention of the tree-branch-caused 2003 blackout reminded me of a passage from the historian Hendrik Willem Van Loon:

    Unfortunately in the year 1914 the whole world was one large international workshop. A strike in the Argentine was apt to cause suffering in Berlin. A raise in the price of certain raw materials in London might spell disaster to tens of thousands of long-suffering Chinese coolies who had never even heard of the existence of the big city on the Thames. The invention of some obscure Privat-Dozent in a third-rate German university would often force dozens of Chilean banks to close their doors, while bad management on the part of an old commercial house in Gothenburg might deprive hundreds of little boys and girls in Australia of a chance to go to college.

    This probably overstates the interconnectedness of the global economy as it existed in 1914, but would fit our present-day global economy very well.  (The author was talking about the origins of WWI, which he blamed largely on economic interconnectedness…not correct, IMO, but the war was largely caused, or at least reached the scale that it did, because of another type of interconnectedness…in the shape of alliances.)

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Big Government, Business, Capitalism, Deep Thoughts, Economics & Finance, Energy & Power Generation, Human Behavior, International Affairs, Trump, War and Peace | 18 Comments »

    The Great War and its Aftermath

    Posted by David Foster on 11th November 2018 (All posts by )

    Did you really believe that this war would end wars
    Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
    The killing and dying it was all done in vain
    Oh willy mcbride it all happened again
    And again, and again, and again, and again

    The Green Fields of France

    This haunting passage certainly expresses well what has become the common view of the First World War–that it was a war for no really valid reason, conducted with unforgivable incompetence. And there is little question that the War had a shattering effect on the societies of the major belligerents.  I’ve written about this in my post The Great War and Western Civilization (linking a thoughtful post by Sarah Hoyt) and also reviewed Erich Maria Remarque’s important and neglected novel The Road Back, which deals with the War’s impact on a group of young German veterans.

    Taking a contrarian viewpoint, historian Benjamin Schwartz suggests that maybe the British decision to enter the war wasn’t really so unreasonable:

    The notion, advanced by the German historian Fritz Fischer and some of his protégés, that there wasn’t much difference between the war aims of Wilhelmine and of Nazi Germany remains controversial. It’s clear, however, that at least after the war began, German plans effectively called for (along with the subjugation of much of Eastern Europe and Russia) the permanent subjugation of France, the transformation of Belgium into a “vassal state,” and the German navy’s taking of French and Belgian Channel ports to use as bases—actions that would certainly threaten Britain’s naval security…

    Gary Sheffield’s book Forgotten Victory makes a similar argument about the necessity of the war, at least from a British standpoint.  The author argues that militarism was very strong in the German ruling circles and that there was no effective check on the Kaiser and the generals; he also describes the treatment of civilians in the German-occupied countries as having been in some cases pretty brutal:

    William Alexander Percy, an American volunteer with Herbert Hoover’s Commission for Relief in Belgium, remembered seeing batches of Belgian workers returning from forced labor in Germany.  “They were creatures imagined by El Greco — skeletons, with blue flesh clinging to their bones, too weak to stand alone, too ill to be hungry any longer.”

    He also mentions, though, that one major difference between German policy in the two world wars was that the deportations during the First World War were halted in the face of international condemnation.  (It also seems unlikely that this kind of forced labor would have continued after the end of the war, had German won.  The Kaiser was unstable, a narcissist, and a militarist, but he was not a Hitler, at least at that point in his life.)

    Sheffield also challenges the claim of British military incompetence throughout the war…indeed, he argues that the British Army became a “learning organization,” and points to technological innovations (such as sound ranging…”the Manhattan Project of the 1914-1918 war”…and the instantaneous fuse) in addition to tactical improvements.  Finally, he suggests that the perception of universal disillusionment and cynicism in the aftermath of the War has been exaggerated by the writings of well-connected, highly-educated and highly-verbal people, and such feelings were less-common among the population as a whole.

    Sheffield has clearly done a lot of research, and makes his arguments well.  Still, it is hard to imagine that given the countries, technologies, and leaders of the time, any likely alternative could have been much worse than what did in fact happen.

    See also Sgt Mom’s Veterans Day post and the new post by Sarah Hoyt.

     

    Posted in Book Notes, Britain, France, Germany, History, Military Affairs, USA, War and Peace | 15 Comments »

    Wild and Wasted Virtues

    Posted by David Foster on 7th November 2018 (All posts by )

    Some of the pre-election commentary, especially from the Left, reminds me once again of an interesting Chesterton passage from 1908:

    The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful. For example, Mr. Blatchford attacks Christianity because he is mad on one Christian virtue: the merely mystical and almost irrational virtue of charity. He has a strange idea that he will make it easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive. Mr. Blatchford is not only an early Christian, he is the only early Christian who ought really to have been eaten by lions. For in his case the pagan accusation is really true: his mercy would mean mere anarchy. He really is the enemy of the human race– because he is so human.

    Previous reference to this passage:  Sympathy for the Devil

    Posted in History, Philosophy, Politics | 16 Comments »

    Nicely Put

    Posted by David Foster on 3rd November 2018 (All posts by )

    Bill Reader, at Sarah Hoyt’s blog, speaking of American democracy:

    It is also remarkable in how undramatic it was in its conception, admitting the probability that people with some flawed ideas are not flawed in all ideas—that extreme measures to silence a person because of disagreement, even totally valid disagreement over things that are an existential threat to the nation, would throw many babies out with the bathwater and render the country draconian and uncomfortable in the meanwhile.

    A very good point–someone having bad ideas, or at least ideas that we think are bad, does not mean that he doesn’t also have good ideas.

    One thing that I have noticed about “Progressives” is that their categorization engines tend to be over-aggressive:  if someone has any of the opinions/beliefs in a particular list, then it is assumed that he/she also has all other beliefs in that list.  For example, IIRC, I’ve seen commenters assail our friend Bookworm for being an Evangelical Christian, whereas actually, she is Jewish. They simply cannot grasp that there might be a Trump-supporting human who is in material ways unlike their mental model of Trump supporters (uneducated, angry, anti-sex, highly-religious Christian, etc).

    The quoted passage is from a very interesting essay that is worth reading in full.

    Posted in Civil Liberties, Deep Thoughts, Human Behavior, Leftism, Trump, USA | 9 Comments »

    The Two Minutes Hate is Being Indefinitely Extended

    Posted by David Foster on 29th October 2018 (All posts by )

    Atlantic writer Franklin Foer:

    Any strategy for enhancing the security of American Jewry should involve shunning Trump’s Jewish enablers. Their money should be refused, their presence in synagogues not welcome. They have placed their community in danger.

    I wonder if Franklin Foer has been equally vehement in denouncing the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic harassment on American university campuses, or the ongoing relationship of prominent Democrats with Louis Farrakhan, or the attempted political murders of Steve Scalise and others. After Nancy Pelosi said “I just don’t even know why there aren’t uprisings all over the country,”  did he call for the shunning of Pelosi contributors?

    Saturday, from a journalist named Julia Loffe:

    And a word to my fellow American Jews: This president makes this possible. Here. Where you live. I hope the embassy move over there, where you don’t live was worth it.

    So she thinks the US should establish its foreign policy to ensure against a possible violent reaction from any of the worst criminals, crazies, and thugs in the country?  That is an equation with no solutions, and her foregoing tweet doesn’t strike me as even being sane.

    Also Saturday, journalist Salena Zito was confronted by a reporter for the Guardian:

    In middle of a somber moment at staging area while I was talking to a member of the Jewish community this @guardian reporter started screaming at me that I was an anti-Semite/that I caused shooting because I reports on Trump  & to leave and kept screaming in my face to get out.

    “Progressives” often accuse Trump supporters of being “haters”, but it should be obvious that many of the Progs are themselves filled with hate and rage to a frightening degree.

    John Podhoretz:

    Based on the early evidence, the shooter was not only consumed with a hatred of Jews but possessed a kind of sneering contempt for Trump on the grounds that Trump was basically a Jewish agent or a Jew-lover himself. Trump can only be blamed for the murderous Jew-killing actions of someone who thought of him that way by people who are so consumed by hatred of him that there is nothing they won’t blame him for.

    It has even been asserted that Soros is shorthand for the Jews, and anyone who has said anything about him (presumably he means said anything negative about him) has blood on their hands.  (I suspect that the people making these claims are mostly the same people who object vehemently to “big money in politics.”)

    Masha Merkulova, who came to the US from the Soviet Union:

    Not a week goes by that I don’t hear about university professors who are concerned about openly identifying as Zionist for fear of being punished in their professional lives; or college students who worry about their grades and social lives if they object to their professors’ anti-Israel words and actions; or teens whose teachers are outwardly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic, or whose classmates draw a swastika next to their name.

    Yet this sort of thing seems to be of little interest to most prominent journalists, “intellectual” writers, activist-entertainers, etc…most probably because it can’t be used as a hammer to beat up on their favorite targets.

    Much of the Left today seems absolutely blinded by hate. (For one more example, see the disruption of a moment of silence for the Pittsburgh victims, at a Marsha Blackburn event in Tennessee.)  As the election approaches, I am convinced that it’s important to keep these people as far away as possible from the levers of power.  The assertions that there should be a prohibition against criticism of George Soros seems like a clear indicator that the Left, if they had the power, would like to treat this as a Reichstag Fire moment to shut down speech and political activity of which they don’t approve.

    Posted in Academia, Crime and Punishment, Current Events, Jewish Leftism, Judaism, Leftism, USA, War and Peace | 32 Comments »

    The Cuban Missile Crisis, as Viewed From a Soviet Launch Facility (rerun)

    Posted by David Foster on 21st October 2018 (All posts by )

    This month marks the 56th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world dangerously close to thermonuclear war.

    Several years ago,  I read  Rockets and People, the totally fascinating memoir of Soviet rocket developer Boris Chertok, which I reviewed here.

    Chertok’s career encompassed both military and space-exploration projects, and in late October 1962 he was focused on preparations for launching a Mars probe. On the morning of Oct 27, he was awakened by “a strange uneasiness.” After a quick breakfast, he headed for the missile assembly building, known as the MIK.

    At the gatehouse, there was usually a lone soldier on duty who would give my pass a cursory glance. Now suddenly I saw a group of soldiers wielding sub-machine guns, and they thoroughly scrutinized my pass. Finally they admitted me to the facility grounds and there, to my surprise, I again saw sub-machine-gun-wielding soldiers who had climbed up the fire escape to the roof of the MIK. Other groups of soldiers in full combat gear, even wearing gas masks, were running about the periphery of the secure area. When I stopped in at the MIK, I immediately saw that the “duty” R-7A combat missile, which had always been covered and standing up against the wall, which we had always ignored, was uncovered.

    Chertok was greeted by his friend Colonel Kirillov, who was in charge of this launch facility. Kirollov did not greet Chertok with his usual genial smile, but with a “somber, melancholy expression.”

    Without releasing my hand that I’d extended for our handshake, he quietly said: “Boris Yevseyevich, I have something of urgent importance I must tell you”…We went into his office on the second floor. Here, visibly upset, Kirillov told me: “Last night I was summoned to headquarters to see the chief of the [Tyura-Tam] firing range. The chiefs of the directorates and commanders of the troop units were gathered there. We were told that the firing range must be brought into a state of battle readiness immediately. Due to the events in Cuba, air attacks, bombardment, and even U.S. airborne assaults are possible. All Air Defense Troops assets have already been put into combat readiness. Flights of our transport airplanes are forbidden. All facilities and launch sites have been put under heightened security. Highway transport is drastically restricted. But most important—I received the order to open an envelope that has been stored in a special safe and to act in accordance with its contents. According to the order, I must immediately prepare the duty combat missile at the engineering facility and mate the warhead located in a special depot, roll the missile out to the launch site, position it, test it, fuel it, aim it, and wait for a special launch command. All of this has already been executed at Site No. 31. I have also given all the necessary commands here at Site No. 2. Therefore, the crews have been removed from the Mars shot and shifted over to preparation of the combat missile. The nosecone and warhead will be delivered here in 2 hours.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Cuba, History, Russia, Space, War and Peace | 12 Comments »