Miscellaneous Business/Economics/Energy Items

Apple is going to make Watches and MacBooks in Vietnam.  (More precisely, Apple suppliers will make the products there.  “Make” in this context meaning mostly “assemble”, I think.)  Apple is also planning to produce the iPhone 14 in India, with only about a 2-month lag from its initial production in China.

Intel will be partnering with Brookfield Infrastructure Partners to help pay for factory expansion projects, with Brookfield contributing up to $30 billion.  Most immediately, the money will pay for the expansion of Intel’s Ocotillo manufacturing campus in Chandler, Arizona, with Intel funding 51% and Brookfield funding 49% of the total project cost.  (This is pretty different from BIP’s typical investments, which tend to involve such things as railroads, toll roads, pipelines, and electricity transmission)

A useful overview of planned and in-development fabs, worldwide.

Electricity prices, marginal costs, and the last kilowatt.

Texas has banned BlackRock and several other firms from doing business with the state.

Finland may be facing power outages this winter.  On the other hand, if their Olkiluoto 3 nuclear power plant goes into production at the end of the year, as planned, this should help a lot.  Another plant is planned, taking total nuclear contribution in Finland to 60%.

Also,perhaps a way could be found to harness the power from their PM’s very high-energy dancing.  (If other Western leaders could dance like that, would it somehow influence their minds to adopt more rational energy policies?)

Elsewhere in Europe, skyrocketing energy prices are causing a lot of hardship–and will surely create serious economic pressures as much manufacturing in the affected countries becomes cost-prohibitive)

The Euro is not doing very well versus the dollar.  More here.

Paul Graham:

f you think people have scar tissue, you should see organizations. Each time there’s a disaster, they create a process to prevent future disasters of that type. Eventually they accrete a thick layer of these processes that prevents them from moving. Then they die.

Burnout

Emmett Shear, at Twitter (@eshear) suggests that Burnout, which he defines as “a particularly modern affliction, feeling simultaneously overwhelmed and paralyzed” is best thought of as a symptom with many different causes–the most important of which are permanent on-call, broken steering, and mission doubt.  ‘Permanent on-call’ is self-explanatory, ‘broken steering’ is the sense that your actions have no impact, ‘mission doubt’ arises when you question whether this work is really worth doing at all…ie, even if the steering was functioning properly, maybe this trip isn’t worthwhile.

It’s a useful formulation.  I’d note that some jobs have always had a permanent on-call aspect; railway workers, for example…see Linda Niemann’s memoir of her experiences on the old Southern Pacific Railroad–no cell phones or even pagers in those days, but there were ‘callers’ who would come to your residence and wake you up when you were needed.  Also sailors.  But on-call jobs are a lot more common today than they were 20 or 30 years ago.

I think the feeling of ‘broken steering’ has also long been present, in the case of large-bureaucracy employees and some manufacturing workers.  An assembly-line worker knows that his task does contribute to the final product..but the connection probably seems pretty remote and abstract when your actual job is to tighten three bolts.

‘Mission’ can be understood in two ways: the purpose of the job in terms of what it produces, and the purpose of the job in terms of income to support yourself and your family.  As the second factor becomes taken for granted, the first surely becomes more important.  (See Maslow)

Very relevant to this topic is Zeynep Ton’s recent book The Good Jobs Strategy.  She discusses the unpredictably-fluctuating employee schedules which are so common in retail..maybe not pure on-call, but close to it…and the disruptive effect these schedules have on an employee’s personal life.  She also talks about time pressures that lead to jobs inevitably being done poorly.  A former Target cashier, for example, said she was under so much pressure to ring up sales as quickly as possible that if a customer bought 10 bottles of Gatorade–in two flavors–she would scan the first one and then hit the quantity key for ten.  The inventory system thought the store had sold 10 lime-flavored Gatorades and no cherry-flavored Gatorades, rather than the mix that had actually just been sold.  She also cites a study of a $10 billion company which found that the system had the right information for only 35% of the products…for the other 65%, the discrepancies between the system inventory balances and the actual quantities available averaged 5 units…a third of the target stocking levels.  In one case, a certain item was continually out of stock, to the frustration of a regular customer.  It turned out that the inventory system thought there were 42 of these on hand, whereas there were actually none.  AND, since this particular store hadn’t sold any units in several weeks (because they didn’t have any to sell), the system automatically reduced the target stocking level for that item!  Situations like this are surely destructive both of sense of mission and of a functioning steering system.

Your thoughts?

Command Failure in the Ardennes, December 1944

This past December 16th 2022 marked the 78th anniversary of the German Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein (“Operation Watch on the Rhine“) offensive in the Ardennes area of Europe, otherwise known popularly as “The Battle of the Bulge.”  The “official narrative” for this battle is that it was an “intelligence surprise” where “Ultra’ code breaking signals intelligence missed because Hitler kept all of the important communications on untappable telephone/telegraph land lines or special couriers. The sole exception being General Patton’s 3rd Army G-2 intelligence officer Colonel (later Brigadier General) Oscar Koch who didn’t rely upon ULTRA and put together the complete picture through a process now known as “All Source Analysis“. Which built an intelligence picture for every intelligence discipline. signals, human, photographic, geographic, combat reports plus dogged order of battle cross filing that sorted every bit of information to plot existence, location and status of enemy ground and air units. A week before the German attack, December 9th 1944, Colonel Koch briefed General Patton’s full 3rd Army staff as to German capabilities and most dangerous probable intentions of those capabilities. Based upon this briefing, Patton ordered his 3rd Army staff to put together a series of counter attack options that were immortalized in a scene from the 1970 movie PATTON.

 

Figure above from 1997 masters paper “Signal Security In The Ardennes Offensive 1944-1945 Laurie G. Moe Buckhout, Maj. USA

Like a lot of narratives of World War 2, it uses a couple of nuggets of truth with the German ULTRA security black out and Colonel Koch’s brief to Patton to hide and conceal more than inform. It turns out that a lot more people on the allied side than Colonel Koch foresaw the impending German offensive. And that the failure to act on these multiple sources of accurate intelligence was a Command Failure by the “Ultra Cliques” of allied officers at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces  (SHAEF), United States Strategic Air Force (USSTAF), the American 12th Army Group, and American 1st Army.

This command failure came less from a German security induced blindness of ULTRA than from a months long manipulation of Ultra intelligence data stream by senior officials in the British government — located in the Ministry of Economic Warfare, the “Oil Lobby” through out the Air Ministry and Whitehall ‘Committee Bureaucracy’ as well as the Directorate of Bombing Operations in the Air Ministry — intent on making German oil supplies the top strategic target set over German transportation targets in the Combined Bomber Offensive.  Their motives here were not only to collapse the German economy as a “War Termination Strategy,” but more importantly, make sure Air Power was seen as responsible for the German collapse after the Russian capture of the Romanian Ploesti oil fields in August 1944.  (If you are seeing some post-war institutional motivations here…you are correct.)

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These manipulations were discovered in February 1945 by SHAEF when the after action forensic analysis by Royal Air Force Deputy Chief of Air Staff (DCAS) Air Marshall Bottomley found the Combined Strategic Targets Committee (CSTC) was systematically removing messages relating to the distress of the German Railroad, and collapse of the German economy resulting from the railway problems, starting in the fall of 1944.

Read more

Worthwhile Reading and Viewing

Much political anger is based on attributing to opponents views that they don’t actually hold, according to this study, summarized and discussed on twitter here.

Paul Graham, who himself writes some interesting essays, says:

No one who writes essays would be surprised by this. When people attack an essay you’ve written, 95% of the time they do it by making up something you didn’t actually say, and then attacking that.

The skill of surgeons varies tremendously, with bottom quartile surgeons having over 4x as many complications as the best surgeons in the same hospital…so says this study.  And surgeons are keenly aware of who is good & who is bad – their rankings of others are very accurate.  Summarized and discussed on twitter here, where there is also a reference to the classic study  showing 10X range among programmers, and another study measuring the impact of managers on revenue performance in the game industry.

Some innovation stories from small US manufacturers, and a shop-floor driven tooling innovation at GE Aviation.

Speaking of tools, here’s a study suggesting that using mechanical tools improves language skills.

The limits of narrative, at Quillette.

Ryan Peterson, CEO of the digital freight forwarder Flexport, discovered an AI tool that lets you create art without being an artist, and has been having fun with it.

The Dictatorship of Theory

(Here’s something I wrote several years ago…I was reminded of it by a current post and discussion discussion at Quillette, so thought I”d post it here and link it there.  The references aren’t current, but the issues raised remain very real.)

Professor “X” teaches at a prominent private university. Recently, he taught a course on “Topics in Theory and Criticism.” He thought the class was going poorly–it was difficult to get the students to talk about the material–but on the last day of class, he received an ovation.

“I didn’t understand what was going on until a few days later,” he writes (in an e-mail to Critical Mass.) “Several students came to see me during office hours to tell me that they had never taken a course quite like this one before. What they had expected was a template-driven, “here’s how we apply ****ist theory to texts” approach, because that is how all of their classes are taught in the English department here…Not a single one of these students had ever read a piece of theory or criticism earlier than the 1960s (with the exception of one who had been asked to read a short excerpt from Marx.) They simply had never been asked to do anything other than “imitate without understanding.””

In university humanities departments, theory is increasingly dominant–not theory in the traditional scholarly and scientific sense of a tentative conceptual model, always subject to revision, but theory in the sense of an almost religious doctrine, accepted on the basis of assertion and authority. To quote Professor “X” once again: “Graduate “education” in a humanities discipline like English seems to be primarily about indoctrination and self-replication.”

The experiences of Professor “X” are far from unique. Professor “Y,” chair of an English department, describes his experiences in interviewing for a new job (also in an e-mail to Critical Mass). “How truthful could I afford to be about my growing dissatisfaction with theory? Should I trump up some ghastly theoretical allegiances, or should I just come clean about my desire to leave theory behind to try to become genuinely learned?” He decided to do the latter, cautiously. In his job talk, he said:

“The writings I’ve published draw on a number of different theoretical perspectives…the overarching goal I’ve set for myself in my scholarship, though is gradually to lessen my reliance on the theories of others…” He sensed at this point that he had lost the support of about three quarters of his audience, and he was not offered the job. Those who did like the statement were older faculty members–one of whom later told Prof “Y” that she hadn’t heard anyone say something like this in twenty years.

Why is theory (which would often more accurately be called meta-theory) so attractive to so many denizens of university humanities departments? To some extent, the explanation lies in simple intellectual fad-following. But I think there is a deeper reason. Becoming an alcolyte of some all-encompassing theory can spare you from the effort of learning about anything else. For example: if everything is about (for example) power relationships–all literature, all history, all science, even all mathematics–you don’t need to actually learn much about medieval poetry, or about the Second Law of thermodynamics, or about isolationism in the 1930s. You can look smugly down on those poor drudges who do study such things, while enjoying “that intellectual sweep of comprehension known only to adolescents, psychopaths and college professors” (the phrase is from Andrew Klavan’s unusual novel True Crime.)

The dictatorship of theory has reached its greatest extremes in university humanities departments, but is not limited to these. Writing 50 years ago, C S Lewis says the following about his sociologist hero in the novel That Hideous Strength:

“..his education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than the things he saw. Statistics about agricultural laboureres were the substance: any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer’s boy, was the shadow…he had a great reluctance, in his work, to ever use such words as “man” or “woman.” He preferred to write about “vocational groups,” “elements,” “classes,” and “populations”: for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen.”

It’s unlikely that the phenomenon Lewis describes has become any less prevalent in the intervening half-century. But in the social sciences, there is at least some tradition of empiricism to offset an uncontrolled swing to pure theory.

The theoretical obsession has even made a transition from academia into the business world, via MBA programs. Many newly-graduated MBAs have in their head some strategic “paradigm,” into which they will fit any business reality like a Procrustean bed. The 4X4 strategic grid, or the mathematical decision tool, are far more real to them than the actual details of manufacturing and selling a particular product. Like Lewis’ sociologist, they believe in “the superior reality of things not seen.” The attractions of theory-driven kind of thinking in business are similar to those that make it attractive in university humanities departments. By emphasizing theoretical knowledge, an MBA with little experience can convince himself (and possibly others) that he deserves more authority than those with broad experience and “tacit knowledge” in a particular business.

I’m not arguing that theory is useless in business management, any more than I’m arguing that it’s useless in academia. I am arguing that theory should be balanced by factual knowledge and empiricism, and that it should never be allowed to degenerate into dogma.

There’s an old saying: when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In today’s world, we have an epidemic of people metaphorically trying to use hammers to drive nails, or to use saws to weld metal. Academia bears a grave responsibility for this situation. Too often, professors have acted not like true scholars, but like preachers believing that their salvation lies in getting people to accept the One True Doctrine, entire and unmodified–or like salesmen who have only one product to sell and will do their best to sell it to you, regardless of whether it has anything to do with your actual needs or not.

See also Studying ‘Frankenstein’ Without Reading ‘Frankenstein’.