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    Summer Rerun–Of Energy and Slavery

    Posted by David Foster on 19th September 2019 (All posts by )

    (edited, with updates)

    Democratic candidates are demonizing the energy industry–Bernie Sanders even called for the criminal prosecution of fossil fuel executives–believing or at least implying that America uses fossil fuels only because it is to the benefit of these companies, never considering the vital service that these fuels provide to millions of Americans and indeed to the entire world…which reminds me of an earlier article and discussion.

    Christopher Hayes, writing at The Nation in 2014, asserted a connection between human slavery–in particular, human slavery as practiced in the US prior to 1865–and the use of fossil fuels. Specifically, he argues that the reluctance of energy companies and their investors to lose the financial value of their fossil-fuel assets is directly analogous to the reluctance of pre-Civil-War southern slaveholders to lose the financial value of their human “property.”He also asserts that environmentalists attacking the use of fossil fuels are in a moral and tactical position similar to that of the pre-war Abolitionists.

    His article reminded me of a few things.

    1) Sometime around 1900, a young PR man who had recently been hired by GE in Schenectady realized that he had a problem. He had gotten his job through glowing promises about all the great press coverage he would get for the company. But his boss had called him in and announced that he had “a terrific front-page story” about a 60,000-kilowatt turbine generator that the company had just sold to Commonwealth Edison. The PR man accurately realized that this story would get maybe a paragraph on the financial pages. Looking for ideas, he went to see GE’s legendary research genius, Charles Steinmetz, explaining that headlines need drama, and “there’s nothing dramatic about a generator.”

    Steinmetz picked up a pencil, did a little calculating, and quickly determined that this one rotating machine could do as much physical work as 5.4 million men. The slave population in the US on the eve of the Civil War had been 4.7 million. To the young PR man, Steinmetz said: “I suggest you send out a story that says we are building a single machine that, through the miracle of electricity, will each day do more work than the combined slave population of the nation at the time of the Civil War.”

    2) Frederick Douglass, himself a former slave, visited a shipyard in New Bedford shortly after obtaining his freedom. Here are his comments on observing a cargo being unloaded:

    In a southern port, twenty or thirty hands would have been employed to do what five or six did here, with the aid of a single ox attached to the end of a fall. Main strength, unassisted by skill, is slavery’s method of labor. An old ox, worth eighty dollars, was doing, in New Bedford, what would have required fifteen thousand dollars worth of human bones and muscles to have performed in a southern port.

    3) Speaking of GE, Owen Young was a farm boy who grew up to become chairman of that company. To his biographer Ida Tarbell, he provided a vivid word-picture of what life had been like for a farm wife back in the slightly earlier times. Here, he remembers Monday–wash day:

    He drew from his memory a vivid picture of its miseries: the milk coming into the house from the barn; the skimming to be done; the pans and buckets to be washed; the churn waiting attention; the wash boiler on the stove while the wash tub and its back-breaking device, the washboard, stood by; the kitchen full of steam; hungry men at the door anxious to get at the day’s work and one pale, tired, and discouraged woman in the midst of this confusion.

    The reality is that non-human mechanical energy has been and continues to be a liberating force for humanity. A society which makes little use of nonhuman energy can maintain a small and wealthy aristocracy, but broad-based prosperity requires extensive use of nonhuman energy sources–and with today’s technological realities, a large portion of this energy needs to come from fossil fuels.

    Hayes does not seem to understand, or want to recognize, that the benefits of an energy source accrue not only to the companies and individuals who develop and own that energy source, but also to the people of the society at large. (The benefits of the coal and oil (and later natural gas) burned to power the turbines made by Owen Young’s company did not go only to the resource owners and to GE and the utility companies, but also to the farm housewives about whom he spoke.) At one point in the Hayes article he seems to reach the edge of this understanding — “Before fossil fuels, the only way out of this drudgery was by getting other human beings to do the bulk of the work that the solar regime required of its participants” — but does not really follow up on it. The thrust of his article is that the elimination of fossil fuels would require energy companies to give up something like $10 trillion in wealth. He does not focus on what the American people as a whole would have to give up.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Energy & Power Generation, Environment, Leftism, Tech | 3 Comments »

    Labor Day Rerun: Attack of the Job-Killing Robots

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

    (This is a 3-part series, link to next post is at the end)

    Here’s a new factory for making automobile frames, specifically designed to minimize the need for human labor.  The CEO of the company that built it actually said, “We set out to build automobile frames without people.”

    At the start of the process, rough steel plates are inspected by electronic sensors, automatically pushing aside any that deviate from tolerances.  Conveyors take the plates through punching, pressing, assembling, and nailing machines, as well as a machine that can insert 60 rivets simultaneously in each frame.  A set of finishing machines then rinse, dry, spray-paint, and cool the frames.  Aside from a few men moving frames between conveyor belts, the floor routine of the plant requires almost no hand labor.

    And today’s robotics and artificial-intelligence advances go far beyond automating routine manufacturing labor and take over the kind of cognitive functions once thought to be exclusive to human beings. Here, for example, is a new AI-based system that displaces much of the thought-work which has been required of the people operating railway switch and signal installations:

    The NX control machine is in effect the “brain” of the system. It automatically selects the best optional route if the preferred route is occupied.  It will allow no conflicting routes to be set up. It eliminates individual lever control of each switch and signal.

    Pretty scary from the standpoint of maintaining anything like full employment, don’t you think?

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Business, Economics & Finance, Tech | 24 Comments »

    Labor Day Rerun: Technology, Work, and Society

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

    Here is an intriguing book concerned with the exponential advances in technology and the impact thereof on human society.  The author believes that the displacement of human labor by technology is in its very early stages, and sees little limit to the process.  He is concerned with how this will affect–indeed, has already affected–the relationship between the sexes and of parents and children, as well as the ability of ordinary people to earn a decent living.  It’s a thoughtful analysis by someone who clearly cares a great deal about the well-being of his fellow citizens.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Britain, Capitalism, Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Economics & Finance, History, Society, Tech | 9 Comments »

    The Ideological Turing Test

    Posted by David Foster on 26th August 2019 (All posts by )

    The Turing test is a means of assessing whether an automated system is truly intelligent by testing its ability to simulate an actual human being in conversation…the test to be conducted via terminals, over a communications link. Here’s an excerpt from Alan Turing’s own example of a hypothetical conversation:

    Interrogator: In the first line of your sonnet which reads “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” would not “a spring day” do as well or better?

    Witness: It wouldn’t scan.

    Interrogator: How about “a winter’s day,” That would scan all right.

    Witness: Yes, but nobody wants to be compared to a winter’s day.

    Interrogator: Would you say Mr. Pickwick reminded you of Christmas?

    Witness: In a way.

    Interrogator: Yet Christmas is a winter’s day, and I do not think Mr. Pickwick would mind the comparison.

    Witness: I don’t think you’re serious. By a winter’s day one means a typical winter’s day, rather than a special one like Christmas.

    At a considerably lower literary level, quite a few automated telephony systems today make an attempt to convince their targets that they are dealing with an actual human being, at least for a few seconds.

    The ideological Turing test…the term was invented by Bryan Caplan, following some comments by Paul Krugman…refers to an individual’s ability to accurately state opposing political and ideological views.  Caplan quotes John Stuart Mill: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”

    My observation is that neither side in America’s current political divisions is over-endowed with people capable of passing the ITT.  Paul Krugman asserted, unsurprisingly, that liberals do it better:

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Elections, Human Behavior, Marketing, Politics, Tech | 30 Comments »

    Summer Rerun: Metaphors, Interfaces, Memes, and Thinking

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

    This rerun of an earlier post (slightly reworked) was inspired by a comment by MCS at this post:

    We are now living in the first post-literate society where the masses will be directed by rumor. Memes will take the place of reasoned discussion.

    Neal Stephenson wrote In the Beginning was the Command Line, a strange little book which would probably be classified under the subject heading “computers.”  While the book does deal with human interfaces to computer systems, its deeper subject is the impact of media and metaphors on thought processes and on work.

    Stephenson contrasts the explicit word-based interface with the graphical or sensorial interface. The first (which I’ll call the textual interface) can be found in a basic UNIX system or in an old-style PC DOS system or timesharing terminal. The second (the sensorial interface) can be found in Windows and Mac systems and in their respective application programs.

    As a very different example of a sensorial interface, Stephenson uses something he saw at Disney World–a hypothetical stone-by-stone reconstruction of a ruin in the jungles of India. It is supposed to have been built by a local rajah in the sixteenth century, but since fallen into disrepair.

    The place looks more like what I have just described than any actual building you might find in India. All the stones in the broken walls are weathered as if monsoon rains had been trickling down them for centuries, the paint on the gorgeous murals is flaked and faded just so, and Bengal tigers loll among stumps of broken columns. Where modern repairs have been made to the ancient structure, they’ve been done, not as Disney’s engineers would do them, but as thrifty Indian janitors would–with hunks of bamboo and rust-spotted hunks of rebar.

    In one place, you walk along a stone wall and view some panels of art that tell a story.

    …a broad jagged crack runs across a panel or two, but the story is still readable: first, primordial chaos leads to a flourishing of many animal species. Next, we see the Tree of Life surrounded by diverse animals…an obvious allusion (or, in showbiz lingo, a tie-in) to the gigantic Tree of Life that dominates the center of Disney’s Animal Kingdom…But it’s rendered in historically correct style and could probably fool anyone who didn’t have a PhD in Indian art history.

    The next panel shows a mustachioed H. sapiens chopping down the Tree of Life with a scimitar, and the animals fleeing every which way. The one after that shows the misguided human getting walloped by a tidal wave, part of a latter-day Deluge presumably brought on by his stupidity.

    The final panel, then, portrays the Sapling of Life beginning to grow back, but now man has ditched the edged weapon and joined the other animals in standing around to adore and praise it.

    Clearly, this exhibit communicates a specific worldview, and it strongly implies that this worldview is consistent with traditional Indian religion and culture. Most viewers will assume the connection without doing further research as to its correctness or lack thereof.

    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.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Arts & Letters, Blogging, Book Notes, Deep Thoughts, Film, Human Behavior, Internet, Obama, Tech | 9 Comments »

    More Heinlein Stories

    Posted by David Foster on 28th July 2019 (All posts by )

    I recently posted a brief review of The Man Who Sold the Moon, a 1950 story about the first lunar trip, and thought some reviews of other early Heinlein stories might be of interest as well.  (For those who haven’t yet read these stories, I’ve tried to minimize spoilers.)

    Let There be Light (published in 1940).  Archie Douglas, a scientist, tries to pick up a very attractive woman who is dining by herself. She politely turns him down, but it soon transpires that she is the very same Doctor M L Martin with whom Douglas has a scientific meeting scheduled.  (M L = Mary Lou.)  Initially, Archie refuses to believe that a woman so attractive could have such outstanding scientific credentials, but he is soon convinced, and the two begin a research collaboration that quickly develops romantic overtones.

    Their effort initially focuses on the development of electroluminscent light panels, making use of Mary Lou’s earlier research on the firefly–but when Archie’s factory-owner father faces the prospect of being run out of business by discriminatory electric rates imposed by the power cartel, the pair decides to reverse the process and efficiently create electricity from sunlight.  They succeed…but the power cartel is not happy about the prospect of cheap distributed generation and will do anything to keep them from bringing their technology to market.

    A fun story, with lots of snappy banter between the pair.

    The Roads Must Roll (published in 1940).  Larry Gaines, chief engineer of the Reno–San Diego roadtown, is explaining the rolling-road technology and its social/economic impact to an Australian visitor.  These ‘roadtowns’ are huge multistrip conveyor belts:  passengers can get on at any point and then, depending on the length of their journey, move from the initial 5mph strip all the way over to the 100mph strip.  More conducive to intermediate stops than the Elon Musk approach!

    The fast strip is wide enough to allow shops and restaurants to be located on it…Gaines and his visitor are conversing while having lunch at Jake’s Steak House. (“To dine on the fly makes the miles roll by.”)  The Australian (who is Transport Minister of that country) is impressed with what he has seen and what Gaines tells him about its usefulness and social impact–but he demurs politely: “”isn’t it possible that you may have put too many eggs in one basket in allowing your whole economy to become dependent on the functioning of one type of machinery?”

    Gaines responds that the potentially-serious reliability issue is not with the machinery, but with the men who tend it: “Other industries can go on strike, and only create temporary and partial dislocations…But if the roads stop rolling, everything else must stop; the effect would be the same as a general strike: with this important difference:  It takes a majority of the population fired by a real feeling of grievance, to create a general strike, but the men that run the roads, few as they are, can create the same complete paralysis.”

    “We had just one strike on the roads, back in ”sixty-six.  It was justified, I think, and it corrected a lot of real abuses–but it mustn’t happen again.”

    Gaines is confident that there will be no such problems in the future, he tells his guest: the engineers who manage the road’s operation are now part of a military-like organization with high esprit de corps:  indeed, they are graduates of the United States Academy of Transport, and even have their own song, to the tune of “Those caissons go rolling along.”

    Just then, Gaines’ coffee lands in his lap.  The strip has abruptly begun slowing to a stop.  He soon discovers that members of his workforce have fallen under the spell of an ideology called Functionalism, which holds that people who do the most critical work in a society should have political power to match. And, what is more, the primary instigator of the rebellion is…Gaines’ own deputy.

    I’m not sure whether the technology would really be workable–with strips running at speeds up to 100mph, it would seem that the resulting winds would create an insoluble problem, even with Heinlein’s proposed solution (partitions to isolate air flow between the different strips)  But it’s a good story, and points out a real potential issue with critical infrastructure operated by key, hard-to-replace personnel.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Energy & Power Generation, Society, Space, Tech | 19 Comments »

    Well, That’s Interesting

    Posted by David Foster on 25th July 2019 (All posts by )

    Tulsi Gabbard is suing Google for $50MM and also seeking injunctive relief.

    Link

    The article at the link includes the complaint.

    Posted in Advertising, Business, Civil Liberties, Tech | 21 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading

    Posted by David Foster on 22nd July 2019 (All posts by )

    Haven’t posted one of these for while, so here are a few links I found interesting…

    Tom Wolfe on the space race as a combat of individual champions in the ancient style.

    Zoning rules as an enemy of shade.

    Sarah Hoyt on the human tendency to assume that the conditions of the past still apply.  (Even the purely imagined and stereotypical conditions of the past, in some cases, I’d add)

    Interesting ‘blog’ by Holly (Maths Geek).  (Actually a Twitter feed…people who are on Twitter would IMO do well to mirror all content onto a traditional blog unless they are willing to have their work at the mercy of Jack Dorsey and his minions)

    Despite all the concern and hype about Russian hacking, China’s spying and influence within our borders are rising.  See also this case of a former GE engineer and a businessman charged with stealing turbine technology, with the “financial and other support” of the Chinese government.  Additionally, see my post So, really want to talk about foreign intervention?

    Posted in Big Government, Blogging, China, Deep Thoughts, Feminism, History, Human Behavior, Science, Space, Tech | 8 Comments »

    The First Trip to the Moon, as Envisaged by Robert Heinlein

    Posted by David Foster on 19th July 2019 (All posts by )

    … in his 1950 story, The Man Who Sold the Moon.  Given the upcoming anniversary of the actual first moon landing, I thought it would be fun to go back and take a look at this fictional version of the first trip.

    In Heinlein’s story, the first manned lunar landing is not government-driven. Rather, it is the achievement of entrepreneur/industrialist Delos D Harriman, known to his friends and associates as ‘D.D.”  Having long dreamed of going to the moon, he finally decides that the time is right.

    Harriman-known as “our bad boy” to his fellow Directors of the power cartel–finds his colleagues reluctant to invest in a venture whose costs are so high and whose returns are uncertain.  Even his long-time partner, George Strong, fails to see either financial return or emotional appeal in the effort:

    George, isn’t there anything in your soul but discounts and dividends? Didn’t you ever sit with a girl on a soft summer night and stare up at the Moon and wonder what was there?

    Yeah, I did once.  I caught a cold.

    Nevertheless, Strong supports the project out of loyalty, and some tycoons support it because supersalesman Harriman is able to convince them that there is money for them in the project–or loss, if they decline to participate.  Much of the story is devoted to Harriman’s strategies for fund-raising, some of which skirt–or go over–the lines of legality and ethics. He implies to the Moka-Coka company, for example, that another soft drink maker plans to turn the Moon into a massive billboard (using a rocket to scatter black dust on the surface in patterns), and suggests that the public-spirited Moka company might like to invest in the project to preclude such use of the moon by their rival.

    As an old real-estate operator, Harriman is very focused on the question:  who owns the moon?…he argues that the question is indeed meaningful, based on real-estate doctrine that a property owner owns a wedge going down to the center of the earth and extending up to infinity. He doesn’t want lunar ownership vested in any country, even the US, because he thinks it would result in world war (given the moon’s value as a rocket-bomb base), and he does want it vested in his operation, for reasons of profitability as well as protection from bad uses.  His legal maneuvering, involving the UN as well as all countries over which the path of the moon passes–and a mix of non-profit, for-profit, and anonymous corporations–is intricately described.

    For the technology of the moon trip, Harriman had hoped to use a nuclear fuel which has been applied to power generation, but it proves too unstable for use in a rocket–so well-known chemical rocket technology must be employed instead (rockets are commonly used for long-distance transportation in the era where this story is set).  On the advice of Harriman’s chief engineer, Andrew Ferguson, the most technically-qualified man in rocketry, Bob Coster, is hired to run the project…but he evidently lacks sufficient management experience and is soon overwhelmed.  Harriman tries to help him out:

    “Top administration ain’t engineering, and maybe I can show you a few tricks there, if you’ll let me….Top bossing is like sex; until you’ve had it, you don’t know about it.”  Harriman had the mental reservation that if the boy would not take advice, he would suddenly be out of a job, whether Ferguson liked it or not.

    Although the story does deal with the technical aspects of the moon trip, that is not its primary focus…it is really a “business romance”, as Colby Cosh called it. “The Man Who Sold The Moon” emphasizes the financial difficulties, deals, the marketing, and the interpersonal stresses involved in the project–even Harriman’s wife is strongly opposed to his pursuit of his dream.   There are endless angles for the raising of money developed by Harriman and his friends, even soliciting contributions from children.

    The “man who sold the moon” tag becomes literal when, inspired by stories of the Florida land boom–“sometimes a parcel would change hands a dozen time before anyone got around to finding out that the stuff was ten-foot deep in water”–Harriman suggests selling lots on the moon itself:

    “We can offer bargains better than that–an acre, a guaranteed dry acre, for maybe ten dollars–or a thousand acres at a dollar an acre.  Who’s going to turn down a bargain like that?  Particularly after the rumor gets around that the Moon is believed to be loaded with uranium?”

    “Is it?”

    “How should I know?  When the boom sags a little we will announce the selected location of Luna City–and it will just happen to work out that the land around the site is still available for sale.  Don’t worry, Saul, if it’s real estate, George and I can sell it.  Why, down in the Ozarks, wheter the land stands on edge, we used to sell both sides of the same acre.”

    Comparisons between Harriman and Elon Musk come readily to mind–see the Colby Cosh article–though I don’t think Musk has been credibly accused of anything as far over the line as several of Harriman’s maneuvers.  It has also been suggested that Harriman’s name, and some aspects of his character, are owed to the railroad builder Edward Henry Harriman.

    I don’t think the date of the first lunar landing is mentioned in the story itself, but it has been placed–based on Heinlein’s future history timeline and on other stories–in 1978.  So real life beat out science fiction, at least from a date standpoint, by nine years.

    Could it have really happened that way–the first moon trip not via a gigantic government/corporate program piggybacking off of military missile technology, but rather by a private/corporate venture?  Given the vast amounts of money spent on the Apollo program and its predecessors–certainly much more than the fictional Harriman and his tycoon friends could have raised–it may seem impossible.  But would it really have been?

    Posted in Book Notes, Business, Capitalism, Civil Society, Space, Tech, USA | 30 Comments »

    Heat and the Movies

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

    Hot weather encourages feelings of gratitude for the existence of air conditioning, the primary inventor of which (at least as far as a practical system goes) was Willis Carrier.  His original motivation was not the improvement of human comfort, but rather solving air quality problems affecting the operations of a printing company.  But A/C was quickly applied to the dehumidification and cooling of human was well as industrial environments.

    Initially, systems were large and expensive and hence better-fitted to businesses and other environments serving a lot of people than to individual homes.  One of the first industries that adopted air conditioning was the motion-picture theater industry, starting with an installation at Sid Grauman’s Metropolitan Theater in 1922.

    It makes sense to believe, and seems to be generally accepted, that the introduction of A/C had much to do with the great success of the movie industry…if the theater was one of the few places in town where you could be cool, then it would be nice to have enough new movies constantly coming out to justify going the the theater as often as possible.

    The same phenomenon applied with department stores…starting with a Hudson’s in Detroit in 1926…though I would think A/C was not quite as impactful in that case as in the case of the movies.

    BUT, with the introduction and constant improvement of home air conditioners, the process would have likely gone into reverse: if you can be cool at home, there is less incentive to “go to the movies” unless there is something showing that you really want to see. Similarly with retail..although until the introduction of the consumer Internet, you still needed to go to a store for most things.

    It is pretty common that a technology that helps a particular industry at one point will, later and with further development of that industry, harm that industry.  Another example is the newspaper industry:  one of the great enablers of the growth of the newspaper industry was the telegraph (along with the high-speed printing press and the Linotype machine.)  But as digital communications (of which the telegraph was an early example) developed into data networks and ultimately the Internet, the ability to conveniently extend the information flow into the home was devastatingly harmful to that industry.

    Returning to the air conditioner, another impact of this technology has been geographical: making areas that were previously not-so-desirable for reasons of climate much more generally inhabitable…as in the cases of the US south and southwest.

    A/C is a significant consumer of energy in the form of electricity, and as it is more widely adopted in places such India, it will have a major impact on electricity consumption in those countries.

    Thoughts?  Other industry examples?

    Posted in Business, Energy & Power Generation, History, Human Behavior, Internet, Tech | 35 Comments »

    The Compleat Spy Requires AI

    Posted by David Foster on 18th June 2019 (All posts by )

    China’s intelligence services appear to be using LinkedIn, with profile pictures generated artificially, for the recruitment of agents.

    Chinese intrusion into US affairs has not generally gotten anywhere near the attention that Russian intrusion…real, attempted, or imagined…has gotten, but it needs more visibility.  See my related post So, Really Want to Talk About Foreign Intervention?

    Posted in Business, China, Internet, Russia, Tech | 3 Comments »

    Telemigration

    Posted by David Foster on 26th May 2019 (All posts by )

    It has often been asserted that the US doesn’t need to worry overmuch about our position in Manufacturing, because Services are the future and that is where we will have the most competitive advantage.  And, indeed, the balance of trade in services is more favorable than that in the goods-producing industries: for 2018, exports of services totaled $821 billion, whereas imports of services were only $557 billion.

    However, while imports of services are today small compared with imports of goods, which for 2018 were almost $2.7 trillion, it would be a mistake to conclude that services businesses and services jobs are immune to offshoring.  Indeed, for many types of services, offshoring/exporting is easier than the offshoring/importing of goods:  there are no transportation issues, and, in the case of imports to the US, there are no tariffs at all.

    Telemigration…the term was introduced by Richard Baldwin in his book The Globotics Upheaval…is the ability to have remote workers doing things that previously would have required their physical presence.  Obviously, the ability to do this has been greatly enhanced by the availability of the Internet and other forms of high-bandwidth low-cost communications.  Today, medical images and legal documents are being reviewed in low-cost-of-labor countries.  Software is being developed for American companies in countries around the world.  Offshoring of clerical operations has been practiced by US firms for a couple of decades, and, of course, the offshoring of customer service is common.

    Baldwin also argues that telemigration will be greatly enhanced by the availability of machine translation technology, especially Google Translate.  I think he may be overstating the case here–from what I’ve seen, the quality of GT translations is highly variable.  Not sure how well this approach would work in facilitating the interaction that is often required among team members to create something or solve a problem, and I am sure I wouldn’t want to trust it exclusively for something like, say, translating the functional specifications for a life-critical avionics system to be programmed by non-English speakers.

    But there are a lot of English-speakers in the world, and a lot of activities in which fluency in a common language is not essential.

    One area in which a lot of telemigration seems to be occurring is in software development and maintenance.  Here for example, is a company which acquires application software companies and offshores much of the ongoing work (which presumably includes incremental product enhancements as well as problem-fixing) to contract programmers: company’s chief recruiter asserts that the current cloud wage for a C++ programmer is $15 an hour. As the Forbes article notes, that’s what Amazon pays its warehouse workers.  (Well, at least in the US–and $15/hour for a programmer in, say, India is surely worth a lot more than $15/hour in this country.)  What makes this story particularly interesting is that the founder/CEO of the company was noted, in his earlier incarnation in a different software business, for paying software people very well indeed and going to great lengths to recruit them.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Aviation, Business, Deep Thoughts, Immigration, International Affairs, Internet, Tech, Transportation, USA | 36 Comments »

    The Transcontinental Railroad is 150

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

    This month marks the 150th anniversary of the US Transcontinental Railroad… surely one of the most important ‘infrastructure’ projects of all time. Railway Age reprints the contemporary coverage from their predecessor publication, Railway Times.

    Union Pacific has completed the restoration of their ‘Big Boy’ steam locomotive, #4014, and will be running it, together with Living Legend #844, from Ogden, Utah to Cheyenne, Wyoming, as part of the transcontinental commemoration.

    Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy is, as the title suggests, about the Canadian transcontinental railroad rather than the American, but is a fitting song for the occasion nonetheless. Also, the Smithsonian website Folklife has a playlist of 20 songs that are in some way related to the transcontinental, with some information about each.  (only short samples available unless you have Spotify)

    It seems likely that, absent the transcontinental railroad, the United States would not have been able to stay together as a nation on a continental basis–certainly, long-distance transportation technology acts as a centripetal force to counterbalance the many centrifugal forces that tend to separate geographies politically.  I’ve previously cited the thoughts of Edward Porter Alexander, a Confederate general turned railroad president, on this topic, while raising the question as to how far this effect can and should extend.

    Posted in History, Tech, Transportation, USA | 31 Comments »

    Technology, War, and Education

    Posted by David Foster on 6th May 2019 (All posts by )

    From NBCLearn, here’s a series of short videos focused on WWII aircraft, technology, and people and intended for K-12 classroom use.  Each video is accompanied by two lesson plans, one focused on relevant STEM topics and the other with “social studies” topics.

    For example, the STEM lesson plan that goes with the Pearl Harbor video is mainly about the attributes of the Zero Fighter .  The “social studies” lesson starts with the teacher asking students “Who wants to tell the class what has been happening in Europe since World War I” and “Who wants to tell the class what has been happening in the eastern hemisphere?”  (it would be interesting to hear some of the answers) and then progresses to other related topics, including a comparison of FDR’s speech after Pearl Harbor with the speech of GWB after 9/11.

    I thought it was an interesting and worthwhile approach.  I would have preferred the videos to be a little longer (they’re about 5 minutes each), and thought there were some missed opportunities, misguided emphases, and a few apparent actual errors in some of the lesson plans.  For example, the “social studies” piece on the Night Witches (female Russian night bomber pilots) could have included something about the situation in the Soviet Union at the time, and the Eastern Front War in general…same point for The Flying Tank, the video about the Sturmovik ground attack plane.  The lesson on the B-17 Ball Turret could have usefully included a link the Randall Jarrell’s brutal poem, Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.  The STEM lesson plan on the ME-262 jet fighter talks about the benefits of the swept wing for “balance on its nosewheel”…”it also made the ME-262 faster”–but didn’t really get across the reasons why a swept wing is important as airspeeds get near the speed of sound.  The discussion of the Po-2 biplane used by the Night Witches implies that the plane had good gliding capabilities:  I seriously doubt this, given the low wing aspect ratio (as noted in the lesson plan) and the high drag generally characteristic of the biplane types. It would glide fine, but not for far…which was appropriate given its mission.

    I thought that, overall, this was a very worthwhile effort.  The videos were co-produced with Paul Allen’s Vulcan Productions.  NBCLearn also has a whole lot of other educational videos.

    Posted in Aviation, Education, History, Tech, War and Peace | 10 Comments »

    A Truly Courageous Business Decision

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

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

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

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

    A Convergence of Media Empires and Telecommunications Empires

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Posted in Media, Tech | 27 Comments »

    Robot of the Week

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

    Fedex local delivery robot.

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

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

    Freezing in the Dark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Read the rest of this entry »

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

    A Robot of the Week, Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Read the rest of this entry »

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

    Well, This is a Cheerful Thought

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

    …not.

    Twitter’s Takeover of Politics is Just Getting Started.

    Summary at Tyler Cowen’s blog:

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

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

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

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

    Even Smart People Get It Wrong Sometimes

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

    Economist Art Laffer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Read the rest of this entry »

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

    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 »

    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 »

    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 »

    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 »