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    Are Professors Undercutting Women in STEM?

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

    …and, if so, which professors?

    It has often been asserted that (male) professors in engineering, math, computer science, etc are causing a shortage of women in STEM by projecting the attitude that women are unwelcome in their fields.  I’ve always thought this seemed rather unlikely as a common thing–though no doubt it happens in some  cases–if the assertion is meant to apply to the events of the last 20 years or so.

    Comes now Barbara Oakley, herself a professor of engineering:

    Professors have profound influence over students’ career choices. I’m sometimes flabbergasted at the level of bias and antagonism toward STEM from professors outside scientific fields. I’ve heard it all: STEM is only for those who enjoy “rote” work. Engineering is not creative. There’s only one right answer. You’ll live your life in a cubicle. It’s dehumanizing. You’ll never talk to anyone. And, of course, it’s sexist. All this from professors whose only substantive experience with STEM is a forced march through a single statistics course in college, if that.

    My colleagues in the humanities unthinkingly malign STEM in front of me. Their bias has become so deeply ingrained that they don’t think twice. My students tell me it’s worse when I’m not around.

    She also argues that the differing patterns of math vs verbal skills in men and women tends to make women more susceptible to the anti-STEM shots taken by the professors of which she is speaking:

    Many studies, including a critical review by Elizabeth Spelke in American Psychologist, have shown that on average men and women have the same abilities in math and science. But as Mr. Reges notes, women tend to do better than men verbally—a consequence of early developmental advantages…Consider a student who gets an A in every subject. Let’s call her Nadine. She’s the type of student who could excel in whatever she chooses. Her engineering professors might be telling her that an electrical engineering degree is a great career choice that will open doors and pay well. But her non-STEM professors may be telling her something completely different: “You won’t use your fantastic writing skills. And besides, you’ll just sit in a cubicle crunching numbers.” Nadine can begin to feel she’s untrue to her full set of talents if she picks engineering. So Nadine jumps the STEM ship.

    Only anecdotal evidence is presented; still, given the level of bitterness that seems to pervade today’s academia, the STEM-slamming behavior that Oakley describes doesn’t seem all that unlikely.

    Thoughts?

    Posted in Academia, Arts & Letters, Human Behavior, Science, Tech | 10 Comments »

    Disruption – Scaling an Application

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 1st July 2018 (All posts by )

    Today in the NYT they had an article about an online dating app called “Raya”. This tool is designed to let exclusive rich / celebrity folks match rather than being mixed in with everyone else on Tinder.

    From my perspective, the interesting fact isn’t what the application is “about”, but how easy it is to build a scale a worldwide tool with all necessary functionality. From what I can gather in the article:

    • The entire company is run with only 13 people, including technical staff
    • The platform is exclusive to Apple iOS, and costs $7.99 / month (if you are accepted, which is rare), with additional up-charges
    • This world-wide, fully functional app was built with limited investment and seed funding
    • The app was built and launched quickly, in likely a year or so (based on the dates provided in the article)
    Let’s look at how modern platforms and capabilities have enabled this sort of rapid delivery, scaling and enabling of a business model.  In the past, building a business such as this would have been a large-scale project.  By building it on the Apple iOS platform, however, the developer is able to tap into a huge amount of existing infrastructure, including:
    • Apple basically provides distribution through the iPhone, operating system, and entire infrastructure of the App store which includes billing 
    • Increasing power of the phone itself (likely all these rich and famous folks are on the latest models) enables advanced features and fast responses, as well as a consistent experience for users
    • The platform and embedded capabilities allow for rapid builds and prototyping, upgrades and security
    It is astonishing that such a ubiquitous and enabling platform exists, with the ability to scale to an essentially infinite degree, with little (to no) up front investment.  This platform and environment facilitates rapid prototyping, the ability to grow quickly (if there is demand for your app), and provides an entire environment for notifications, customization, etc… that you can leverage.
    If someone would have told you ten years ago that you could
    • Build a piece of software that can reach customers around the world
    • Scale up at a rapid rate with little or no upfront investment
    • Have billing, notifications, user experience, etc…. mostly done for you “out of the box”
    You’d think that they were dreaming.  And yet it is here, today.
    What are the implications of this?  I think that a lot of the assumptions that we make about how strong incumbent positions are, how fast challengers can emerge, and how low the barriers to entry are for many markets are incorrect.  Since the key demographics are already all mobile (and the majority of the highest income US consumers are on iOS), you can jump quickly into Apple and evolve rapidly.
    Since many companies today make little or no profits and “value” is the stream of future cash flows (when presumably the company will be profitable and able to capture and hold market share and customer revenues), the fact that competitors can rapidly come into your space with little incremental investment should make long-term investors shudder.  
    Cross posted at LITGM

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Tech | 9 Comments »

    Extremely Cool, but…

    Posted by David Foster on 25th June 2018 (All posts by )

    A Gloster Meteor in flyable condition–the Meteor being Britain’s first operational jet fighter–has come to the US on a permanent basis.  The jet has been purchased by the World Heritage Air Museum, which is located near Detroit.  It will be at the EAA Oshkosh show this July, along with two other early British jets.

    The prototype Meteor first flew on March 5, 1943, and the type’s first use was against the V-1 cruise missiles that plagued London.  Meteors were sent to the Continent in early 1945, they were restricted in their operating area for fear of having downed aircraft captured by the Germans or the Soviets and were used for airfield defense and ground-attack missions.

    I believe this was the only flyable Meteor in the UK except for two owned by the Martin-Baker company and used to test ejection seats…as working aircraft these planes probably aren’t available for public display very often, if at all.  It’s great to have a Meteor in the US, but I would have thought that given this airplane’s historical significance, someone in the UK would have raised the money to keep it flying there.

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    Posted in Aviation, Britain, History, Military Affairs, Tech, War and Peace | 5 Comments »

    Disruption – Online Ordering

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 24th June 2018 (All posts by )

    The retail restaurant industry already is an area of fierce competition. Just think of all the restaurants in your community vying for your attention and business. And this is also an industry with slim margins and a high mortality rate – even after a couple years’ away from Chicago, many of the local restaurants we used to patronize have turned over in one form or another.

    Since I’ve lived in a “big city” environment for decades, I am used to just walking over to a nearby restaurant to eat or potentially pick up a delivery. However, that isn’t an option for everyone, and digital delivery through various methods is now an important differentiator between chains and individual firms.

    The NYT had an article titled “App Takes Orders for Mom-and-Pop Pizzerias” about a company called Slice that offers a tool for small, individually owned pizza restaurants to offer sophisticated ordering capabilities in multiple methods in order for them to compete with chains like Dominos which run a significant portion of their business through online ordering. Small chains typically cannot build their own specific tools and will need to purchase these capabilities as a service.

    Slice sends customers’ online orders to the restaurants through their preferred method — email, fax or phone. Restaurants deliver the meals with their own couriers. For each order processed, Slice receives a $1.95 commission, or around 6 to 7 percent of order totals on average, Mr. Sela said. In contrast, GrubHub charges up to 18 percent of the order to process online sales for its clients.

    In a business with small margins, giving up 18% or even 6-7% of revenues off the top line seems to be a very significant cost, but at least it allows these restaurants to “even the playing field” with larger chains.

    Read the rest of this entry »

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    Posted in Economics & Finance, Tech | 2 Comments »

    An Interesting and Timely IPO

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

    I’ve been aware for some time of a company called Avalara, which is in the cloud-based tax-compliance business.  In the US, Avalara keeps track of the vast array of sales tax rates, which are imposed not only at the state level but often also at municipal and county levels.  Avalara integrates with a number of electronic commerce platforms, which can pass destination address info to the system and thereby obtain the appropriate tax rate in real time and include it in the end customer’s charges at checkout.

    The company did its Initial Public Offering on June 13, and AVLR quickly jumped from its IPO price of $24 to about $45 , putting its market capitalization at about $2.9 billion.  Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued a decision that has great implications for Avalara’s business…as well as for the businesses of hundreds of thousands if not millions of on-line retailers and the consumers who buy from them–and as of this moment AVLR is trading at $52.16, with a market cap of $3.32 billion.

    What the Court apparently ruled is that states can impose sales taxes on on-line transactions (and, I would presume, classical mail-order transactions as well) even when the seller does not have a physical “nexus” (such as a warehouse, and office or a factory) in that state. (And you can be sure that most of them will take advantage of this opportunity.)   This is really “just” a cost problem for very large on-line merchants such as Amazon, but the compliance issues for smaller businesses are going to be considerable.  Avalara seems well-positioned to help with this problem, but the ruling is still going to be far more burdensome to the smaller on-line merchants than to the large ones.

    See discussion of the sales tax issue at the Instapundit post.

    Regarding Avlara, I have not analyzed this company as a potential investment and am not giving an opinion on it for that purpose either pro or con, certainly not giving investment advice here.

    Posted in Big Government, Business, Internet, Taxes, Tech | 28 Comments »

    This Post is Not About Footwear

    Posted by David Foster on 19th June 2018 (All posts by )

    100th anniversary of the flip-flop

     

    The quintessential digital device.

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    Posted in History, Tech | 6 Comments »

    “Hey, Google. . .”

    Posted by Jonathan on 15th May 2018 (All posts by )

    Q: How old is the President?

    A: Barack Obama is 56 years old.

      

    Try it for yourself and report back.

    Posted in Leftism, Politics, Tech | 7 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading and Viewing

    Posted by David Foster on 27th April 2018 (All posts by )

    An MBA student who was raised in Communist China reads Hayek.

    Has Silicon Valley hit peak arrogance?

    Is high testosterone inversely correlated with hedge-fund performance?

    Anti-Semitism and the Democratic Party.

    A manufacturing engineer looks at Tesla manufacturing.  Related:  Elon Musk now thinks his use of robots to build the Model 3 was excessive.

    (I wonder if Musk was aware of the history of Roger Smith and the robots at GM when he established his manufacturing strategy.)

    15 facts about Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party.

     

     

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Human Behavior, Judaism, Leftism, Tech | 20 Comments »

    180 Years of Transatlantic Steam

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

    On April 8, 1838, the steamship Great Western..the first steamship to be purpose-built for the transatlantic passenger traffic…left Bristol for New York City. Four days earlier, though, another steamship, the Sirius, had left Cork for the same destination. Sirius had not been designed for the Atlantic run; it was a small channel steamer which had been chartered by the rivals of Great Western’s owners. This competitive enterprise had encountered delays in the construction of their own Atlantic liner, the British Queen, and had chartered Sirius to keep Great Western from scoring a win in the PR battle. Sirius did arrive at New York first, on April 23, but Great Western came in only 12 hours later…its crossing of a little more than 15 days was the fastest ever from England to America.

    There were earlier crossings that had been at least partly steam-powered: the American ship Savannah in 1819 (which actually used only sails for most of the voyage), and the Dutch Curacao and the Canadian Royal William, which made their crossings in 1827 and 1833 respectively. But it was the Great Western vs Sirius race which marked the beginning of steam passenger and mail service across the Atlantic.

    The paddle wheels and auxiliary sailing rigs of the early steamers gave way to screw propellers and total reliance on steam, and reciprocating steam engines were later supplanted by steam turbines…which in turn have now largely been replaced by diesels and in some cases gas turbines. Aircraft carriers and submarines still use steam turbines, though, with the steam generation done by nuclear energy rather than the burning of coal or oil.

    Here’s the British actress Fanny Kemble, writing circa 1882, in annotation of her years-earlier comments about the difficulties and emotional pain caused by slow communications between the continents:

    To those who know the rate of intercourse between Europe and America now, these expressions of the painful sense of distance from my country and friends, under which I suffered, must seem almost incomprehensible,—now, when to go to Europe seems to most Americans the easiest of summer trips, involving hardly more than a week’s sea voyage; when letters arrive almost every other day by some of the innumerable steamers flying incessantly to and fro, and weaving, like living shuttles, the woof and warp of human communication between the continents; and the submarine telegraph shoots daily tidings from shore to shore of that terrible Atlantic, with swift security below its storms. But when I wrote this to my friend, no words were carried with miraculous celerity under the dividing waves; letters could only be received once a month, and from thirty to thirty-seven days was the average voyage of the sailing packets which traversed the Atlantic. Men of business went to and fro upon their necessary affairs, but very few Americans went to Europe, and still fewer Europeans went to America, to spend leisure, or to seek pleasure; and American and English women made the attempt still seldomer than the men. The distance between the two worlds, which are now so near to each other, was then immense.

    (The quote is one of several passages cited in my post Further Fannyisms)

    Also: the ultimate development of the steam-turbine-powered passenger liner was represented by the SS United States. This beautiful ship has so far managed to avoid the the scrapper’s’ torches…the SS United States Conservancy is working to raise sufficient funds to preserve the vessel on an ongoing basis.

    Related: 301 years of steam power

    Posted in Britain, History, Tech, Tradeoffs, USA | 8 Comments »

    Automation, Aviation, and Business

    Posted by David Foster on 10th April 2018 (All posts by )

    A thoughtful post about the impact of automation in aviation, and how some of the problems occurring in this field are also relevant to potential problems with automation in business:

    Since the 1980s, automating various flight management operations has contributed to a profound improvement in air transport safety and effectiveness. But a related human issue — automation dependency — has emerged as a significant challenge to further improvements in safety levels. Automation can contribute to diminishing manual flying skills and increasing complacency, as pilots avail themselves of automatic flight management and navigation systems to aid much of their decision-making.

    In some cases, pilots don’t fully understand the automatic processes controlling their sophisticated aircraft. The ironic enquiry “What’s it doing now?” is sometimes heard in the cockpit, as pilots struggle to figure out the actions of the “automatics”, as these systems are referred to on the flight deck.

    Crucial as this is in the cockpit, automation dependency is equally problematic in many businesses today, whenever there is a disconnect between what managers think is going on and what is actually happening. The automation in question is not just technological, but also pervades the processes, algorithms, and reporting on which managers rely to inform their decision-making.

    Aviation is addressing this phenomenon as a major problem and is seeking solutions. We suggest that many companies should do the same before their “business automatics” put them at risk of losing control.

    RTWT

    Reminds me of this aviation classic, a 1997 talk by an American Airlines pilot:  The Children of Magenta.

    See also: Automation is Fragile, People are ‘Antifragile’ and my posts When Humans and Robots Communicate and Blood on the Tracks

    Posted in Aviation, Business, Management, Tech, Transportation | 19 Comments »

    Does Anybody Here Think This is Really a Good Idea?

    Posted by David Foster on 8th April 2018 (All posts by )

    From a community college catalog:

    STEM for Infants and Toddlers.  In this course we will discuss what STEM means and the importance of STEM exposure in the early years of a child’s development.  We will explore developmentally appropriate strategies and activities to build a foundation in STEM learning for infants and toddlers.

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    Posted in Education, Human Behavior, Tech, USA | 12 Comments »

    Ancient DNA, Genetics and Race

    Posted by Michael Kennedy on 6th April 2018 (All posts by )

    UPDATE: Greg Cochrane is doing chapter by chapter discussion of the Reich book so I will just link to his discussion. This week it is the chapter on India.

    On the whole, people from North India have more ANI ancestry, while people in southern Indian have more ASI ancestry. The proportions generally range from 80% ANI to 80% ASI. There are actually a few populations that are close to unmixed ANI (Kalash) or unmixed ASI (tribal populations in South India such as Palliyar, Ulladan, Malayan, and Adiyan). Groups that speak Indo-European languages typically have more ANI, while those speaking Dravidian have more ASI. Populations (including castes) with higher social status generally have more ANI ancestry. The Y-chromosome and mtDNA patterns show that ANI contributed a disproportionate fraction of male ancestry, while ASI accounts for the great majority of female ancestry – again, much like Latin America.

    The Y chromosome suggests male ancestry in a situation where the male conquerer mates with female conquered tribes.

    The Brahmins have the highest proportion of ANI or Indo European genetic material.

    I don’t know how many here are interested in this but the new book by David Reich may prove to be as revolutionary as Murray’s “The Bell Curve”.

    I’m reading the new book, “Who We Are and How We Got Here”.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Science, Tech | 30 Comments »

    So, Really Want to Talk About Foreign Intervention?

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

    Much ink and many photons have been spent discussing Russia’s attempts to influence (or at least disrupt) the American 2016 Presidential campaign.  Meanwhile…

    Here’s an appalling story about how anger from the Chinese government led Marriott Corporation to fire an employee who had ‘liked’ a tweet which congratulated the company for listing Tibet as a country, along with Hong Kong and Taiwan….of course, the Chinese regime considers Tibet to be a part of China, not a separate country.

    China forced Marriott to suspend all online booking for a week at its nearly 300 Chinese hotels. A Chinese leader also demanded the company publicly apologize and “seriously deal with the people responsible,” the Journal reported.

    And boy, did Marriott ever apologize. Craig Smith, president of the hotel chain’s Asian division, told the China Daily that Marriott had committed two significant mistakes — presumably the survey listing Tibet and the liked tweet — that “appeared to undermine Marriott’s long-held respect for China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

    He announced an “eight-point rectification plan” that included education for hotel employees across the globe and stricter supervision.

    And the Marriott executive said this to China’s most-read English-language newspaper: “This is a huge mistake, probably one of the biggest in my career.”

    (More here…according to this article, the Chinese suppression of Marriott bookings was in response to the initial listing of Tibet as a country rather than to the tweet approving of this listing)

    The Chinese economy is, shall we say, a little more dynamic than that of Russia, so the government of China has much more ability to strong-arm American corporations (in general) than does the Putin regime.

    Turning now from the hotel industry to the movie industry, Richard Gere says that Chinese pressure due to his stand on Tibetan independence has led to his being dropped from big Hollywood movies.  Also:

    Gere’s activities have not just made Hollywood apparently reluctant to cast him in big films, he says they once resulted in him being banished from an independently financed, non-studio film which was not even intended for a Chinese release.

    “There was something I was going to do with a Chinese director, and two weeks before we were going to shoot, he called saying, ‘Sorry, I can’t do it,’” Gere recalled. “We had a secret phone call on a protected line. If I had worked with this director, he, his family would never have been allowed to leave the country ever again, and he would never work.”

    See also How China’s Censors Influence Hollywood.  Because the Chinese market is so large…(Fast and Furious 7 pulled in $388 million in China, more than it made in the US)…the influence of the Chinese regime on US film production and distribution has become immense.

    In recent years, foreign filmmakers have also gone out of their way not to provoke the Communist Party. For instance, the 2012 remake of the Cold War action movie, Red Dawn, originally featured Chinese soldiers invading an American town. After filming was complete, though, the moviemakers went back and turned the attacking army into North Koreans, which seemed a safer target, at least until last year’s hack of Sony Pictures.

    and

    Ying Zhu, a professor of media culture at the College of Staten Island at the City University of New York, worries China’s growing market power is giving the Communist Party too much leverage over Hollywood.

    “The Chinese censors can act as world film police on how China can be depicted, how China’s government can be depicted, in Hollywood films,” she says. “Therefore, films critical of the Chinese government will be absolutely taboo.”

    In the late 1990s, when China’s box office was still small, Hollywood did make movies that angered the Communist Party, such as Seven Years In Tibet, about the life of the Dalai Lama, and Red Corner, a Richard Gere thriller that criticized China’s legal system. Given the importance of the China market now, Zhu says those movies wouldn’t get financing today.

    Plus, Chinese companies have snapped up Hollywood studios, theaters and production companies.

    Read the rest of this entry »

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    Posted in Academia, Business, China, Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Environment, Film, Media, Russia, Science, Tech, USA | 34 Comments »

    Strange Comparison, Dangerous Conclusion

    Posted by David Foster on 25th March 2018 (All posts by )

    About a week ago, the WSJ ran an article titled Mark Zuckerberg is No James Madison.  The article argues that a constitution is similar to a block of computer code—a valid point, although I would argue it is also true of legislation and contracts in general…both the code, and the constitution/law/contract must be sufficiently clear and unambiguous to be executable without reference to their originators.

    Then the article goes on to say that ‘the Constitution understands human nature.  Facebook, dangerously at times does not.  In designing the Constitution, Madison managed to appeal to people’s better angels while at the same time calculating man’s capacity to harm and behave badly. Facebook’s designers, on the other hand, appear to have assumed the best about people. They apparently expected users to connect with friends only in benign ways. While the site features plenty of baby and puppy photos, it has also become a place where ISIS brags about beheadings and Russians peddling misinformation seek to undermine the institutions of a free society.’

    The attempt to create a parallel between Zuckerberg and Madison is a strange one, IMO, given the completely different nature of the work the two men were doing. Madison was attempting to create a new model for a self-governing country, Zuckerberg was attempting to make money for himself and his investors, and maybe to provide a little fun and value for his users along the way.

    What I find especially problematic is the ‘therefore’ that the author draws:

    Facebook insists it is not a media company. Maybe so. But unless it takes on the responsibilities of an editor and publisher by verifying the identities of users, filtering content that runs on its platform, and addressing the incentives to post specious or inflammatory “facts,” Facebook should expect to be policed externally.

    But is Facebook really a publisher, or it is it more of a printer?  If someone..Ben Franklin in the mid-1700s or some corporation today…is running a printing shop, running printing jobs for all who will pay, should he or it be held accountable for validating the truth of the material printed and verifying the identities of the customers?

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Advertising, Blogging, Business, Civil Liberties, Deep Thoughts, Elections, Law, Tech | 23 Comments »

    Artificial Intelligence and Human Behavior

    Posted by David Foster on 28th February 2018 (All posts by )

    WSJ has an story on the use of artificial intelligence to predict potential suicides.  The article cites a study indicating that “the traditional approach of predicting suicide,” which includes doctors’ assessments, was only slightly better than random guessing.

    In contrast, when 16,000 patients in Tennessee were analyzed by an AI system, the system was able to predict with 80-90% accuracy whether someone would attempt suicide in the next two years, using indicators such as history of using antidepressants and injuries with firearms.  (It would have been nice to see numbers cited for false negatives vs false positives…also, I wonder how nearly the same results could have been achieved by use of traditional statistical methods, without appeal to AI technology.)

    Another approach, which has been tested in Cincinnati schools and clinics, uses an app which records sessions between therapists and patients, and then analyzes linguistic and vocal factors to predict suicide risk.

    Both Apple (Siri) and Facebook have been working to identify potential suicides.  The latter company says that in a single month in fall 2017, its AI system alerted first responders in 100 cases of potential self-harm.  (It doesn’t sound like the system contacts the first responders directly; rather, it prioritizes suspected cases for the human moderators, who then perform a second-level review.)  In one case, a woman in northern Argentina posted “This can’t go on.  From here I say goodbye.”  Within 3 hours, a medical team notified by Facebook reached the woman, and, according to the WSJ article, “saved her life.”

    It seems very likely to me that, in the current climate, attempts will be made to extend this approach into  the prediction of self-harm into the prediction of harm to others, in particular, mass killings in schools.  I’m not sure how successful this will be…the sample size of mass killings is, fortunately. pretty small…but if it is successful, then what might the consequences be, and what principles of privacy, personal autonomy, and institutional responsibility should guide the deployment (if any) of such systems?

    For example, what if an extension of the linguistic and vocal factors analysis mentioned above allowed discussions between students and school guidance counselors to be analyzed to predict the likelihood of major in-school violence?  What should the school, what should law enforcement be allowed to do with this data?

    Does the answer depend on the accuracy of the prediction?  What if people identified by the system will in 80% of cases commit an act of substantial violence (as defined by some criterion),  but at the same time there are 10% false positives (people the system says are likely perpetrators, but who are actually not)?  What if the numbers are 90% accuracy and only 3% false positives?

    Discuss.

    Posted in Current Events, Human Behavior, Tech | 13 Comments »

    Attack of the Job-Killing Robots, Part 3

    Posted by David Foster on 13th February 2018 (All posts by )

    The final months of World War II included the first-ever battle of robots:  on one side, the German V-1 missile and on the other, an Allied antiaircraft system that automatically tracked the enemy missiles, performed the necessary fire-control computations, and directed the guns accordingly. This and other wartime projects greatly contributed to the understanding of the feedback concept and the development of automatic control technology.  Also developed during the war were the first general-purpose programmable digital computers: the Navy/Harvard/IBM Mark I and the Army/MIT ENIAC…machines that, although incredibly limited by our presented-day, standards were at the time viewed with awe and often referred to as ‘thinking machines.’

    These wartime innovations in feedback control and digital computation would soon have enormous impact on the civilian world.

    This is one in a continuing series of posts in which I attempt to provide some historical context for today’s discussions of automation and its impact on jobs and society…a context of which people writing about this topic often seem to have little understanding.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, History, Tech | 10 Comments »

    A 60 Year Old Fighter Design – Still Operational

    Posted by David Foster on 10th February 2018 (All posts by )

    In 2009, Neptunus Lex paid tribute to the MIG-21, which he referred to as “a noble adversary.”  At the time, it appeared that the airplane was about to be phased out of service by those countries still operating it.  Didn’t happen that way. though…the airplane is still in use by several countries, most notably India, which still operates more than 200 of them.

    Design studies for the MIG-21  began in 1953, with first flight in 1958 and production shipments beginning in 1959.  As analogy for the design’s longevity, imagine the Red Baron’s Fokker triplane from 1918 still being employed in a military role in the post-Vietnam era of 1977!

    An article asks: is the MIG-21 is the fighter jet that could fly for 100 years?  Probably not, I imagine, at least in any kind of operational role…but it’s already done pretty well in longevity terms for a combat airplane.

    There are some web pages on the MIG-21 by a former East German fighter pilot.

    Also, there’s a pretty decent movie, based on real events, about the 1966 Israeli operation to steal a MIG-21 from Iraq.  The moviemakers were evidently unable to get their hands on a real MIG-21 (in 1988), so a MIG-15 was used for the flying scenes instead.

    More MIG-21 information here.

    Posted in Aviation, India, Russia, Tech, War and Peace | 15 Comments »

    The Details of Work and the Realities of Automation

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

    An interesting piece on the automation of trucking, with an extensive comment thread.  Many of the commenters have practical experience in the trucking industry and in automation work in other industries such as sawmills.

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Tech, Transportation | 7 Comments »

    Are Those Robots Slacking Off on the Job?

    Posted by David Foster on 23rd January 2018 (All posts by )

    Much concern is being expressed these days about technological unemployment driven by robotics, artificial intelligence, etc.  But labor productivity numbers have been more in the direction of stagnation than in the direction of a sharp break upwards…see for example this BLS analysis.  Note especially Chart 5, which compares productivity growth in three periods:  1947-2007, 2001-2007, and 2009-2016.

    See also this piece, which looks at total factor productivity across continents.

    So, what is going on here?  Why have the remarkable innovations and heavy corporate and government investments in technology not had more of a positive effect on productivity?  I have my own ideas, but am curious about what others think.

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Management, Tech, USA | 6 Comments »

    Disruption – MoviePass

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 7th January 2018 (All posts by )

    MoviePass is a service that has gained a lot of new users lately – it allows you to see unlimited movies (only one a day) each month for $9.95, which is essentially the price of a single ticket. How it works is that they give you a Mastercard that is connected to your mobile phone – when you get to the theater, you connect with them at that time and they authorize the card specifically for the amount needed to pay for the movie and then you pay and go inside. The process is set up so that theaters can’t deny MoviePass at the box office because it is basically just another Mastercard and the only way to disable it would be to disable accept MasterCard, which is impractical or likely impossible for a host of reasons. The movie theaters receive the full price of the ticket through MoviePass, even if it is more than the $9.95 subscription fee (movies can cost almost $20 in Manhattan, for instance). In the short term, this is a “boon” for movie theaters because Wall Street investors are subsidizing their full price tickets.

    Here is a NYT article on the growth of MoviePass. Per the article, they are adding 1 million subscribers a month. The ostensible play (what they say) is that they plan to “break even” on the cost of the service (if you see roughly one movie / month) but then they will make their money on using data from customers in an aggregated fashion to sell to the movie studios for marketing and targeting. They believe that this data and targeting consumers can add 5-7% to the box office gross. Note that the guy who helped found MoviePass was an executive at Netflix and RedBox named Mitch Lowe and he is very sophisticated financially and connected so he is a serious rival to the movie industry in general.
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    Posted in Economics & Finance, Tech | 6 Comments »

    Disruption – Amazon Basics and Amazon Essentials

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 2nd January 2018 (All posts by )

    “Amazon Basics” is a line of low cost products created especially by Amazon. “Amazon Essentials” is an apparel line created by Amazon. This picture has a “basics” speaker and a low cost “essentials” product (the notebook):

    – a portable wireless bluetooth speaker for $19.99

    Essentials dot matrix notebook for bullet journal for $9.92

    I was impressed by both of these items. When you go to Amazon and either the basics or essentials section there is a wide array of products to choose from at amazingly low prices.

    Amazon is choosing which markets and products that they want to compete in directly and they offer what appears to be reasonable quality products at low price points. If you cycle through the product list you can see a lot of everyday products or items that don’t normally have a strong branding component.
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    Posted in Business, Tech | 21 Comments »

    Disruption – Delivery

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 28th December 2017 (All posts by )

    Traditionally the big companies that handle “last mile” package delivery are Fed Ex (ticker: FDX), UPS (ticker: UPS), and of course the US postal service. These companies have hundreds of thousands of employees (often unionized) and billions of dollars of planes and trucks and other transportation assets.

    Amazon (ticker: AMZN) recently began expanding their transportation capabilities, both in the form of their own airplanes and leveraging an “Uber-like” workforce of contractors leveraging an app to deliver packages in their own cars with a program called “Amazon Flex“.

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    Posted in Economics & Finance, Tech | 17 Comments »

    Chromecast, Roku and Cutting the Cord (Potentially)

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 26th December 2017 (All posts by )

    It’s Christmas time and we don’t have a fireplace in our high rise apartment. So what’s the next best thing? A video showing the Yule Log (there also is a Nick Offerman 45 minute one where he watches you and drinks whiskey and someone looped it for 10 hours, look it up on You Tube). This is playing through my Chromecast ($20) via Youtube and could be done through my Mac, iPad, or iPhone. And it looks great.

    We finally gave up on our old Samsung TV and bought a new 55 inch “smart” TV from TCL with Roku included. The sound quality is great I got rid of my front speaker and subwoofer when I took my old TV to Goodwill and don’t plan to buy a new one (maybe I will with Xmas gift cards). Once we connected it to our router I was surprised at how high quality the TV picture was and how fast it booted up. You can quickly go into either Roku or something like the Chromecast (below) or just turn on the cable box directly (we have xfinity). Right here at the intersection of huge amounts of online content, high bandwidth, and seamless performance you can see how cable dies (although cable provides our Internet service, but this is a parallel question).
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    Posted in Tech | 12 Comments »

    Apple MacBook, Planned Obsolescence and AirPods

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 23rd December 2017 (All posts by )

    Apple has been in the midst of a long term inter-operability / consolidation of its IOS and MacOS environments. When I first started using my MacBook and converting over from a PC in 2012-2013 there was almost no ability to communicate / transfer between my phone or iPad and my MacBook. I remember being bewildered that there wasn’t even an app on MacOS to read Kindle books that I had on my iPad (and even today the MacOS app is a bit wonky).

    Today there is some ability to use my MacBook from 2011 alongside my iPad and my iPhone. The key elements of inter operability include:

    – Apple Messages works well between the devices. This is probably the biggest single unlock for my MacBook by far
    – Apple Photos now work pretty seamlessly between all the devices. After Apple Messenger this is the next biggest “win”
    – if you use iCloud you can share across all devices
    – Facetime and answering calls works across all devices, depending on whether or not you want to turn it on (can be annoying when your computer “rings” when your iPhone rings)
    – Notes works well across all devices and has been getting more powerful with each release (for items like to-do lists, etc…)

    The apps on the MacOS still lag far behind those available for the iPhone. I don’t know what the long term plan is for this. I know that apps function differently on each environment; common apps like “Bitmoji” work great on my iPhone, kind of OK on my iPad (I have an attached keyboard so it is strange and locks in portrait mode), and not at all on my MacOS (or I haven’t really even tried it.
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    Posted in Tech | 5 Comments »

    2017 Reading, continued

    Posted by David Foster on 23rd December 2017 (All posts by )

    A Prophet Without Honor, by Joseph Wurtenbaugh.  An outstanding work of alternative history.

    It is now known that when Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936, his forces were under orders to withdraw if faced by serious opposition by the (then-much-superior) French and British militaries.  But these countries did not take action, being focused on their economic problems and convincing themselves that the German move wasn’t really much of a threat.  But they didn’t know about the Withdrawal Order.  What if they had?

    Some of the characters are fictional, others are real people imagined as following different trajectories.  The central figure is a German officer named Karl von Haydenreich; he has become friends with American officer Dwight Eisenhower and this friendship will prove critical in changing the course of history.

    Very well-done, should not be missed.

    The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz.  Advice about running a startup from a venture capitalist…the author is cofounder of the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz.  A lot of worthwhile points, some of which should be obvious, others not so much so.

    Understanding what you did wrong if you hired an executive who did not work out:  Horowitz goes through several possible causes of the failure, including this:

    You hired for lack of weakness rather than for strengths.  This is especially common when you run a consensus-based hiring process.  The group will often find the candidate’s weaknesses, but they won’t place a high enough value on the areas where you need the executive to be a world-class performer.  As a result, you hire an executive with no sharp weakness, but who is mediocre where you need her to be great.

    On excessive focus on quantitative metrics:  “Management purely by numbers is sort of like painting by numbers–it’s strictly for amateurs.”

    I especially like Horowitz’s emphasis on the importance of organization design, and the point that all such designs are compromises…indeed:

    The first rule of organizational design is that all organizational designs are bad.  With any design, you will optimize communication among some parts of the organization at the expense of other parts.  For example, if you put product management in the engineering organization, you will optimize communication between product management and engineering at the expense of product management and marketing.  As a result, as soon as you roll out the new organization, people will find fault with it, and they will be right…Think of the organizational design as the communications architecture for your company.  If you want people to communicate, the best way to accomplish that is to make them report to the same manager.  By contrast, the further away people are on the organizational chart, the less they will communicate. The organizational design is also the template for how the company communicates with the outside world.

    The book was inspired by this thought:  “Every time I read a management or self-help book, I find myself saying, ‘That’s fine, but that wasn’t really the hard thing about the situation.'”  For example:

    The hard thing isn’t hiring great people.  That hard thing is when those ‘great people’ develop a sense of entitlement and start demanding unreasonable things…The hard thing isn’t dreaming big. The hard thing is waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat when the dream turns into a nightmare.

    Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Economy, by Tim Harford.  Includes not just the sort of things that would typically show up in an ‘inventions’ list, but also such things as double-entry bookkeeping, tradable debt, the welfare state, and the department store.

    Regarding the latter, Harford credits Harry Gordon Selfridge, who worked for Marshall Field, with creating the concept.  Key to the new stores was the idea that “just looking” was okay, indeed was to be positively encouraged.

    Selfridge swept away the previous shopkeepers’ custom of stashing the merchandise in places where sales assistants had to fetch it for you…he instead laid it out in the open-aisle displays we now take for granted, where you can touch a product, pick it up, and inspect it from all angles, without a salesperson hovering by your side…Shopping had long been bound up with social display: the old arcades of the great European cities, displaying their fine cotton fashions–gorgeously lit with candles and mirrors–were places for the upper classes not only to see but to be seen.  Selfridge had no truck with snobbery or exclusivity.  (When he opened his London store), His advertisements pointedly made cleaer that the ‘whole British public’ would be welcome–no cards of admission are required.”

    Harford also mentions an Irish immigrant to America named Alexander Turney Stewart.  It was Stewart who introduced “the shocking concept of not hassling customers the moment they walked through the door. He called this novel policy ‘free entrance.”  Stewart also introduced the concept of the clearance sale and established a no-haggle pricing policy for his good.

    Discussion of inventions such as the department store provides a useful reminded that so many of the things we take for granted–with ‘things’ including assumptions about ways of doing things as well as tangible objects–haven’t always existed; somebody had to think of them and drive them into reality.

    This post to be further continued.

    Posted in Book Notes, Business, Customer Service, Entrepreneurship, Europe, Germany, History, Management, Organizational Analysis, Tech | 4 Comments »