Technologies Old and New

A roundup of stories/posts/videos I found interesting:

The Jacquard Loom is historically important,  not only for its direct impact on the textile industry but also for the inspirational role that it played in the emergence of punched cards and computers.  Jacquards are still very much a live industrial technology, although the warp threads are now lifted by computer-controlled solenoids or hydraulic cylinders rather than by direct mechanical linkage.  Several attempts have been made to create affordable Jacquard looms for home use, but they have foundered on the cost of purchasing and installing a solenoid for every warp thread.  Here is a very clever way around that problem.

Also, an explanation of how a traditional Jacquard works.

Speaking of the textile industry, I wrote a couple of years ago about attempts to automate apparel manufacturing, especially the work of an Atlanta company called Softwear Automation and their product Sewbot.  So I was interested the other day to see this piece about apparel automation in Bangladesh.

See also this report from McKinsey on Nearshoring and Automation in the Apparel Industry.

Reviving manufacturing in Singapore, with the aid of robotics.

Are electronic medical records actually a detriment to knowing the patient?

Outgrowing Software…Benedict Evans suggest that when everything is a software company, then the important questions are somewhere else.

Also from Benedict Evans: Are You a Seal?  (If you are, watch out for Amazon!)

Constructing a bridge in Praguein 1357.

Speaking of construction: Automation in the Construction Industry


(An earlier version of this post was published at Ricochet; member feed only)


Bleg: How to Read Old Spreadsheet Files?

Can anyone recommend a way to convert .FCS spreadsheet files generated by the 1980s software suite PFS:First Choice into an Excel-readable format? Alternatively, can anyone recommend a way to read the data and formulas from .FCS files?


Exaggerated Automation Claim Story of the Week

In 2016, a prominent computer scientist–a pioneer in artificial intelligence, he would be a winner of the 2018 Turing Award–said:

We should stop training radiologists now, it’s just completely obvious within five years deep learning is going to do better than radiologists.

Hasn’t worked out that way.  AI can be a useful supplement to a human radiologist, but I don’t think it’s being used anywhere on an exclusive, human-radiologist-replacing basis.

Just as well that the training of radiologists wasn’t shut down.

It is often unwise to make radical changes based on the opinions of experts who are proponents of particular technologies.  (Of course there are cases where such radical changes are called for–the aviation experts who in the 1920s and 1930s foresaw a major role for aviation in naval warfare, for example.)  But in the case of robotics/AI at the present time, I think over-claiming is generally more likely than under-claiming.

An Interesting Startup

Here’s a company, Hadrian, which is planning to build a series of factories for manufacturing of precision metal components.  Their first factory is in Hawthorne, CA, and they’re building the next one nearby in Torrance.

One of the lead investors in Hadrian is the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz.  The A-H partner responsible for this deal, Katherine Boyle, writes about the company, the opportunity, and why she considers it a promising investment.

Hadrian is hiring, if anyone’s interested.

Also, a thoughtful piece from Ms Boyle on the need for America to get serious.

Memes, Political Persuasion, and Political Intimidation

An interesting and important post at Quillette: Confessions of a Social-Justice Meme Maker.

I observe that political memes today tend not only to be oversimplified, which goes with the nature of the medium, but also to be insulting.  Political communication today has too often abandoned persuasion in favor of approaches which are believed to rally ‘the base’ while insulting opponents.

I am again reminded of something that Stalin’s master propagandist, Willi Munzenberg, said to Arthur Koestler back when Koestler was still a Communist:

Don’t argue with them, Make them stink in the nose of the world. Make people curse and abominate them. Make them shudder with horror. That, Arturo, is propaganda!

A very high proportion of political memes today would cause Munzenberg to nod in approval.

In addition to stirring up one’s own side (good for contributions and for election day turnout!), a sufficiently vitriolic stream of insults can intimidate opponents from speaking out, lest they themselves be subject to such attacks. This intimidation is more effective, though, when a political side largely dominates the channels of communication, as the Left dominates most American media today.

The insult-and-intimidate approach, though, does have a downside: it may well alienate people who are somewhat aligned with the opposing side but may still be persuadable.  Even if they are intimidated from speaking out, they may still remember the sting of the insults when they alone in the voting booth.  Few practitioners of meme-driven insults and other forms of hostile political communication seem worried about this side effect of their work, though.

A factor that should not be underrated: many people get a certain kind of pleasure from engaging in cruelty while feeling virtuous and also reinforcing their sense of membership in an in-group.  See this horrible example from the UK.  I’ve seen no evidence that this particular incident had anything to do directly with memes, but I’m confident that the same kind of attitude is well-represented among the forwarders and makers of malign political memes.  My 2018 post Conformity, Cruelty, and Political Activism is relevant here.

As I noted above, memes oversimplify, by their very nature.  As the author of the linked Quillette post winds up her piece:  “Everything worth knowing is much more complex than any slogan can possibly convey.”

While this is true, it is also true that the kind of simplification represented by memes is by no means a new thing.  Political cartoons, for example, can be seen as a forerunner of memes.  Is the effect of today’s bad memes any worse than that of scurrilous political cartoons in, say, 1900?  I think that it may be: In 1900, literacy (in a broad sense) was on an upswing, and key cultural institutions of society were encouraging more of it, as did the technologies of the time. Whereas today, literacy (in the sense of being able to read, follow, and understand arguments of some complexity) seems to be on the decline, a trend certainly aggravated by the short-attention-span nature of much Internet media.

Neal Stephenson wrote an interesting little book called In the Beginning Was the Command Line.  While the book does talk about human interfaces to computer systems, its deeper subject is the impact of media and metaphors on thought processes and on work.  He contrasts the explicit word-based interface to systems and to information with the graphical or sensorial interface.

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