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  • Archive for the 'Tech' Category

    Thinking, Making, Profiting

    Posted by David Foster on 12th May 2021 (All posts by )

    256 years ago this month, James Watt made the conceptual breakthrough that enabled a much more efficient steam engine…an engine that would play a major role in driving the Industrial Revolution.  He had been thinking about possibilities for improving the coal-hungry Newcomen engine, then the best available, which lost huge amounts of heat every cycle through the successive heating and cooling of the cylinder walls:

    It was in the Green of Glasgow.  I had gone to take a walk on a fine Sabbath afternoon…I was thinking upon the engine at the time…when the idea came into my mind, that as steam was an elastic body it would rush into a vacuum, and if a communication was made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel, it would rush into it, and might be there condensed without cooling the cylinder.

    But in addition to the many details involved in reducing this idea to practice, there was another problem inhibiting the creation of reasonably-efficient steam engines.  The boring of the cylinders…even when the best tools and the highest skills of the day were applied…was so imprecise that considerable quantities of steam escaped around the piston, greatly lowering the overall efficiency of the engine.

    Enter Matthew Boulton, who became Watt’s partner, and John Wilkinson, a Boulton associate and foundry operator who was obsessed with all things cast iron.  Boulton and Wilkinson wanted a steam engine to provide the blast for Wilkinson’s foundry, and they wanted an engine with especially-large cylinders…which made the problem of tight cylinder/piston fit even harder to solve.

    Wilkinson saw that the technology he had already developed for the very precise boring of cannon could, with some modifications, be adapted to the boring of steam engine cylinders.  Amid “searing heat and grinding din,” he achieved a cylinder, four feet in diameter, which “does not err the thickness of an old shilling at any part.”  With the combination of Watt’s separate condenser and Wilkinson’s improved boring process, the steam engine was ready for the starring role that it was to hold for the next century and beyond.

    Key point: It wasn’t only the design of the improved steam engine that mattered, but also the process for making it.

    What if Britain had been offshoring its foundry operations, with their “searing heat and grinding din” to another country?  Spain, let’s say.  Given the importance of the interaction between the design talent and the manufacturing talent, would the improved steam engine have been developed in the 1770s timeframe at all?  And whenever it had been developed, to which individuals and countries would the financial benefits of steam power have accrued?

    The present-day parallel is the relationship between microchip designers and microchip manufacturing facilities…foundries, as they are actually called.

    More about John Wilkinson, here.

    Posted in Britain, Business, Energy & Power Generation, History, Tech | 10 Comments »

    An Early and Excellent Example of a High-Technology Product Press Release

    Posted by David Foster on 27th April 2021 (All posts by )

    The poet/historian  Antipater sings the wonderfulness of the vertical waterwheel as a power source:

    Cease from grinding, ye women who toil at the mill

    Sleep late, even if the crowing cocks announce the dawn

    For Demeter has ordered the Nymphs to perform the work of your hands

    And they, leaping down on the top of the wheel, turn its axle which

    With its revolving spokes, turns the heavy concave Nisyrian millstones

    Learning to feast on the products of Demeter without labour

    ( circa 65 bc)

     

    I would so hire that man for a Marketing Communications job.

     

    Posted in Energy & Power Generation, History, Tech | 6 Comments »

    “You Better Go to Raw Data”

    Posted by David Foster on 22nd April 2021 (All posts by )

    People operating complex machines and systems–ships, aircraft, and nuclear power plants, for example–are often dependent on information that has been processed or filtered in some way. The same is true of people exercising their responsibilities as citizens in a large and complex society, inasmuch as they  cannot directly and personally observe most of the relevant facts and events.  Disasters that occur in complex physical systems can serve as a metaphor to help shed light on disasters–actual and potential–in the political sphere.

    On June 9, 1995, the cruise ship Royal Majesty was on a routine voyage in good weather.  The vessel was equipped with GPS, which displayed latitude and longitude position…which the crew diligently plotted..and also drove a moving map overlaid on the radar scope.

    Unfortunately, the information being displayed and plotted bore little resemblance to the actual reality.

    As the gray sky turned black veil, the phosphorus-lit radar map with its neat lines and digital indication seemed clearer and more inviting than the dark world outside. As part of a sophisticated integrated bridge system, the radar map had everything–from a crisp radar picture, to ship position, buoy renderings, and up to the last bit of data anyone could want–until it seemed that the entire world lived and moved transparently, inside that little green screen. Using this compelling display, the second officer was piloting a phantom ship on an electronic lie, and nobody called the bluff.

    The bluff was finally called by reality itself, at 10 PM, when the ship jerked to the left with a grinding noise.  It was hard aground on the Rose and Crown Shoal, and could not be backed off.

    It was quickly determined that the cable to the GPS antenna had come loose, and the system was not actually obtaining the real, current positions. The captain ran to the LORAN unit, a completely separate electronic navigation system. The position accurately displayed on the LORAN differed from the displayed GPS position by 17 miles.

    The GPS unit had in fact honestly disclosed its lack of current information: it did this by displaying the characters ‘DR’…for Dead Reckoning, ie, extrapolating the current course and speed..but the annotation appeared in small characters and was not noticed. The crew thought they were getting an actual portrayal of the current reality, rather than an estimate that would progressively become a guesstimate with the passage of time.

    To use the term which has become common in media and political circles, the GPS and its associated display units were creating a convincing narrative…a narrative so convincing that no one, evidently, took the trouble to cross-check it with the LORAN, or to do a celestial fix.

    How many American citizens live in a media and information environment which is as closed and as convincing as what the crew of the Royal Majesty was seeing on their bridge?  Consider how quickly overwhelming media narratives were put together concerning, for example, the Hunter Biden laptop or the murders of the women in Atlanta.  In most such cases, you could watch CNN, MSNBC, and some of the old-line tv networks, you could listen to NPR, you could look at the memes being circulated on social media–and they would all be telling you the same story, an overall narrative which for most people will be as consistent and as convincing as that phantom world displayed on the Royal Majesty‘s radar scope and plotted on the paper charts was that ship’s Second Officer.

    As disasters go, the Royal Majesty affair was a fairly minor one: embarrassing and expensive, but no one was killed or injured.  Here’s a case which was much worse–the approach of a Delta Airlines flight into Boston Logan Airport, on July 31, 1973.

    At 11:40:07, the Captain advised the First Officer, who was doing the flying for this approach:

    You better go to raw data.  I don’t trust that thing.

    “That thing” was a Flight Director, an instrument which displays the calculated actions needed to follow a desired flight path.  Both Captain and the FO had become concerned about indications on this instrument which didn’t seem to make sense.

    It was too late.  25 seconds later, the plane slammed into the seawall. There were no survivors.

    The NTSB determined that the Flight Director’s ‘mode’ switch was incorrectly set: while the Captain and the FO believed it was displaying the calculated actions required for the airplane to follow the Instrument Landing System radio beam down to the runway, it was actually doing no such thing.  “Raw data” refers to the display of the plane’s actual, physical vertical and horizontal deviation from where it should be on the ILS beam…and would have shown that the airplane was not where it needed to be.  The Raw Data was not, however, so prominently displayed on the instrument panel as were the Flight Director commands.

    Convincing displays, convincing narratives, can be very dangerous.  New information tends to be absorbed into the overall picture.  When the navigating officer of the Royal Majesty observed the radar reflection of a buoy on his radar screen, and, shortly thereafter, the passage of a buoy was reported on the ship’s port side, it confirmed in his mind that it was the ‘BA’ buoy, which marks to entrance to the Boston traffic lanes…and the whole GPS-derived picture became even more convincing.  But it wasn’t really BA–it was actually the Asia Rip buoy, anchored to a sunken wreck, which marks the Rose and Crown Shoal.

    In the political/media sphere, the misleading narratives that are convincingly presented are not the matter or mechanical or human error, they are a matter of human design.  Some of the people and organizations propagating these narratives know they are false, some would rather–for career or social reasons–not think about it too deeply, and some actually believe the narratives. It happens on both/all political sides, but happens a lot more, and more effectively, on the Left, because the Left/Woke dominance of media is so nearly complete.

    The pilot and copilot of Flight 723 had only a matter of seconds to question and cross-check the ‘narrative’ that they were seeing on their Flight Director.  Citizens, operating in the political/media sphere, have less time pressure…but the time available is not infinite.  Multiple sources of information are more available than at any point in history–but the Narrative of the like-thinking media and its influence strategies is overwhelming, especially for people who don’t have a lot of time to follow political matters.  Confirmation bias, too, plays a strong role.

    Will a sufficient number of people, metaphorically check the displayed GPS position against the LORAN, or check the Flight Director command bars against the raw localizer and glideslope data?  And will they do so before it is too late for recovery?

    (More on the Royal Majesty incident at my post here.  Detail on the Delta Flight 723 accident is provided in the NTSB report.)

     

     

    Posted in Aviation, Leftism, Media, Miscellaneous, Politics, Tech, USA | 32 Comments »

    To Disappear in Dreams

    Posted by David Foster on 6th March 2021 (All posts by )

    An article in Wired says: The future of virtual reality is far more than just video games. Silicon Valley sees the creation of virtual worlds as the ultimate free-market solution to a political problem. In a world of increasing wealth inequality, environmental disaster, and political instability, why not sell everyone a device that whisks them away to a virtual world free of pain and suffering?

    and quotes John Carmack,  Doom co-creator and the former CTO of Oculus:

    People react negatively to any talk of economics, but it is resource allocation. You have to make decisions about where things go. Economically, you can deliver a lot more value to a lot of people in the virtual sense.

    Actually, I doubt that there is any kind of tech-industry-wide conspiracy to cool the people out and keep them from revolting by enmeshing them into virtual worlds…mostly, this is just about making money and doing cool technical stuff…on the supply side that is.  On the demand site, it should be of more than a little concern that escapism is so important to so many.

    I’m reminded of some of the reactions when the movie Avatar came out.  CNN reported at the time:

    James Cameron’s completely immersive spectacle “Avatar” may have been a little too real for some fans who say they have experienced depression and suicidal thoughts after seeing the film because they long to enjoy the beauty of the alien world Pandora.

    According to the article, there were more than 1000 posts to a forum for people trying to cope from the depression they experienced after seeing this film..and not being able to stay within it permanantly.

    Neptunus Lex responded: “Some folks don’t get the point. You have to come home when it’s over.”

    But we seem to have an increasing number of people who don’t want to come home when it’s over…who don’t want it to ever be over…but want to stay in that virtual world permanently.

    And, relatedly, there is also pharmaceutical-based escapism, legal or illegal.  Various forms of addiction, already at concerning levels, have risen considerably over the last year.  And, apparently, it has long been true that considerable numbers of people find an ordinary trip on an ordinary commercial airliner to be so stressful that they medicate themselves beforehand.

    In my 2010 post on the Avatar reactions, I said:

    I immediately thought of the old Chinese opium dens…which were largely inhabited by people whose lives were so miserable that their desire to disappear in dreams was entirely understandable.

    But what misery or bleakness are the would-be permanant habitués of the Avatar den seeking to escape?

    And this question can be extended to other types of addiction-dens, as well.

    The title of this post was inspired by a line in Tom Russell’s song Ambrose Larsen and another song on the same album, The Dreamin’.

    Posted in Deep Thoughts, Human Behavior, Media, Society, Tech | 29 Comments »

    The Computer Age Turns 75

    Posted by David Foster on 21st February 2021 (All posts by )

    In February 1946, the first general purpose electronic computer…the ENIAC…was introduced to the public.  Nothing like ENIAC had been seen before, and the unveiling of the computer, a room-filling machine with lots of flashing lights and switches–made quite an impact.

    ENIAC (the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) was created primarily to help with the trajectory-calculation problems for artillery shells and bombs, a problem that was requiring increasing numbers of people for manual computations.  John Mauchly, a physics professor attending a summer session at the University of Pennsylvania, and J Presper Eckert, a 24-year-old grad student, proposed the machine after observing the work of the women (including Mauchly’s wife Mary) who had been hired to assist the Army with these calculations. The proposal made its way to the Army’s liason with Penn,  and that officer, Lieutenant Herman Goldstine,  took up the project’s cause.  (Goldstine apparently heard about the proposal not via formal university channels but via a mutual friend, which is an interesting point in our present era of remote work.)  Electronics had not previously been used for digital computing, and a lot of authorities thought an electromechanical machine would be a better and safer bet.

    Despite the naysayers (including RCA, actually which refused to bid on the machine), ENIAC did work, and the payoff was in speed.  This was on display in the introductory demonstration, which was well-orchestrated from a PR standpoint.  Attendees could watch the numbers changing as the flight of a simulated shell proceeded from firing to impact, which took about 20 seconds…a little faster than the actual flight of the real, physical shell itself.  Inevitably, the ENIAC was dubbed a ‘giant brain’ in some of the media coverage…well, the “giant” part was certainly true, given the machine’s size and its 30-ton weight.

    In the photo below, Goldstine and Eckert are holding the hardware module required for one single digit of one number.

    The machine’s flexibility allowed it to be used for many applications beyond the trajectory work,  beginning with modeling the proposed design of the detonator for the hydrogen bomb.   Considerable simplification of the equations had to be done to fit within ENIAC’s capacity; nevertheless, Edward Teller believed the results showed that his proposed design would work. In an early example of a disagreement about the validity of model results, the Los Alamos mathematician Stan Ulam thought otherwise.  (It turned out that Ulam was right…a modified triggering approach had to be developed before working hydrogen bombs could be built.)  There were many other ENIAC applications, including the first experiments in computerized weather forecasting, which I’ll touch on later in this post.

    Programming ENIAC was quite different from modern programming.  There was no such thing as a programming language or instruction set.  Instead, pluggable cable connections, combined with switch settings, controlled the interaction among ENIAC’s 20 ‘accumulators’ (each of which could store a 10-digit number and perform addition & subtraction on that number) and its multiply and divide/square-root units.  With clever programming it was possible to make several of the units operate in parallel. The machine could perform conditional branching and looping…all-electronic, as opposed to earlier electromechanical machines in which a literal “loop” was established by glueing together the ends of a punched paper tape.   ENIAC also had several ‘function tables’, in which arrays of rotary switches were set to transform one quantity into another quantity in a specified way…in the trajectory application, the relationship between a shell’s velocity and its air drag.

    The original ‘programmers’…although the word was not then in use…were 6 women selected from among the group of human trajectory calculators. Jean Jennings Bartik mentioned in her autobiography that when she was interviewed for the job, the interviewer (Goldstine) asked her what she thought of electricity.  She said she’d taken physics and knew Ohm’s Law; Goldstine said he didn’t care about that; what he wanted to know was whether she was scared of it!  There were serious voltages behind the panels and running through the pluggable cables.

    “The ENIAC was a son of a bitch to program,” Jean Bartik later remarked.  Although the equations that needed to be solved were defined by physicists and mathematicians, the programmers had to figure out how to transform those equations into machine sequences of operations, switch settings, and cable connections.  In addition to the logical work, the programmers had also to physically do the cabling and switch-setting and to debug the inevitable problems…for the latter task, ENIAC conveniently had a hand-held remote control, which the programmer could use to operate the machine as she walked among its units.

    Notoriously, none of the programmers were introduced at the dinner event or were invited to the celebration dinner afterwards.  This was certainly due in large part to their being female, but part of it was probably also that programming was not then recognized as an actual professional field on a level with mathematics or electrical engineering; indeed, the activity didn’t even yet have a name.  (It is rather remarkable, though, that in an ENIAC retrospective in 1986…by which time the complexity and importance of programming were well understood…The New York Times referred only to “a crew of workers” setting dials and switches.)

    The original programming method for ENIAC put some constraints on the complexity of problems that it could be handled and also tied up the machine for hours or days while the cable-plugging and switch-setting for a new problem was done. The idea of stored programming had emerged (I’ll discuss later the question of who the originator was)…the idea was that a machine could be commanded by instructions stored in a memory just like data; no cable-swapping necessary. It was realized that ENIAC could be transformed into a stored-program machine  with the function tables…those arrays of rotary switches…used to store the instructions for a specific problem. The cabling had to be done only once, to set the machine up for interpreting  a particular vocabulary of instructions.  This change gave ENIAC a lot more program capacity and made it far easier to program; it did sacrifice some of the speed.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Big Government, Biography, Book Notes, History, Science, Tech, War and Peace | 20 Comments »

    Some Actual Data on the Texas Electrical Debacle

    Posted by David Foster on 18th February 2021 (All posts by )

    Here is the overall generation mix from February 11–17.  The upper light brown line is gas-fired generation.  The brown line starting at about 10,000 is coal.  Green is wind, the yellow is solar, as is apparent from the daily pattern, and the almost-straight line starting at about 5,000 is nuclear.

    Source is EIA…they have a lot of useful data, but you have to poke around a bit to find it.

    Posted in Current Events, Energy & Power Generation, Tech | 54 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading, Viewing, and Listening

    Posted by David Foster on 25th January 2021 (All posts by )

    Smiling Victorians…a photo essay

    A tour of the Atlanta Hartsfield air traffic control tower

    Speaking of ATC…a controller at Boston Center and a Delta pilot on her frequency discover that her grandfather was the man who hired him, back in 1981.

    The transistor:  a documentary from 1954.

    Tonight being Burns Night, here’s a song I like from Robert Burns...musical setting by Ludwig Beethoven, oddly enough.  Some 19th-century musical entrepreneurship was involved in the Burns-Beethoven connection. Lyrics, including modern-English translation, here.

    Think I’ll pass on the kilt and the haggis, though.

    Posted in Aviation, History, Music, Photos, Poetry, Tech, Transportation | 14 Comments »

    Big Brother Watches Dilbert

    Posted by Ginny on 23rd January 2021 (All posts by )

    Chicagoboyz are excellent managers – and have opinions. I’m curious how effective you see:
    TECH THAT AIMS TO IMPROVE MEETINGS.

    If you aren’t sufficiently paranoid about 25,000 National Guards brought in for a nonexistent “coup” sleeping on the freezing floor of a parking garage and hearing they will be there until March (I don’t know how Abbott’s order to bring his men home is going – at least the Texas contingent should leave sooner), then consider Big Brother recording your blood pressure and eye contact at your next business meeting. (Does this seem a breakthrough in efficiency or something akin the Stasi in The Lives of Others?)

    It gives useful information; it might encourage quieter members and rein in talkative ones. Could interest be faked for the camera? But a leader who doesn’t sense the mood of the room and who doesn’t encourage contributions and differing approaches tactfully would probably not use AI information well either.

    Neither as employee or employer did I find these necessary (probably incorrectly). Forced into biannual meetings, I fell asleep or went off on diversions. This technology would quickly cull me (“Doesn’t play well with others”). But I’m not sure that makes it, well, bad. Invasive, yes. Nonetheless, I suspect it fosters conformity and forces consensus: in short, is UnAmerican. But maybe that’s just me.

    Posted in Business, Civil Society, Diversions, Management, Miscellaneous, Organizational Analysis, Tech | 22 Comments »

    Comm Check

    Posted by David Foster on 20th January 2021 (All posts by )

    When the First World War broke out, a British cable ship set sail with orders to cut the German undersea cables.  Given the British control of the seas, the cables could not be repaired during the course of the war, and this led to a British dominance of communications with neutral countries–especially the United States.  While Germany was not totally cut off from the world–they had a powerful radio transmitter at Nauen–communication from the Allied Powers was more convenient and subject to British influence; war correspondents, for example, tended to file their reports from Britain.  In the opinion of many writers (here, for instance), this gave the Allied Powers a considerable advantage in propaganda.  (Also in message interception for purposes of espionage, of course)

    Availability of communications is of great importance in conflicts of all kinds. “Congress can make a general, but only communications can make him a commander,” is how the American general Omar Bradley put it.

    We have seen in recent how control of communications can influence political outcomes, with, for example, the playing down and outright banning of the Hunter Biden story perpetrated by both traditional and social media.  How many people would have voted differently had they been aware of this matter?  One survey suggests that the number would have been quite significant.

    And is it beyond the realm of the possible that certain ‘tech’ and infrastructure companies might go beyond the blocking of political communications with which they disagree and…actively or passively…block government operational communications that they don’t like?  See this post:

    The Department of Defense uses software created, delivered, and maintained by many of the same high-tech companies now engaged in shutting down online speech. If the titans of tech can pull the plug on public communications tools people have come to rely on, some observers fear, they might do the same to the Pentagon in response to a military action deemed unacceptable by San Franciscans.

    Something along those lines already happened with Project Maven, a major Pentagon initiative using Google algorithms to identify drone targets. The software was well under way when, in 2018, thousands of Google’s workers protested their company becoming a defense contractor. 

    Could companies, acting on their own opinions or in order to placate key groups of employees, really get away with refusing to supply urgently-needed capabilities to the government?  From the article:

    The Hudson Institute’s Clark says that if a tech giant withdrew access to services it had agreed to provide to the military, it would likely have to pay penalties for breach of contract. Such fines might make little difference to the bottom line of Big Tech. But the loss of cloud capabilities in the middle of a conflict could be disastrous for warfighters.

    During the Iraq War, the Swiss company Swatch refused to supply parts for the JDAM missile.  I don’t know whether litigation was filed by the DoD to recover damages. But the consequences of such refusals could well involve lives as well as money.

    (Gregory Sanders, a fellow at the Defense-Industrial Initiaves Group) says the Pentagon could always invoke the Defense Production Act “if a company pulled out of a service provision in a crisis environment in a non-orderly manner.” As the Congressional Research Service puts it, the act “allows the President to require persons (including businesses and corporations)” to “prioritize and accept government contracts for materials and services.”  But that isn’t a guaranteed strategy for success. “The quality of work you get when compelling an objecting vendor wouldn’t necessarily be the best, so DoD wouldn’t want to invoke those authorities needlessly.”  It’s well-known that ‘working to rule’ can greatly slow things down in activities of all kinds; much more so, surely, where creative thinking is a big part of the work to be done.

    H G Wells’ 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come posits the emergence of the Air Dictatorship: global rule established by a technocratic group that begins with the imposition of a monopoly over global trade networks and especially control over the air.  Benevolent, rule, of course, as Wells saw it.

    Are we in danger of de facto rule by a Communications Dictatorship, or at least a Communications Oligarchy?

     

    Posted in Aviation, Business, Civil Liberties, Tech, Transportation, USA | 27 Comments »

    Book Review: Year of Consent, by Kendell Foster Crossen

    Posted by David Foster on 5th January 2021 (All posts by )

    Year of Consent, by Kendell Foster Crossen

    —-

    This is a pulp SF novel from 1954, which has uncomfortable relevance to our present era.

    The story is set in the then-future year of 1990.  The United States is still nominally a democracy, but the real power lies with the social engineers…sophisticated advertising & PR men…who use psychological methods to persuade people that they really want what they are supposed to want.  (Prefiguring “nudging”)  The social engineers are aided in their tasks by a giant computer called Sociac (500,000 vacuum tubes! 860,000 relays!) and colloquially known as ‘Herbie.’  The political system now in place is called Democratic Rule by Consent.  While the US still has a President, he is a figurehead and the administration of the country is actually done by the General Manager of the United States….who himself serves at the pleasure of the social engineers.  The social engineers work in a department called ‘Communications’, which most people believe is limited to such benign tasks as keeping the telephones and the television stations in operation.  Actually, its main function is the carrying out of influence operations.

    One approach involves the publishing of novels which are fictional, but carry implicit social and/or political messages…via, for example, the beliefs and affiliations of the bad guys versus the good guys. Even the structure of novels is managed for messaging reasons: romance-story plots should not be boy gets girl…loses girl…gets girl back, but rather boy gets girl, loses girl, gets different girl who is really right for him.

    Some methods are more direct, although their real objectives are not stated.  One such objective is population control: If the fertility rate is running a little low, advertising is ramped up for a pill called Glamorenes, which are said to create the “rounded, glamorous figure of a TV star…remember–it’s Glamorenes for glamor.”  Actually, the real function of Glamorenes, which is top secret, is to increase a woman’s sex drive and expand the fertility window.  On the other hand, if the birth rate is running too high, the ad emphasis switches to Slimettes for women and Vigorone for men, both of which have a contraceptive effect.  The book’s protagonist, Gerald Leeds, is one of the few who is in on the secret, and when he hears a Glamorenes ad, he realizes that this is the real reason why his girlfriend, Nancy, has been acting especially affectionate lately.

    Few people, even at the highest levels of government, realize just how powerful the Communications Department really is.  “Even the biggest wheels only know part of it.  They think the Communications Administrative Department exists to help them–and not the other way around.”

    The computer known as Sociac (‘Herby’) accumulates vast amounts of data on individuals, including such things as shopping, dining, and vacation preferences. “Thus, when the administration wanted to make a new move, they knew exactly how to condition the people so that it would be backed. Or they knew exactly what sort of man to put up to win a popular election.” Telephone calls are tapped, but are rarely listened to directly by government agents; rather, they are fed directly to “a calculator” (perhaps a front-end to Herbie) and added to “the huge stock of intimate knowledge about the people.”

    Those individuals who resist the conditioning and are found to hold unapproved opinions–or find themselves to hold unapproved opinions–are said to have “communications blocks,” and good citizens will act on their own to request treatment for such blocks. The first level of treatment is the Psychotherapy Calculator, an interactive system which will help the patient change any objectionable opinions and behavior.  But in some cases, the PC determines that stronger methods are necessary, and in those cases, the patient is referred for a lobotomy.  The escorting of patients for mandatory psychotherapy and lobotomy procedures is done by a white-uniformed police force known as the Clinic Squad.

    Citizens are, of course, expected to report any instances of unapproved beliefs or actions.  When the protagonist’s girlfriend Nancy overhears one of her colleagues expressing sympathy for a man who is in serious trouble, she reports the girl immediately. (“For the moment I disliked Nancy,” says Gerald.  “Then I felt sorry for her.”)  Nancy herself is concerned that there may be something wrong with her, and has considered reporting herself for voluntary automated psychotherapy.  “If I did have (something wrong with her), I’d want to be purged of it quickly before it could make me do something awful like that poor Mr Shell”…Gerald notes that her hand was shaking as she lifted her glass to finish the drink.

    Gerald, the protagonist, works within the Communications Department…unknown to his superiors, he is a member of a resistance organization which aims to overthrow the existing system of government and to restore individual liberty. He must feign agreement when his immediate boss talks about how wonderful the system is and how misguided are those who oppose it:

    Never has there been more freedom anywhere than in America today.  We’ve done away with police and even prisons.  Crime has been almost wiped out since we recognized it as a social disease.  We’ve done away with poverty. There are fewer restrictions on people than ever before in the history of mankind.  For the first time they’re really free.

    Gerald reflects:

    Even if it hadn’t been dangerous, I wouldn’t have argued with him.  He believed what he was saying. His faith was the faith of a Torquemada backed by science.  There was no way to make him see that the social engineers had taken away only one freedom, but that it was the ultimate freedom–the right to choose.  Everything…was decided for them and then they were conditioned to want it.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Advertising, Big Government, Book Notes, Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Human Behavior, Russia, Tech, USA | 16 Comments »

    4284 Characters

    Posted by David Foster on 29th December 2020 (All posts by )

    A description of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine and how it works.

    Source code for a vaccine?  Well, as Glenn Reynolds likes to say, this is the 21st century.

    Posted in Health Care, Medicine, Science, Tech | 23 Comments »

    Reopening — III (Theory ∧ Practice)

    Posted by Jay Manifold on 27th November 2020 (All posts by )

    “We should act incrementally as prudent risk minimizers and pursue any effective no-regrets options. We do not have to wait for the formulation and acceptance of grand strategies, for the emergence of global consensual understanding, or for the universal adoption of more rational approaches.”

    — Vaclav Smil (Global Catastrophes and Trends: the Next Fifty Years)

    This post is an attempt at synthesis; those just grazing in (Midwesterners don’t surf) are directed to Reopening — I (Practice) and Reopening — II (Theory) for accounts of my earlier action and contemplation, respectively. For my third installment, I can do no better than lead off with a quadrant diagram of my own devising:

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Bioethics, Civil Liberties, Civil Society, COVID-19, Current Events, Human Behavior, Management, Medicine, Miscellaneous, Science, Tech, Tradeoffs, USA | 28 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading and Viewing

    Posted by David Foster on 26th November 2020 (All posts by )

    It’s been a while since I posted a link collection, so here are quite a few…

    The highest-resolution snowflake photos ever captured.  

    The real kind of snowflakes, not the metaphorical kind.

    Stella’s best leaf jumps of all time.

    A lot of enthusiasm

    Spot, the Robot Dog, goes to work on an oil rig.

    Bet Spot can’t do what Stella can do.

    The recent discussion of port congestion reminded me of this very interesting website, which shows the world’s maritime traffic in real time or very close to same.

    And on a more somber note:  November 10 marked the 45th anniversary of the Great Lakes ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald, an event memorialized in song by Gordon Lightfoot.

    Still on the subject of transportation: the implementation of Positive Traffic Control for US railroads, which has been a huge and complex project, is almost complete.

    I’m not sure that this mandate really represented the best possible safety-return-on-investment for the money expended.

    Turkish trash collectors built a library for abandoned books.

    Visiting cards and actual visits, as a Facebook equivalent in 1800s Russia.

    Reminds me of a passage in one of Fielding’s novels, in which a woman takes great pleasure in going through the visiting cards of people who called on her, which made me immediately think of like-collecting of Facebook.

     

     

     

     

    Posted in Dogs, Human Behavior, Photos, Russia, Tech, Transportation | 3 Comments »

    Networks Calling Elections: How it Began

    Posted by David Foster on 11th November 2020 (All posts by )

    Surely the most famous case of morning-after newspaper reporting of an election was the Chicago Tribune’s Dewey Defeats Truman headline of November 3, 1948.  But the era of television was just beginning, and the tradition of televised and near-real-time election calls began with a corporate PR stunt.

    In 1952, the Eckert-Mauchly computer corporation, which had recently been acquired by Remington Rand, suggested to CBS News that their Univac computer might be used for election-night projections. Univac, the first computer to be ‘mass-produced’ (46 were eventually sold and installed) was already becoming famous.  It was an awesome machine, weighing 8 tons and incorporating 5000 vacuum tubes.  Its internal memory capacity was a then-impressive 1000 words, or about 12 KB.  Price was about $1 million, in 1952 money.

    Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson was considered the favorite to win, although the election was expected to be close.  But at 8:30 PM, with only 5% of the votes counted, Univac issued its initial prediction:  100-to-1 odds for Eisenhower, with 438 electoral votes to Stevenson’s 93.  The CBS news director thought the prediction was ridiculous, and it was not aired.

    Meanwhile, Eckert-Mauchly’s statistician (Max Woodbury) was entering data to reflect new returns as they came in….he may have also tuned the algorithm to give less-extreme results, though this is not clear.  At 9PM, Univac issued another prediction:  8-7 odds for Eisenhower…and this prediction was announced.

    But then, Woodbury  discovered that he had added an extra zero to the Stevenson numbers for New York state.  After this entry was corrected, the machine gave the same answer as before: 100-to-1 odds for Eisenhower, with 438 electoral votes to Stevenson’s 93.  I can’t determine whether or not this revised forecast was televised or not, but the final result was an Eisenhower victory, 442-89 electoral votes.

    Late at night, CBS correspondent Charles Collingwood made an embarrassing confession to millions of viewers: Univac had made an accurate prediction hours before, but CBS hadn’t aired it.

    This election-night affair certainly helped solidify the idea that Univac was the name in computers…a nice PR win, though it didn’t seem to help the company very much in the end…and made computers and algorithmic predictions a regular feature of election-night reporting.  Today, of course, such predictions are a commonplace from media of all types.  And some of these media organizations seem to have developed a rather…exalted…opinion of their role.  In a tweet sent out on election day, 2020…and soon withdrawn..the New York Times asserted that:

    The role of declaring the winner of a presidential election in the US falls to the news media.

    Such ‘declarations’, of course, have no legal standing: they are merely estimates, as much as the varying 1952 CBS estimates were, and the NYT’s tweet was an assertion of arrogance and privilege, surprising only in that it was so out in the open.

    Some links:

    https://www.vice.com/en/article/78x79z/the-election-night-debut-of-commercial-computing-almost-wasnt

    https://www.wired.com/2010/11/1104cbs-tv-univac-election/

    http://ds-wordpress.haverford.edu/bitbybit/bit-by-bit-contents/chapter-five/5-10-univac-part-ii-commercialization/

    Posted in Elections, Holidays, Media, Tech | 14 Comments »

    The Multi-Front Attack on Free Speech (rerun)

    Posted by David Foster on 10th November 2020 (All posts by )

    (I don’t usually rerun posts that are less than a year old, but in this case…)

    Free speech…free expression generally…is under attack in America and throughout the Western world to a degree not seen in a long time. I think there are some specific phenomena and (partially-overlapping) categories of people which are largely driving this attack–I’ve written about this subject previously, here, but the situation has gotten even more serious since that post, and some of the important factors were underemphasized.  Here are the current fronts, as I see it, in the war (not too strong a word, I’m afraid) on free speech.

    The Thugs. As I pointed out in my post The United States of Weimar?, illegal actions against political opponents, ranging from theft of newspapers to direct assault and battery, have in recent decades become increasingly common on university campuses, and now are well on track to being normalized as aspects of American politics. Incidents of political thuggery are reported almost daily: just the other day, pro-Trump women at an upscale DC hotel were verbally attacked and apparently physically assaulted by members of a wedding party that was heavy on Democrat attendees; including, reportedly, some top officials from the DNC. A pro-free-speech film was reportedly interrupted by two men wearing masks. Interruption of movies they didn’t like was a tactic used by the Nazis prior to their obtaining official censorship powers. The film “All Quiet on the Western Front” was plagued by Nazi disruptions when released in Germany in 1930. And attempts to shut down dissident speakers on college campuses, such as this, have become so common as to now be almost the default expectation.

    The Assassins. These individuals go beyond the level of violence practiced by the Thugs, and make credible death threats they attempt to carry out against those whose actions or believe they view as unacceptable. The majority of threats and attacks falling in this category have certainly been the doing of radical Muslims; however, some of the more extreme ‘environmentalist’ and ‘animal rights’ groups have also demonstrated Assassin tendencies. At present, however, it is those Assassins who are radical Muslims who have been most successful in inhibiting free expression. Four years in hiding for an American cartoonist. But see also Ecofascism: The Climate Debate Turns Violent, how long until this justification and practice of violence reaches the level of justifying and carrying out actual murders?

    The Enclosure of the Speech Commons. Whereas the Internet and especially the blogosphere offered the prospect of political expression and discussion unfiltered by the traditional media, the primary social-media providers have taken various levels of controlling attitudes toward free speech; Twitter, in my opinion, is especially bad. Partly this is ideological; partly, it probably reflects their ideas about protecting their brands. Yes, there are plenty of ways to communicate online outside of the social media platforms, but their growth has been so rapid that a large proportion of the potential audience is not easily reached outside their domains. Note also that conversations that one would have been private friends talking at home, or over the telephone are now semi-public and sometimes made fully public. Plus, they become part of an individual’s Permanent Record, to use the phrase with which school officials once threatened students.

    The Online Mobs. The concerns of the social media providers about providing online “safe spaces” does not seem to have in the least inhibited the formation of online mobs which can quickly make life unpleasant for their targeted individuals, and even destroy the careers of those individuals. Decades ago, Marshall McLuhan referred to the technology-enabled Global Village; unfortunately, it turns out that this virtual village, especially as mediated through the social media platforms, has some of the most toxic characteristics of the real, traditional village. See my post Freedom, the Village, and the Internet.

    And the mobs do not limit themselves to attacks on the target individual: they frequently attack other individuals who fail to participate in the shunning of that target person. As an example:

    A few weeks ago, shortly after I left my magazine gig, I had breakfast with a well-known Toronto man of letters. He told me his week had been rough, in part because it had been discovered that he was still connected on social media with a colleague who’d fallen into disfavour with Stupid Twitter-Land. “You know that we all can see that you are still friends with him,” read one of the emails my friend had received. “So. What are you going to do about that?”

    “So I folded,” he told me with a sad, defeated air. “I know I’m supposed to stick to my principles. That’s what we tell ourselves. Free association and all that. It’s part of the romance of our profession. But I can’t afford to actually do that. These people control who gets jobs. I’m broke. So now I just go numb and say whatever they need me to say.”

    Increasingly, it’s not just a matter of limiting what a person can say, it’s also a matter of edicting what they must say.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Big Government, Business, Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Education, Environment, Feminism, Media, Society, Tech, Terrorism, USA | 22 Comments »

    “Learn to Code”…Still a Dem Thing

    Posted by David Foster on 8th November 2020 (All posts by )

    In early 2020, Joe Biden advised coal miners facing unemployment to learn to code, saying:

    Anybody who can go down 3,000 feet in a mine can sure as hell learn to program as well… Anybody who can throw coal into a furnace can learn how to program, for God’s sake!

    I critiqued this ridiculousness in my post Shovel That Code.  (Does Biden think that coal miners stoke furnaces?…That stoking furnaces is a big factor in today’s job market?)

    Comes now Obama associate Rahm Emmanuel, with precisely the same advice to unemployed retail workers.

    There’s going to be people, like at J.C. Penney and other retail [outlets]. Those jobs are not coming back.  Give them the tools, six months, you’re going to become a computer coder. We’ll pay for it, and you’ll get millions of people to sign up for that.

    There is not an infinite demand in the US for entry-level programmers.  Much offshoring of programming work is taking place…see my post about telemigration…and automation of programming work, which has been happening since the introduction of assemblers and compilers in the mid-1950s, is ongoing.

    In my post about Biden’s learn to code comment, I said:

    Can you imagine what these people would do to the economy if they ever achieved the degree of power that they so avidly seek?

    We may find out, although hopefully the Senate will provide some degree of sanity check.

     

     

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Energy & Power Generation, Tech | 38 Comments »

    New Frontiers in Offshoring

    Posted by David Foster on 6th September 2020 (All posts by )

    Babysitting…of kids in Japan, via Zoom, by women in Rwanda.

    Relates to my posts telemigration and Covid-19, Remote Work, and Offshoring.

     

    Posted in COVID-19, Economics & Finance, Internet, Japan, Tech | 7 Comments »

    Covid-19, Remote Work, and Offshoring

    Posted by David Foster on 13th August 2020 (All posts by )

    The general attitude toward working from home has certainly changed over the last several years.  In 2013, the then-CEO of Yahoo!, Marissa Mayer, banned work-from-home at her company.  And in 2017, IBM established a similar ban. Both of these actions were based on perceived needs to improve productivity and collaboration at those companies

    But in 2020, a lot of companies that moved to work-from home in the Covid-19 environment…because they had no choice if they wanted to continue operating at all…have apparently found it to be working to their satisfaction, and many though not all employees like it, too.  And there is starting to be significant impact on where people choose to live…see these comments from the governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu.  The term ‘zoomtowns’ has been applied to locations where people choose to live and work remotely, based on a locality’s attractive characteristics and good Internet connectivity.

    I do think that a comprehensive work-from-home environment can result in losing something in terms of unplanned interactions…I’ve personally observed several significant product and business initiatives that resulted from such interactions, and there are also interesting historical cases. But such things are difficult to measure, and financial benefits and convenience of work-from-home are likely to prevail, perhaps excessively so in some cases.  In any event, the Yahoo! and IBM approach of broad-scale top-down corporate edicts is unlikely to be a good one.

    Another kind of remote work involves the use of people at remote locations…though not necessarily at home…to perform machine-control tasks that would previously have had to be done on-site.  The robots being used by Federal Express at its Memphis facility sometimes encounter problems that they can’t solve…they can be ‘advised’ by humans located in San Antonio. There are projects underway to make municipal water treatment plants remotely operable, either for emergency backup (as in a pandemic) or for normal operations, and there are also initiatives focused on remote operation of other kinds of infrastructure, utility, and industrial facilities.

    If something can be done by people who are remotely located within the United States, then in most cases it will also be doable by people who are remotely located in other parts of the world.  In my 2019 post telemigration, I wrote about the increasing feasibility of offshoring services work, not only manufacturing.  A lot of this has been going on for software development as well as for customer service.

    It may turn out that, in many cases, remote work in the US turns out to be just a waystation on the road to remote work somewhere else.

    Posted in Business, COVID-19, Customer Service, Economics & Finance, Energy & Power Generation, Management, Tech | 42 Comments »

    Kids These Days

    Posted by David Foster on 11th August 2020 (All posts by )

    ‘these days’ being 1896….here is a film taken by the Lumiere Brothers, enhanced for higher resolution and interpolated for a faster frame rate.

    There is also a colorized version, which is very cool, although the actual colors could of course only be guessed.

    Posted in Film, France, Tech | 4 Comments »

    What Future for Grocery Shopping?

    Posted by David Foster on 19th July 2020 (All posts by )

    The Covid-19 situation has caused a lot of people to try online shopping for things they had previously bought in physical stores.  Groceries, in particular, were something that most people preferred to buy in person, usually buying online only for specialty products that were hard or inconvenient to find locally.  But with the lockdowns, a lot of people have started using the various online shopping platforms.  These seem to fall into three primary categories:

    –Systems such as Giant Peapod (recently rebranded as just Giant Food), which are operated by a grocery chain or an individual store.  Some systems will deliver directly from a warehouse, bypassing their brick-and-mortar store locations.  And sometimes an option is offered to preorder electronically, with in-store or curbside pickup at the store.

    –Systems such as Instacart, which are more or less vendor-agnostic: these systems will allow you to place orders for any of several stores in your area, after which one of their shoppers will collect your order from the vendor’s regular store.

    –Systems (Boxed is an example) which are have no store presence; they are only for online ordering and home delivery, but do the delivery from their own facilities…many kinds of products, obviously, are susceptible to this model only if shipped express with dry ice or similar packaging (expensive) or if the vendor has local facilities in the same area as the customer.

    The relative success of these approaches will have great implications not only for the futures of the various merchants and system providers, but also for the commercial real-estate market.  Systems that use the existing stores for fulfillment, such as Instacart, are beneficial to the survival and thriving of strip malls and other commercial space where grocery stores are typically located; systems focused on warehouse delivery are beneficial to the industrial property market but not so for retail properties.

    Your thoughts and experiences?

    Posted in Business, COVID-19, Marketing, Tech | 20 Comments »

    Creating a Mass Audience

    Posted by David Foster on 2nd July 2020 (All posts by )

    Today marks the 99th anniversary of the first radio broadcast heard by a very large number of people:  the Dempsey vs Carpentier boxing match.  (Although a Carpentier was French, he had quite a following in the United States, owing to his distinguished record as a pilot in the First World War.)

    Boxing promoter Tex Ricard had the idea that radio broadcasting might be a good way to increase the popularity of prizefighting…there had previously been some broadcasts of fights in local areas with limited audiences, but what was envisaged for this broadcast was a much larger audience over a much wider area.  David Sarnoff of RCA, a strong advocate for the development of a broadcasting industry, was evidently a driving force behind this approach.  A dedicated phone line from ringside to a transmitter in Hoboken was established, and radio amateurs throughout the Middle Atlantic states were encouraged to set up their receivers in bars, auditoriums, etc, for the benefit of those people (most of the population) who did not have their own radio receivers.  The radio audience was estimated at 300,000 people.

    The broadcast was not national in scope, owing to the limitations of the AM radio band, but it was a significant milestone in the the delocalization of information.  Very soon, network broadcasting, enabled by long-distance dedicated phone links, would make possible programs with truly national audiences.  The delocalization trend has continued, with television, intercontinental links via satellite and undersea cable, and the Internet, and has been a powerful driver of social, economic, and political changes.

     

    Posted in Advertising, Business, Civil Society, Marketing, Media, Sports, Tech, USA | 6 Comments »

    Excessive Credential-Worship Has Many Costs

    Posted by David Foster on 1st July 2020 (All posts by )

    A WSJ article suggests that if the corporations which have been proclaiming their support for black communities really want to make a difference, they should change their hiring and management practices to focus on job skills, rather than continuing to privilege college degrees. They say that “degree inflation” is rampant: as an example, 67% of postings for new production supervisors in 2015 included college-degree requirements, though only 16% of existing production supervisors had bachelor’s degrees.  (See interesting NBER paper here.)

    Indeed, I’m not very comfortable with the term ‘middle skill’ which has been adopted for jobs that typically require a technical training program of some sort but do not require a college degree.  Is someone with an undergraduate sociology degree really necessarily more skilled than a CNC machinist?  The suggestion that someone with a college degree is always higher-skilled than someone without a degree has unpleasant implications of a class-bound society. The authors of the NBER paper suggest an alternative term: STARs…Skilled Through Alternative Routes, and they also suggest that many “technology” jobs shouldn’t really require a college degree.  They note that:

    While some of these new occupations (e.g., data scientist) may require skills (e.g., statistical methods) which are typically acquired in advanced formal education, a large number (e.g., application developers and administrators for enterprise Software-as-a-Service platforms such as Salesforce, Workday, or ServiceNow) are learned not in formal education, but mostly on-the-job or in credentialed skill training designed by the SaaS companies themselves. While estimating STARs’ potential to fill skilled roles still emerging is beyond the scope of this paper, it would be reasonable to expect that employers’ rational ignorance or deprecation of experienced-based signals of STARs skills for existing jobs may similarly shape.

    …they also suggest that there are many cases in which skills developed by an employee in a particular not-well-paid job can actually be of value to an employer in a different and better-paid job, but that the mapping of these skills sets is not generally well-understood by employers.

    Back in 1969, Peter Drucker wrote:

    The most serious impact of the long years of schooling is, however, the “diploma curtain” between those with degrees and those without. It threatens to cut society in two for the first time in American history…By denying opportunity to those without higher education, we are denying access to contribution and performance to a large number of people of superior ability, intelligence, and capacity to achieve…I expect, within ten years or so, to see a proposal before one of our state legislatures or up for referendum to ban, on applications for employment, all questions related to educational status…I, for one, shall vote for this proposal if I can.

    I wouldn’t favor a legal ban on such questions, but I do think public policy needs to encourage of focus on skills rather than on degrees per se, and I’m happy to see that President Trump has signed an executive order requiring Federal agencies to increase the use of skill assessments and interviews with subject matter experts to determine an applicant’s qualifications, rather than simply looking at educational achievements.  At least one agency had already made this switch to a certain degree:  the FAA, which once required a college degree for aspiring controllers entering its specialized training program, now allows alternatively a combination of three years of progressively responsible work experience or a combination of post-secondary education and work experience that totals three years.  And some private employers are putting more emphasis on apprenticeship programs and various kinds of alternative skill demonstration.  (See for example the GE Aviation apprenticeship program; lots more North Carolina apprenticeship programs here.)

    Working on the lifting of the “diploma curtain” seems particularly appropriate given the growing evidence that many college graduates today don’t really learn all that much during their college years.  In any case, if the inappropriate use of college credentials can be reduced, it should offer a significant benefit to overall economic growth and productivity, as well as to many individuals.

     

     

     

     

    Posted in Academia, Business, Education, Tech, Urban Issues | 40 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading

    Posted by David Foster on 6th June 2020 (All posts by )

    A long but interesting essay about Peter Thiel, who is IMO one of the more thoughtful and creative among the Silicon Valley set.

    The politicization of everything…including websites like nextdoor.com, “designed for people to share useful information within a neighborhood like dates of bulky trash-pick, locations of road closings, and postings of lawn equipment for sale”…as seen by a woman who is a music historian, with a particular concentration on Russia.

    Dispatches from the front lines of the knitting wars.  Can these people be trusted with knitting needles? Those things can be dangerous, you know.

    A post by a police officer’s wife.

    Violent protest and the intelligentsia.  Disturbing parallels between pre-revolutionary Russia and contemporary America.

    A walk across a beach in Normandy.  Today, June 6, marks the 76th anniversary of the Normandy invasion..I haven’t seen much remembance of this today.

    Posted in Academia, History, Internet, Law Enforcement, Leftism, Russia, Tech | 22 Comments »

    Do the Lord Chancellor and the Archbishop Approve?

    Posted by David Foster on 28th May 2020 (All posts by )

    YouTube is run by a woman named Susan Wojcicki.  She has indicated that videos peddling fake or unproven coronavirus remedies will be banned, and also suggested that video that “goes against” WHO guidance on the pandemic will be blocked.

    So Ms Wojcicki has established WHO as the ultimate worldwide authority on Covid-19, the  imprimatur of said authority being required for dissemination of any relevant information or opinions within Wojcicki’s domains.  One might remind her that on January 23 of this year, WHO decided not to declare that Covid-19 was a global health emergency…hence, had Wojcicki’s present rule been in effect then, any videos asserting that C-19 was, in fact, such an emergency would have been taken down!

    What is the thinking behind this sort of effort to clamp down on information flow?  One can certainly understand and sympathize with a desire to avoid the dissemination of quack cures.  But how does this morph into a justification for shutting down discussion of causes, risk levels, and public-policy responses to the epidemic?

    If I try to take as sympathetic a view as possible to Ms Wojcicki and those like her, I might view their actions as being motivated by a feeling of responsibility for consumer protection.  But Americans are more that just consumers: we are also (and much more importantly) citizens, participants in the public dialog and political process.  (And an interesting argument has been made that in the American system, citizens are officers of the state.)  And citizens, in order to fulfill their public responsibilities, need unfettered access to information and discussion.

    In the case of Twitter’s ‘fact checking’ of President Trump’s tweet about vote-by-mail, I’d say that the raw political bias is pretty evident.  Is vote-by-mail more susceptible to fraud than is conventional voting?  Considerable evidence can be amassed to suggest that it is indeed so susceptible, counter-evidence and arguments can also be presented. It is a legitimate topic for public discussion, yet Twitter chooses to treat is as if it is a matter of absolute black-and-white truth-versus-falsity on which they have to weigh in, as if it were a question of the spherical vs flat shape of the earth or the value of the acceleration of gravity.  (Although I see there are some flat-earth tweets up on Twitter right now.)  And I haven’t seen any Twitter fact-checking of the feed from the People’s Daily of China, or the official Twitter account of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran…or, for that matter, of the statements of Joe Biden.

    We are reaching a state at which the ability to publish information and have it reach certain very large audiences is dependent on the approval of certain individuals at Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook…somewhat similar to the way in which publication of a book in England, prior to 1692, required the imprimatur of the Lord Chancellor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or one of certain other specified officials.  The analogy is not perfect, of course, and it will be argued that it isn’t very relevant at all, because today, if Twitter won’t distribute your content, you can always try Facebook, and if that doesn’t work either, there’s always Gab or other relatively-minor platforms, or you can just put up your own website or blog…or start your own social media platform.  But, still, a very small number of entities and their officials are exercising a very high degree of control over information flow in America today.

    What, if anything, can/should be done about this situation?  One argument is that nothing can be or needs to be done that Twitter etc are private property, and if they discriminate excessively, other platforms will supplant them.  Another argument is that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act should be modified/limited…this is the provision which insulates on-line service providers such as social media companies—not only pure internet service providers or hosting companies—from certain forms of liability which are applicable to traditional publishers.  This is the direction in which President Trump’s thinking seems to be going.

    There is also an interesting ‘public square’ argument which has been made, specifically by Prager University in connection with the ‘restricted’ status assigned to its videos by YouTube.  This is based on a 1945 Supreme Court decision in the case of Marsh v Alabama, in which the court ruled that Gulf Shipbuilding Company could not prohibit a Jehovah’s Witness from distributing literature in the the town of Chickasaw, Alabama, even though that town was Gulf Shipbuilding’s private property.  The argument is that the precedent also applies to on-line communities, even though these do not involve physical presence…this argument  was rejected, though, by both the district court and the Ninth Circuit…not sure whether there will be an appeal to the Supremes. (The Federalist has proposed that social media companies could be required to provide specific ‘due process’ protections for content creators, in exchange for retaining their Section 230 immunities.)

    So what are your thoughts on this topic?

    Posted in Civil Liberties, COVID-19, Current Events, Internet, Tech | 37 Comments »

    Retro-Reading, Mechanical Engineering, Part 2

    Posted by David Foster on 24th May 2020 (All posts by )

    (This is a continuation of my Retro-Reading post, based on the April 1930 issue of Mechanical Engineering magazine.  Part One is here)

    A View from the Left.  One of the most interesting things in the magazine is an excerpt from the writing of Sidney Webb, the well-known Fabian socialist.  (The magazine refers to him as a “publicist,” maybe that was 1930-speak for an activist.)

    The manual-working population of the cities was, in fact, mainly composed of laborers who were lifelong hewers of wood and drawers of water whilst that of the vast stretches of farmland and forest outside the cities was as devoid of art as of letters. And the proportion of merely mechanical work in the world s production has, taken as a whole, lessened, not increased. What a multitude of laborers quarried the stones, dragged and carried the stones and lifted the stones of the cathedral walls on which half a dozen skilled and artistic masons carved gargoyles? From the building of the Pyramids down to the present day, the proportion of the world’s work of the nature of mere physical digging, pushing, carrying, lifting and hammering, by the exertion of muscular force, has almost continuously diminished….

    And it must not be forgotten that, in Western civilization to-day, the actual numbers of men and women engaged in daily work of distinctly intellectual character, which is thus not necessarily devoid of art, are positively greater than at any previous time. There are, of course, many more such workers of superior education, artistic capacity, and interesting daily tasks in Henry Ford’s factories at Detroit than there were in the whole city of Detroit fifty years ago! Along side of these successors of the equally exceptional skilled handicraftsmen of the Middle Ages there has come to be a vast multitude of other workers with less interesting tasks, who could not other wise have come into existence, and who represent the laborers of the cities and the semi-servile rural population of past times, and who certainly would not themselves dream of wishing to revert to the conditions of those times. It may be granted, that, in much of their daily tasks (as has always been the case) the workers of to-day can find no joy, and take the very minimum of interest. But there is one all important difference in their lot. Unlike their predecessors, these men spend only half their waking hours at the task by which they gain their bread. In the other half of their day they are, for the first time in history, free (and, in great measure, able) to give themselves to other interests, which in an ever- increasing proportion of cases lead to an intellectual development heretofore unknown among the typical manual workers. It is, in fact, arguable that it is among the lower half of the manual workers of Western civilization rather than among the upper half, that there has been the greatest relative advance during the past couple of centuries. It is, indeed, to the so-called unskilled workers of London and Berlin and Paris, badly off in many respects as they still are and notably to their wives and children that the Machine Age has incidentally brought the greatest advance in freedom and in civilization.

    Rather different from the view of our present-day leftists, wouldn’t you say?  Indeed, both the American New Deal and the Soviet Communist Party were huge supporters of hydroelectric dams… today, many of the Progs want to tear them down.

    I’ll continue in a future post with some other highlights from the magazine, including the articles on transportation and metalworking.

    Posted in History, Leftism, Miscellaneous, Tech, USA | 42 Comments »