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    Summer Rerun: Catalist, “The 480”, and The Real 480

    Posted by David Foster on 30th August 2018 (All posts by )

    There was much discussion in 2014 of Catalist, a database system being used by the Democratic Party to optimally target their electioneering efforts…see Jonathan’s post here.  I’m reminded of Eugene Burdick’s 1964 novel, The 480.  The book’s premise is that a group within the Republican party acquires the services of a computing company called  Simulation Enterprises, intending to apply the latest technology and social sciences research in order to get their candidate elected.  These party insiders have been inspired by the earlier work of the 1960 Kennedy campaign with a company called Simulmatics.

    Simulmatics was a real company.  It was founded by MIT professor Ithiel de Sola Pool, a pioneer in the application of computer technology to social science research. Data from 130,000 interviews was categorized into 480 demographic groups, and an IBM 704 computer was used to process this data and predict the likely effects of various alternative political tactics.  One question the company was asked to address by the 1960 Democratic campaign, in the person of Robert F Kennedy, was:  How best to deal with religion?  There was considerable concern among some parts of the electorate about the prospect of choosing a Catholic as President.  Would the JFK campaign do better by minimizing attention to this issue, or would they do better by addressing it directly and condemning as bigots those who would let Kennedy’s faith affect their vote?

    Simulmatics concluded that “Kennedy today has lost the bulk of the votes he would lose if the election campaign were to be embittered by the issue of anti-Catholicism.  The simulation shows that there has already been a serious defection from Kennedy by Protestant voters. Under these circumstances, it makes no sense to brush the religious issue under the rug.  Kennedy has already suffered the disadvantages of the issue even though it is not embittered now–and without receiving compensating advantages inherent in it.”  Quantitatively, the study predicted that Kennedy’s direct addressing of the religion issue would move eleven states, totaling 122 electoral votes, away from the Kennedy camp–but would pull six states, worth 132 electoral votes, into the Democratic column.

    It is not clear how much this study influenced actual campaign decision-making…but less than three weeks after RFK received the Simulmatics report, JFK talked about faith before a gathering of ministers in Houston.  “I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end,”  Kennedy said,  “where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind.” (Burdick’s novel also suggests that the Kennedy campaign used Simulmatics to assess the effects of a more-forthright posture on civil rights by the campaign, and furthermore to analyze Kennedy’s optimal personality projection during the debates–I don’t know if these assertions are historically correct, but the religion analysis clearly was indeed performed.)

    Considerable excitement was generated when, after the election, the Simulmatics project became publicly known.  A Harper’s Magazine article referred to to the Simulmatics computer as “the people machine,” and quoted Dr Harold Lasswell of Yale as saying, “This is the A-bomb of the social sciences.  The breakthrough here is comparable to what happened at Stagg Field.”  But Pierre Salinger, speaking for the Kennedy campaign, asserted that “We did not use the machine.”  (Salinger’s statement is called out as a lie in the recent book, The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns.)

    In Burdick’s novel, the prospective Republican candidate is John Thatch, head of an international engineering and construction company.  Thatch has achieved popular renown after courageously defusing a confrontation between Indians and Pakistanis over a bridge his company was building, thereby averting a probable war.  Something about Thatch’s personality has struck the public imagination, and–despite his lack of political experience–he looks to be an attractive candidate.  But initially, the Republicans see little hope of defeating the incumbent Kennedy–“the incumbent is surrounded by over four years of honorific words and rituals,” a psychologist explains.  “He seems as though he ought to be President.  He assumes the mantle.”  This outlook is deeply disturbing to a Republican senior statesman named Bookbinder, who strongly believes that defacto 8-year terms are bad for the country…but if it is true that Kennedy is unbeatable, then the best the Republicans can hope to do is lose as well as possible.  Things change when Kennedy is assassinated and the election becomes a real contest.

    Bookbinder and Levi, another Republican senior statesman, are introduced to Simulation Enterprises by a young lawyer named Madison (Mad) Curver and his psychologist associate (quoted above), a woman named Dr Devlin.  Mad and Dr Devlin explain that what Sim Enterprises does is different from the work done by garden-variety pollsters like the one they have just met, Dr Cotter:

    “The pollster taps only a small fragment of the subject’s mind, attention, background, family influence, and habits.  The Simulations thing, just because it can consider thousands of elements influencing the subject, even things he may not know himself, gets much better results.”

    “And one further thing, Book,” Mad said.  “Simulations Enterprises can predict what people will do in a situation which they have never heard of before.  That was the whole point of the UN in the Midwest example.  No one has gone out there and asked them to vote on whether we should get out of the UN, but Dev outlined a procedure by which you can predict how they will react…if they ever do have to vote on it.

    Again Bookbinder had the sharp sense of unreality.  Unreal people were being asked invented questions and a result came out on green, white-lined paper…and when you got around to the real people six months later with the real question they would act the way the computer had said they would.

    Read the rest of this entry »

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    Posted in Advertising, Book Notes, Elections, History, Human Behavior, Politics, Polls, Predictions, Tech, USA | 18 Comments »

    Retrotech, Revitalized

    Posted by David Foster on 24th August 2018 (All posts by )

    A triple-expansion steam engine, which was used for water pumping in Phillipsburg NJ, has been restored to operating condition thanks to a small group of dedicated volunteers.  The engine, which pumped 6 millions gallons per day to a reservoir 265 feet above its level, was built in 1913 and was in continuous operation until 1969, when it was put into standby status (the pumping duties having been taken over by electric pumps) and finally removed from service in 1982.  Here’s a video of its final run in 1982, which has turned out to not be so final.

    The boilers have not yet been restored; test runs were done using a portable commercial rent-a-boiler as the steam source.  The team intends to restore one of the boilers as well in the future.

    When people think about the vast improvements in health and lifespan over the past century and a half, attention tends to be focused on antibiotics, better medical care, x-ray and scanning equipment, etc.  Public water systems, enabled initially by waterwheels and especially by engines like this one, played an important role as well.

    The restoration team has a Facebook page, here.

    See also my posts 301 Years of Steam Power and 175 Years of Transatlantic Steam.

    Posted in Energy & Power Generation, Health Care, History, Tech | 7 Comments »

    The Question the WSJ Didn’t Ask

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

    The Wall Street Journal, on its editorial page, writes about a company called Standard Textile, whose economic viability is apparently being threatened by the 25% tariffs on imports of its main production input:  a type of fabric sourced from China and known as greige, which I believe is basically the fabric as it comes off the loom, unfinished and un-dyed.  The company is especially concerned because finished products from China which compete with its own products are tariffed at only 6.7%.   WSJ uses this example to argue that Trump is all wrong on tariffs, and does so in the rather superior manner (the title of the piece is ‘a looming trade lesson’) which is common among those who ascribe any objections to absolutely free trade as based on nothing but economic ignorance or political demagoguery.

    I will stipulate that it seems rather dumb to tariff raw materials and intermediate goods at a higher level than finished products made from these inputs.  But..is it really true that greige fabrics are available only from China?  A few minutes of searching suggests that they are available from India, and from at least some US suppliers.  Maybe there is some particular variant of the products that is only made by a specific Chinese supplier, or maybe Standard has negotiated such a great deal with their supplier that no one else will match the price–it would be interesting to know.

    The big question that the WSJ didn’t ask is:  Why is this fabric (if it is truly unavailable in the US) not manufactured here?  Textile manufacturing is not generally a labor-intensive activity, it is very different on this measure from the transformation of the textiles into apparel and other finished products.  It was one of the first industrial activities to be mechanized, and automation in this field has advanced steadily over a couple of centuries.  Moreover, textile manufacturing uses significant amounts of power, and I’ve read about Chinese firms that moved to the US specifically because the electricity was cheaper and more reliable.  So the usual arguments about why a particular item needs to be made in China or other non-US setting…labor costs, less-stringent environmental restrictions…don’t seem to really apply here.

    Most likely, greige manufacturers tend to locate in Asia and other non-US locations because that is where their customers are…’customers’ here referring not to end consumers but to apparel manufacturers and others who buy the material as an input to their own processes…and geographical proximity is of value in being able to fill orders rapidly and without excessive shipping costs.  So this is an example of how supply chains are interconnected, and how losing one industry in a chain tends to pull other industries away also.  The same point has also been demonstrated in consumer electronics manufacturing, where the supply chain is now so centered in Asia, especially China, as to make it difficult for a company to produce these products in the US even if they want to.  (And ‘supply chain’ in this sense does not include physical products, it also includes certain services.  I have been told by the CEO of a medical electronics startup that she would find it difficult to manufacture in the US due to absence of certain specialized services; I believe she mentioned RF test facilities)

    A serious analysis of America’s trade situation should involve more than quoting David Ricardo and lecturing people about their supposed economic ignorance.  The WSJ article would have been more intellectually-honest and more useful had it also given examples of American manufacturers who are benefitting from the modified tariffs; these examples certainly exist.

    Best of luck to Standard Textile.  Hopefully, (a) the tariffs, if they remain in place, will be adjusted to level the rate between imported fabric and imported finished goods, and (b) US manufacturers of this fabric will come into being.

    Posted in Business, China, Miscellaneous, Tech, Trump, USA | 20 Comments »

    Rickover

    Posted by David Foster on 26th July 2018 (All posts by )

    Recently watched an excellent documentary on Admiral Hyman Rickover, creator of the nuclear Navy. There’s quite a lot in the documentary that is relevant to today’s issues and concerns, for example:  circa 1972, the CIA had assured the Navy that the top speed of Russian attack subs was about 22 knots.  Rickover suspected that they were wrong, and he directed a carrier which was being shadowed by a Russian sub to gradually increase speed.  When it reached 30 knots, the shadowing sub was still there.

    Which provides one more interesting data point at a time when we are being lectured about the need to treat the conclusions of the “intelligence community” with reverence.

    In a 1974 speech, Rickover told of an ancient people called the Locrians:

    These people gave freedom of speech to all citizens. At public meetings anyone could stand up and argue for changes in law or custom, on one condition. A rope was placed around his neck before he began to speak and, if what he said did not meet with public approval, he was forthwith hanged. That, no doubt, prevented disturbing the even tenor of familiar customs and ways of life.

    I have encountered some in the Navy who look with nostalgia on this ancient custom.  But we must face the stark fact that an uncriticized society cannot long endure.

    Quite a few organizations in America today are following in the footsteps of the Locrians–the universities, especially, but also certain Silicon Valley companies.  And not only them.

    I learned of this documentary about the same time I read about a professor who was disturbed that Hispanic students that she interviewed credited their success to their own hard work and self-reliance rather than to affirmative action.

    Rickover was Jewish, and he entered the Navy at a time when Jews were not common in that service…and the negative attitudes toward Jews which were prevalent in the society at large were also quite common in the Navy, perhaps even stronger there than outside.  (The Academy yearbook pages for both Rickover and the only other Jewish midshipman in his class were conveniently perforated for easy removal.)

    And I wondered:  If Rickover had been influenced by professors and others endlessly and excessively beating the Victimhood drum, would he have been able to achieve the success and the great accomplishments that he did?  Or would he have just folded up and concluded that it was hopeless, that Jews had no chance in the Navy?

    Well, probably not Rickover–he was an extraordinarily tough and resilient man.  But there probably are a lot of people who have high potential, though maybe not on the Rickover level, and who are being inhibited and will be inhibited in achieving that potential due in substantial part to such preaching.

    Posted in Human Behavior, Immigration, Judaism, Military Affairs, Science, Tech, USA, War and Peace | 10 Comments »

    Rerun: The Dream(liner) and the Nightmare (of Social Toxicity)

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

    The FAA has issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive against the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The AD requires that the battery system be reviewed and modified as necessary to eliminate the danger of fires such as those that have recently occurred on these aircraft. The changes needed could presumably involve manufacturing processes, sourcing of components, electrical-system design, or some combination of these things.

    The FAA’s action here seems to me like simple and reasonable prudence. It is not uncommon for new aircraft types to encounter problems during their early operational days, and the 787 is an innovative plane in many ways, especially in the use of electrical means to replace functions traditionally done by hydraulic systems and by engine bleed air.  There may well turn out to be simple fixes that can be quickly implemented to resolve the issue; on the other hand it’s possible that the fix will involve signficant redesign and will cost Boeing and the airlines considerable money. Purely as speculation, I’d guess that the worst-case result for the study required by the AD would be the mandated replacement of the plane’s lithium-ion batteries with conventional aircraft batteries, at some sacrifice in the plane’s useful load and some redesign both of the relevant control systems and of some interior spaces.

    But the purpose of this post is not to talk about 787 technical issues, as much fun as that might be.

    After clicking on the Yahoo report about the AD issuance yesterday, I took a look at some of the comments, and a depressing experience it was. Here are some samples:

    Makes you wonder if Boeing did not have the FAA inspectors in their back pocket while certifying this airplane “air worthy”? Maybe a few bucks went along stuffing their respective back pockets as well. Good example of certifying government agencies working too close with the manufacturer.

    For the FAA to say it’s safe and then ground the planes, all credibility and trust in competence is out the window.

    Were they just going to wait until the costs of wrongful death lawsuits surpassed the cost of fixing the problem?

    They do lots of testing but just like windows they release it to the public and then we will fix all bugs in the system

    Parts made in China

    #$%$ batteries made in China and a world-class American airplane manufacturer fell for their cr@p product. Do you think that perhaps Chinese agents were behind deliberately sabotaging our country’s product?

    Dream gone bad. Overseas outscourced components on the cheap, assembled by redneck scabs in South Carolina.

    Just one more example of the FINE work being produced by wonderful, hardworking and dedicated union workers.

    Just more retaliation from Obama for the move to non- union South Carolina.

    no one care anymore all the factory workers just go to work to try to make $$$$$ and this it is hard too the pride in making or to build something does not exist anymore!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Too bad the GOP helped rich buddies ship all the manufacturing jobs to china? Expertise comes with manufacturing. Burger jobs make poor planes?

    Read through several pages of comments like these, and the overwhelming overall impression is one of social toxicity…of people glaring furiously at one another, quick to assume that anything to goes wrong in any aspect of life is due to either malice or incompetence or both. It is a picture of generalized resentment and distrust, coupled with entitled ignorance.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Aviation, Big Government, Civil Society, Human Behavior, Tech, USA | 7 Comments »

    A Jobs-Based Complaint About Technological Change, circa 1850

    Posted by David Foster on 20th July 2018 (All posts by )

    Come all ye bold wagoners turn out man by man
    That’s opposed to the railroad or any such a plan;
    ‘Tis once I made money by driving my team
    But the goods are now hauled on the railroad by steam.
     
    May the devil get the fellow that invented the plan.
    It’ll ruin us poor wag’ners and every other man.
    IL spoils our plantations wherever it may cross,
    And it ruins our markets, so we can’t sell a hoss.
     
    If we go to Philadelphia, inquiring for a load,
    They’ll tell us quite directly it’s gone out on the railroad.
    The rich folks, the plan they may justly admire,
    But it ruins us poor wag’ners and it makes our taxes higher:
     
    Our states they are indebted to keep them in repair,
    Which causes us poor wag’ners to curse and to swear.
    It ruins our landlords, it makes business worse,
    And to every other nation it has only been a curse.
     
    It ruins wheelwrights, blacksmiths, and every other trade,
    So damned be all the railroads that ever was made.
    It ruins our mechanics, what think you of it, then?
    And it fills our country full of just a lot of great rich men.

    Read the whole thing here.

    Posted in Tech, Transportation | 6 Comments »

    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

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    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.

    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.

    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.

    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 »

    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 »