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    “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

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    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

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    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 »

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    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.

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    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 »

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    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.

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    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.

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

    Are Those Robots Slacking Off on the Job?

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

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

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

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

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

    Disruption – MoviePass

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

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

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

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Tech | 6 Comments »

    Disruption – Amazon Basics and Amazon Essentials

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

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

    – a portable wireless bluetooth speaker for $19.99

    Essentials dot matrix notebook for bullet journal for $9.92

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

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

    Posted in Business, Tech | 21 Comments »

    Disruption – Delivery

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

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

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

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Tech | 17 Comments »

    Chromecast, Roku and Cutting the Cord (Potentially)

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

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

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

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    Posted in Tech | 12 Comments »

    Apple MacBook, Planned Obsolescence and AirPods

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

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

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

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

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

    Posted in Tech | 5 Comments »

    2017 Reading, continued

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

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

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

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

    Very well-done, should not be missed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    This post to be further continued.

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

    Technology, Work, and Society – The Age of Transition

    Posted by David Foster on 15th December 2017 (All posts by )

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

    Read the rest of this entry »

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    Posted in Book Notes, Britain, Business, Capitalism, Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Economics & Finance, History, Society, Tech | 14 Comments »

    The Fastest-Growing Job Category of the Decade?

    Posted by David Foster on 2nd December 2017 (All posts by )

    In Robert Heinlein’s SF novel Revolt in 2100, American society fallen under the rule of a rigid theocracy.  The protagonist is introduced in the following passage…

    It was cold on the rampart. I slapped my numbed hands together, then stopped hastily for fear of disturbing the Prophet. My post that night was just outside his personal apartments-a post that I had won by taking more than usual care to be neat and smart at guard mount . . . but I had no wish to call attention to myself now.

    I was young then and not too bright-a legate fresh out of West Point, and a guardsman in the Angels of the Lord, the personal guard of the Prophet Incarnate. At birth my mother had consecrated me to the Church and at eighteen my Uncle Absolom, a senior lay censor, had prayed an appointment to the Military Academy for me from the Council of Elders.

    Uncle Absolom:  a senior lay censor…In the real America in 2017, ‘censor’ is no longer a role restricted to the pages of science fiction novels or to a limited military activity in time of war, but is rather becoming a mainstream occupation, and a fast-growing one.

    Facebook, for example, is hiring 3000 people to add to its existing 4500 on the team “reviewing posts with hate speech, crimes, and other harming posts.”  (The illiterate phrasing of the preceding sentence was evidently perpetrated by the professional journalists at TechCrunch, not by FB itself)  YouTube (owned by Google) also employs many people to review videos which are believed to be inappropriate or worse.  There are also programmers and system designers employed in creating and tuning software to facilitate the censorship function, and there are actually startups focused on this area.

    It has often been observed that the number of college administrators is growing much faster than the numbers of college faculty.  A nontrivial number of these are engaged in what are basically censorship functions.  Even in business, the censorship of wrongspeech has become a major function of Human Resources and a consumer of management time.

    There are also plenty of volunteer censors, eager to report people of whose speech they disapprove and get them fired or instigate mob action against them…for example, Lena Dunham, who sent the following Instagram message directed to airline travelers (and possibly flight crews as well)..

    I’m at the airport. And I think people now know, when I’m at the airport, they have to f—ing watch out for me, because I hear and I see all.

    There are multiple reasons for the censorship boom:  (1) With social media, communications that were once private are now semipublic and mediated by the social media company (2) Content that was once created and distributed by a relatively small number of media companies..who in effect conducted their own internal censorship process…is now created by a much larger number of individuals and distributed via social media, especially Twitter (3) Many of the previously-generally-accepted standards of behavior and speech have eroded (4) There appears to be growing hostility toward free speech, driven partly but not entirely by academic theorists  (5) There are a lot of people who are just plain sadists and bullies, and shutting other people down gives them pleasure.  Social media gives them new scope for this activity.

    With regard to (1), the social media companies…especially FB…really do have a dilemma.  There is an obvious public interest in preventing the dissemination of terrorist propaganda and operational plans, and an obvious human interest in responding to desperate cries for help, as with the suicides that were pre-announced on Facebook.  And the semipublic nature of FB communications implies that individual and group posts can have an impact on FB’s brand, whereas phone conversations and emails would have no such impact on the brand of the carrier involved.  Meanwhile, the Leftist orientation of most of these companies, combined with Silicon Valley groupthink, does not tend toward policies that are particularly supportive of free speech.

    With regard to (5), I am reminded of a passage in Goethe’s Faust….Gretchen, after finding that she is pregnant by Faust, is talking with her awful friend Lieschen, who (still unaware of Gretchen’s situation) is licking her chops about the prospect of humiliating another girl (Barbara) who has also become pregnant outside of marriage. Here’s Gretchen, reflecting on her own past complicity in such viciousness:

    How readily I used to blame
    Some poor young soul that came to shame!
    Never found sharp enough words like pins
    To stick into other people’s sins
    Black as it seemed, I tarred it to boot
    And never black enough to suit
    Would cross myself, exclaim and preen–
    Now I myself am bared to sin!

    There’s a lot of this…”sharp enough words like pins to stick in other people’s sins”, combined with the pleasure of preening…in the amateur censors of our day.  And the amateur censors often operate by activating the professional censors.

    See also my post Freedom, the Village, and the Internet.

    Posted in Academia, Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Human Behavior, Leftism, Media, Society, Tech | 9 Comments »

    Robot of the Week

    Posted by David Foster on 5th November 2017 (All posts by )

    If you call the front desk at a hotel and ask to have towels (for example) delivered to your room, then a robot may shortly make its appearance at your door.  Savioke Relay can find its own way to its destination, taking the elevator when needed.

    Customer reactions seem to be positive.

    More here.

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    Posted in Business, Tech | 2 Comments »

    Coming: a Battery Supply Crunch?

    Posted by David Foster on 26th October 2017 (All posts by )

    Several governments have signaled their intent to ban or greatly restrict the internal combustion engine from automotive use, requiring instead pure electrics or in some cases hybrids.  These include China, France, and the United Kingdom, as well as the US state of California.  Volvo says that from 2019 all its new models will be electric or hybrid, and General Motors is planning to introduce 20 electric models over the next six years.

    The core of an electric vehicle is the battery, and these are large, heavy objects:  the battery pack for a Tesla Model S comes in at 1300 pounds. Where are all the batteries for the envisaged exponential growth of electrics going to come from?…this question encompasses the mining and processing of the raw materials and the fabrication of these processed materials into battery cells, as well as the assembly of the cells into finished battery packs.

    Here is an analysis of battery components and their sources:  the key materials, in addition to lithium, are graphite, cobalt, and nickel, as well as the more common and less-expensive metals manganese and aluminum.

    Will severe supply constraints for some of these materials put a practical limit on the growth of electric vehicles, even in the face of government subsidies and draconian edicts?  Here’s a recent article in the Financial Times:

    Volkswagen’s failed attempt to secure at least five years’ supply of cobalt highlights the challenge facing the world’s biggest automakers as they attempt to secure the materials needed for their push into electric vehicles.  Last month’s tender came as other carmakers, such as BMW and Tesla Motors, are also trying to lock-in stocks of the metal.  That could test to the breaking point a niche market that is heavily dependent on a handful of mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the most impoverished and politically volatile countries in Africa.

    Demand for cobalt in EV batteries is expected to grow fourfold by 2020, and eleven-fold by 2025, according to Wood Mackenzie.

    The graph accompanying the article indicates that the price of high-grade cobalt has risen from $15/pound in January of this year to $30/pound in October.

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    Posted in Business, Energy & Power Generation, Environment, Tech | 52 Comments »

    Learning the 777

    Posted by David Foster on 12th October 2017 (All posts by )

    Airline pilot Karlene Petitt is doing transition to the Boeing 777 and blogging about what she learns:

    Aircraft overview

    Structure and materials

    Flight controls

    Roll controls detail

    Series will continue at Karlene’s blog

    Posted in Aviation, Tech, Transportation | Comments Off on Learning the 777

    Apple Pay for Better Security

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 11th October 2017 (All posts by )

    Over the last year I’ve had several opportunities to drive to remote parts of Oregon. Often we stop by a local grocery / convenience store to pick up groceries or a snack. These stores are small and often with a single check out lane and a very quaint atmosphere of old-time store goods.

    A bit of fun for me is to walk up to the credit card reader which usually has the icon for near field connectivity (NFC) and I surreptitiously use my Apple Watch with Apple Pay enabled to quickly pay for groceries without taking out my credit card. The cashier gets flummoxed and wonders what happened, and I show them my Apple Watch with my card image and they laugh.

    What is sad is that Apple Pay works “out of the box” at most of these remote grocery stores but it doesn’t work at many of the large retailers in the city. Instead of encouraging Apple Pay or similar google technologies, the retailers want to control the experience and the data and so they turn off this feature. You have the unfortunate alternative of putting your credit card in the chip reader and waiting for 5-10 seconds which slows the line for the whole process. Worse than the inconvenience is the fact that Apple Pay is much more secure than any card reader – Apple Pay doesn’t provide your “real” credit card to the store, instead it uses a “token” for the transaction.
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    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Oregonia, Tech | 11 Comments »