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  • Archive for the 'Tech' Category

    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?


    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.

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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.

    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.

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    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 »

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    Posted in Business, Tech | 21 Comments »

    Disruption – Delivery

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

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

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

    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 »

    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 »

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    Posted in Tech | 5 Comments »

    2017 Reading, continued

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

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

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

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

    Very well-done, should not be missed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    This post to be further continued.

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

    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 »

    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.

    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.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    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

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    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.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Oregonia, Tech | 11 Comments »

    Apple Photos Integration

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 8th October 2017 (All posts by )

    I’ve gone all in on Apple through a series of semi-random decisions.  I bought a MacBook Pro back in 2011 and, thanks to my friend Brian who upgraded the memory and hard drive to an SSD, that machine still works great in late 2017 and I was able to upgrade to the latest Mac OS High Sierra without a challenge.  I have had several iPhones over the years and am on an iPhone 7 now.  My current iPad is an iPad Air 2 which also seems to have several years of life left in it.  Finally, I bought an Apple Watch and recently upgraded it to Watch OS 4.

    I’ve also been moving everything to the cloud slowly.  I looked at my MacBook and it said I hadn’t done a backup in over 1000 days.  I don’t really care because I put the (relatively few) documents that I care about in iCloud (and can access them across any Apple device), my contacts are in the Apple Cloud, while my photos (the core of most of this post) are already in the Apple cloud and I gave up on physical music and moved almost solely over to Apple Music.  My email is in the cloud with various providers, as well.  So what’s on the device that I really care about, anyways?  Cloud storage is also pretty cheap… I think I spend about a dollar a month on it for Apple (plus $9.99 for Apple music).  The only high space items I have (in terms of MB or GB) are photos, since I’ve given up on music.

    It is a hard decision to put all your photos in the Apple cloud.  You need to make the move to put your photos up in the cloud and have that be the primary location, not the ones on your hard drive or your phone  While someone with more technical expertise might tell you that is not an irrevocable decision, from my perspective it seems like it would be exceedingly difficult to “go back”.

    I came to this decision because I love the features that Apple Photos provides.  Specifically:

    • Once you tag faces to names, any new photos that you take are automatically linked to those same individuals.  The accuracy of this service has been increasing over time, both in terms of 1) matching different angles to people and also in 2) picking faces out of the crowd in the first place so that you can link them to people
    • Apple photos now synchs across devices so that if you link photos to faces on your iPhone it carries those same links over to the photos on your MacBook and on your iPad.  Incredibly, until the latest OS upgrade (on the iPhone / iPad as well as Mac OS) you had to do these independently (3 times).  I am also starting to play with synching to my Apple Watch with Watch OS 4 but this is in progress (and would be partial in any case)
    • Apple photos now has built in photo features that were present on typical photo editing software years ago, like auto-feature touch up (magic wand) and more tweaks.  I’m sure to a photo expert these features are minimalistic but to the vast, vast majority of photo users they are likely enough.  These features just came through with the latest upgrades
    • Apple photos makes it easier to synch faces to contacts and also appears to act more reliably across devices.  For instance, if I take a photo on my iPhone it won’t appear on my iPad or Mac until I connect that phone up to wifi somewhere and put it in a charger.  But then they all appear right away (in a reduced quality image, when you tap on one it “fills in” the remaining elements to a high quality image.  This used to be spotty, at best, and unreliable (I would have to start and restart my devices sometimes for it to work)
    • Now that synchronizing works reliably across devices, I can use my Mac for more heavy duty tasks like editing and changing the date on old photos (for example I take iPhone pictures of old photos from my physical photo albums and then I edit them and change their date on the Mac so that they are in the proper sequence and don’t show up at the top of your photo queue by date)
    • If you load older photos into iCloud it takes a while (probably faster now) because it attempts to add in all the AI (faces, locations, etc…) so be a bit patient.  I was an early adopter of this and somehow I had lots of duplicates that I am in the process of deleting but it probably is easier now
    • I tried making a physical photo book from Apple (to give to parents and in laws) and it worked great.  Now it is much easier to bring photos into the physical book or however you want to print them, and you have a huge variety of photos (edited, even) to choose from

    Read the rest of this entry »

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    Kinda Cool

    Posted by David Foster on 7th October 2017 (All posts by )

    Lowes’ Holorooms

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    Posted by TM Lutas on 6th October 2017 (All posts by )

    It is now possible to convert electricity to money using an Internet browser (like the one you’re likely using to read this post) in amounts lower than $0.001, which is the smallest unit of account for the US Dollar. Jobs earning that amount are constantly available by doing math on your computer that works on supporting open ledger systems called blockchains.

    The product of the math work turns into cryptocurrency fractional coins which, when accumulated in large enough amounts can be sold for dollars, euros, yen, or any other conventional currency around.

    The transaction costs are orders of magnitude lower than in the conventional banking system, enough that large classes of transactions that were impractical are now merely somewhat expensive. There’s a lot of room for efficiency improvements at present.

    You can see an experiment running the first iteration I’m working with this concept at the project blog for Charleston Dry Feet. It’s currently generating litoshi from anyone who visits. Proceeds go to the worthy project of fixing Charleston, SC’s deficient storm water drainage system. You can turn the widget on or off with a button click.

    Posted in Capitalism, Miscellaneous, Tech | 20 Comments »

    Sputnik Anniversary Rerun – Book Review: Rockets and People

    Posted by David Foster on 4th October 2017 (All posts by )

    Today being the 60th anniversary of the Sputnik launch, here’s a rerun of a post about a very interesting book.

    Rockets and People, by Boris E Chertok

    Boris Chertok’s career in the Russian aerospace industry spanned many decades, encompassing both space exploration and military missile programs. His four-volume memoir is an unusual document–partly, it reads like a high school annual or inside company history edited by someone who wants to be sure no one feels left out and that all the events and tragedies and inside jokes are appropriately recorded. Partly, it is a technological history of rocket development, and partly, it is a study in the practicalities of managing large programs in environments of technical uncertainty and extreme time pressure. Readers should include those interested in: management theory and practice, Russian/Soviet history, life under totalitarianism, the Cold War period, and missile/space technology. Because of the great length of these memoirs, those who read the whole thing will probably be those who are interested in all (or at least most) of the above subject areas. I found the series quite readable; overly-detailed in many places, but always interesting. In his review American astronaut Thomas Stafford said “The Russians are great storytellers, and many of the tales about their space program are riveting. But Boris Chertok is one of the greatest storytellers of them all.”  In this series, Chertok really does suck you into his world.

    Chertok was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1912: his mother had been forced to flee Russia because of her revolutionary (Menshevik) sympathies. The family returned to Russia on the outbreak of the First World War, and some of Chertok’s earliest memories were of the streets filled with red-flag-waving demonstrators in 1917. He grew up on the Moscow River, in what was then a quasi-rural area, and had a pretty good childhood–“we, of course, played “Reds and Whites,” rather than “Cowboys and Indians””–swimming and rowing in the river and developing an early interest in radio and aviation–both an airfield and a wireless station were located nearby. He also enjoyed reading–“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn met with the greatest success, while Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin gave rise to aggressive moods–‘Hey–after the revolution in Europe, we’ll deal with the American slaveholders!” His cousin introduced him to science fiction, and he was especially fond of Aelita (book and silent film), featuring the eponymous Martian beauty.

    Chertok remembers his school years fondly–there were field trips to study art history and architectural styles, plus a military program with firing of both rifles and machine guns–but notes “We studied neither Russian nor world history….Instead we had two years of social science, during which we studied the history of Communist ideas…Our clever social sciences teacher conducted lessons so that, along with the history of the French Revolution and the Paris Commune, we became familiar with the history of the European peoples from Ancient Rome to World War I, and while studying the Decembrist movement and 1905 Revolution in detail we were forced to investigate the history of Russia.” Chertok purused his growing interest in electronics, developing a new radio-receiver circuit which earned him a journal publication and an inventor’s certificate. There was also time for skating and dating–“In those strict, puritanical times it was considered inappropriate for a young man of fourteen or fifteen to walk arm in arm with a young woman. But while skating, you could put your arm around a girl’s waist, whirl around with her on the ice to the point of utter exhaustion, and then accompany her home without the least fear of reproach.”

    Chertok wanted to attend university, but “entrance exams were not the only barrier to admission.” There was a quota system, based on social class, and  “according to the ‘social lineage’ chart, I was the son of a white collar worker and had virtually no hope of being accepted the first time around.” He applied anyhow, hoping that his journal publication and inventor’s certificate in electronics would get him in.” It didn’t–he was told, “Work about three years and come back. We’ll accept you as a worker, but not as the son of a white-collar worker.”

    So Chertok took a job as electrician in a brick factory…not much fun, but he was soon able to transfer to an aircraft factory across the river. He made such a good impression that he was asked to take a Komsomol leadership position, which gave him an opportunity to learn a great deal about manufacturing. The plant environment was a combination of genuinely enlightened management–worker involvement in process improvement, financial decentralization–colliding with rigid policies and political interference. There were problems with absenteeism caused by new workers straight off the farm; these led to a government edict: anyone late to work by 20 minutes or more was to be fired, and very likely prosecuted. There was a young worker named Igor who had real inventive talent; he proposed an improved linkage for engine and propeller control systems, which worked out well. But when Igor overslept (the morning after he got married), no exception could be made. He was fired, and “we lost a man who really had a divine spark.”  Zero tolerance!

    Chertok himself wound up in trouble when he was denounced to the Party for having concealed the truth about his parents–that his father was a bookkeeper in a private enterprise and his mother was a Menshevik. He was expelled from the Komsomol and demoted to a lower-level position.  Later in his career, he would also wind up in difficulties because of his Jewish heritage.

    The memoir includes dozens of memorable characters, including:

    *Lidiya Petrovna Kozlovskaya, a bandit queen turned factory supervisor who became Chertok’s superior after his first demotion.

    *Yakov Alksnis, commander of the Red Air Force–a strong leader who foresaw the danger of a surprise attack wiping out the planes on the ground. He was not to survive the Stalin era.

    *Olga Mitkevich, sent by the regime to become “Central Committee Party organizer” at the factory where Chertok was working…did not make a good first impression (“had the aura of a strict school matron–the terror of girls’ preparatory schools”)..but actually proved to be very helpful to getting work done and later became director of what was then the largest aircraft factory in Europe, which job she performed well. She apparently had too much integrity for the times, and her letters to Stalin on behalf of people unjustly accused resulted in her own arrest and execution.

    *Frau Groettrup, wife of a German rocket scientist, one of the many the Russians took in custody after occupying their sector of Germany. Her demands on the victors were rather unbelievable, what’s more unbelievable is that the Russians actually yielded to most of them.

    *Dmitry Ustinov, a rising star in the Soviet hierarchy–according to Chertok an excellent and visionary executive who had much to do with Soviet successes in missiles and space. (Much later, he would become Defense Minister, in which role he was a strong proponent of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.)

    *Valeriya Golubtsova, wife of the powerful Politburo member Georgiy Malenkov, who was Stalin’s immediate successor. Chertok knew her from school–she was an engineer who became an important government executive–and the connection turned out to be very useful. Chertok respected her professional skills, liked her very much, and devotes several pages to her.

    *Yuri Gagarin, first man to fly in space, and Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman.

    *Overshadowing all the other characters is Sergei Korolev, now considered to be the father of the Soviet space program although anonymous during his lifetime.  Korolev spent 6 years in labor camps, having been arrested when his early rocket experiments didn’t pan out; he was released in 1944.  A good leader, in Chertok’s view, though with a bad temper and given to making threats that he never actually carried out.  His imprisonment must have left deep scars–writing about a field trip to a submarine to observe the firing of a ballistic missile, Chertok says that the celebration dinner with the sub’s officers was the only time he ever saw Korolev really happy.

    Chertok’s memoir encompasses the pre-WWII development of the Soviet aircraft industry…early experiments with a rocket-powered interceptor…the evacuation of factories from the Moscow area in the face of the German invasion…a post-war mission to Germany to acquire as much German rocket technology as possible…the development of a Soviet ballistic missile capability…Sputnik…reconnaissance and communications satellites…the Cuban missile crisis…and the race to the moon.

    Some vignettes, themes, and excerpts I thought were particularly interesting:

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Aviation, Big Government, Biography, Leftism, Management, Military Affairs, Russia, Society, Space, Tech, Transportation | 15 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading & Viewing

    Posted by David Foster on 28th September 2017 (All posts by )

    Things that were once common knowledge…and now are not

    Advice on leadership for Naval Academy cadets…applicable in other walks of life as well

    A time-lapse video of 30 days at sea

    Animated films:  a transition both in technologies and in implicit political messages

    Who murdered beauty?…an analysis of some trends in the world of art

    Cedar Sanderson asks What do Environmentalists, JRR Tolkein, Luddites, and Progressives all have in common?

    Company towns, then and now

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    Posted in Arts & Letters, Business, Deep Thoughts, Film, Science, Society, Tech, Transportation | 8 Comments »

    Robot Emeritus

    Posted by David Foster on 24th September 2017 (All posts by )

    Prior to WWII, only a small minority of Americans had checking accounts. With the postwar economic boom and with some promotion (here’s an ABA video intended to educate Americans about the virtues of the check), the number of checking-account-holders grew sharply, and the problem of processing all the checks became an increasingly large absorber of clerical workers.

    Attempting to dig itself out of the paperwork flood, Bank of America hired Stanford Research Institute to develop an automated solution.  The prototype system, called ERMA, was operational in early 1956.  The now-familiar MICR characters, printed in magnetic ink, were introduced to provide automatic account identification, so that only the amount of the check needed to be entered manually.  An ERMA system maintained account data (for up to 32000 customers) on a magnetic drum, so that overdrafts and stop-check requests could be identified in real time.  An automated check-sorting machine was included in the system.

    EMRA employed 8000 vacuum tubes and drew 80KW of power….it was not a stored-program computer but was wired for its specific function.  Development of follow-on production machines, which were solid-state and stored-program, was accomplished by NCR and GE.

    It still seems remarkable that checks…flimsy paper documents that are often treated pretty roughly…can be processed and sorted at 10 per second (in the case of ERMA) or even faster in the case of follow-on systems.  I read somewhere that when the ERMA system was being demonstrated to GE CEO Ralph Cordiner, he took one of his own checks, folded it in half, dropped in on the floor and stepped on it a couple of times, and then requested that it be included in the processing run.  Apparently the system handled it just fine.

    Some ERMA history

    A GE computer at work in a Chicago bank, in 1960

    I post items like this because they provide needed perspective in our present “age of automation” when there is so much media focus of robotics, artificial intelligence, and ‘the Internet of Things,’ but not a whole lot of understanding for how these fit on the historical technology growth trajectory.

    Previous Robot Emeritus posts:

    Railroad Centralized Traffic Control, 1927

    Manufacturing Automation, 1960

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, History, Tech | 1 Comment »

    Robots of the Week

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

    Sewing robots.  Although spinning and weaving have long been highly mechanized, the final phase of the apparel-making value chain has resisted automation:

    IN 1970 William J. Bank, president of the Blue Jeans Corporation, predicted that there would be a man on Mars before the production of apparel was automated. Almost half a century later, he has not yet been proved wrong. 

    But that may change soon, given recent development in robotic sewing. Two companies, Softwear Automation (Atlanta) and Sewbo (Seattle) are pursuing different strategies:  Softwear’s approach is to create computer vision and robotic manipulation which is intelligent and subtle enough to deal with highly flexible fabric, whereas Sewbo’s approach is to temporarily stiffen the fabric in order to make working with it more like metalworking.

    Depending on how well these systems work in practice, and how the technology evolves, they may turn out to be not only the robots of the week, but the robots of the year or even the decade.  Apparel-making is a vast industry, concentrated in nations which are not-so-well-off economically, and employs a large number of people. A high level of automation would likely result in much of this production being relocated closer to the markets, thus saving transportation costs and shortening supply cycles.  The consequences for countries like China, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka could be pretty unpleasant.

    Most likely, unforeseen problems will slow the full deployment of these systems and an Apparel Apocalypse will not occur.  It would certainly be wise, though, for the leaderships of apparel-manufacturing-intensive countries to focus on the need to develop a broader employment base.

    More here.

    See also my post on 3d knitting

    Posted in Business, China, Tech | 5 Comments »

    Machine Tools and Glassmaking

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

    In early August, I visited the American Precision Museum in Vermont, which is dedicated to the history of the American machine tool industry, and also made a side trip to the Simon Pearce Glass facility, recommended by Mike Kennedy in comments not too long ago.  Images (should expand when clicked) from upper left…

    1–The museum is located in the former Robbins & Lawrence armory.  Power was initially from a waterwheel, later supplemented by steam

    2–Blanchard Copying Lathe.  Mechanically copies a prototype shape…a rifle stock, in the example shown, but also used for table and chair legs, etc

    3–A much later approach to automated cutting of a specified shape:  this is a paper tape reader used to feed data to a numerically-controlled machine tool.

    4–Bendix G-15 computer, from the mid-1950s.  This one was used for gear-cutting calculations, reducing the typical time taken from 2 hours to 2 minutes.  Computers of this type were also used to directly produce the punched paper tapes used to operate machine tools.

    5–Sewing machine from 1859.  The success of these devices created great demand for precision machining.

    6–A very elaborate model of a steam engine, made by a German man who came to the US between the wars. When he visited Germany in the 1950s, he found that the model had survived intact in an attic.

    7–Profile milling machine, for cutting the outside periphery of a flat surface.

    8–Columbia chainless bicycle, from the 1890s. An advantage of this type was that women could ride them without danger of getting their long skirts caught in a chain.  A disadvantage was the price…$125 in 1890 dollars!

    9–Bevel gear cutting machine…made gears of a type required for the chainless bicycle.  Not clear if this machine came before the Columbia bicycle or if it was a later production-cost improvement.

    10–The showroom at Simon Pearce glass.

    11 & 12–Hydroelectric dam and turbine used to generate power at Simon Pearce.  Capacity is about 600KW, and what they don’t use for their own needs (which are pretty significant given the electric glass-heating furnaces) is sold to the grid.

    Lots more pictures of Simon Pearce at this article.

    Posted in Business, Energy & Power Generation, Tech | 12 Comments »