Thursday, January 04, 2018
Saturday, December 30, 2017
2017 READING, CONTINUED
Fed Up, by Danielle DiMartino Booth. Following a successful career on Wall Street, the author in 2008 took a job as an analyst with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. In this primarily-male organization, she did not experience discrimination on account of her sex…but she did face serious prejudice against her on account of not having a PhD. Her take on the Fed is that is is far too theoretical in its approach and too limited in the backgrounds of its staff:
Grasping the modus operandi of the Federal Reserve requires first anchoring in your mind two words: hubris and myopia. We know better than you. Only our models can decipher and predict the economy.
The Fed’s battalion of economists–from the top down–believe that their training in the world’s top universities and their unique schooling in analysis gives them wisdom and insight, when in fact their training often blinds them to reality…Virtually no one I met at the bank had ever worked on Wall Street, managed a business, or handled their own investments.
Indeed, her negative views of the Fed pretty much extends to the economics profession as a whole Referring to a letter signed by 364 prominent economist in March 1981, which predicted disaster as a result of Margaret Thatcher’s fiscal policies, she approvingly quotes Geoffrey Howe, chancellor of the exchequer, to the effect that an economist was like “a man who knows 364 ways of making love, but doesn’t know any women.” She also cites a 1991 report by the American Economics Association which concluded that university economics programs “may be turning out a generation with two many idiot savants, skilled in technique but innocent of real economic issues.”
One Fed official that she does speak of very highly is Richard Fisher, who was president of the Dallas Fed when she was there and was a noted critic of the way the quantitative easing program was carried out. (He is now an advisor to Barclays and a member of the PepsiCo board.)
Forgotten Victory, by Gary Sheffield. This is basically a revisionist history of the First World War. The author argues that–contrary to common opinions–the war, although tragic, was not futile, and that the British Army was not the incompetent organization as which it has often been portrayed, but rather was an institution which develop the ability to learn and to adapt:
The (British Expeditionary Force) did not simply gape at the trenches with incomprehension in the winter of 1914-15. Instead, British soldiers at all levels began a process of innovation and experimentation as the BEF rapidly began to adjust to the new conditions of warfare.
If a unit bethought itself of some useful improvisation, such as a new method of firing rifle grenades, carrying rations or making ingenious loopholes combining a better field of fire with greater safety, details were collected and circulated by Army Headquarters.
One area of technical innovation cited by the author was in the artillery. ‘Predicted’ bombardments, using improved calculation methods which accounted for variation in individual guns as well as such factors as wind speed, allow the preliminary ‘registration’ fires to be dispensed with or at least shortened, thereby increasing the element of surprise. The instantaneous fuse, which triggered the burst before the shell buried itself in the ground, greatly improved the artillery’s effectiveness at cutting barbed-wire entanglements. And sound ranging, which has been described as ‘the Manhattan Project of the Great War’, employed some first-class scientific minds and resulted in the ability to locate and destroy enemy artillery positions more effectively.
More important than the technical and tactical points, of course, is the question of whether the war was really necessary at all. The author argues that, at least from Britain’s standpoint, it was.
This book probably deserves a stand-alone review and discussion thread.
The Green Glass Sea, by Ellen Klages. I picked this up at a book sale…it is actually a children’s book, recommended for grades 5-8, but makes it good adult reading as well. Dewey Kerrigan, a 10-year-old aspiring inventor, sets off on a cross-country train trip to be with her father, who is engaged in war work. She is engaged in designing a radio when a fellow passenger, Dick Feynman, offers to help her. They are both bound for the same destinations, Los Alamos.
Wednesday, December 27, 2017
A TALE FOR CHILDREN
The Christmas season, in combination with seeing the Churchill movie Darkest Hour, reminded me of a passage from the French author Georges Bernanos.
In May/June 1940, Nazi Germany defeated the French army. Britain was forced to withdraw its troops at Durkirk–along with virtually all their heavy equipment. Few would have been willing to bet on Britain’s survival…after quickly devastating the (then highly-regarded) French army and demonstrating highly-effective use of airpower, Nazi Germany seemed unstoppable.
In December of that year, Bernanos, then living in Brazil, wrote as follows:
No one knows better than I do that, in the course of centuries, all the great stories of the world end by becoming children’s tales. But this particular one (the story of England’s resistance–ed) has started its life as such, has become a children’s tale on the very threshold of its existence. It mean that we can at once recognize in it the threefold visible sign of its nature. it has deceived the anticipations of the wise, it has humiliated the weak-hearted, it has staggered the fools. Last June all these folk from one end of the world to the other, no matter what the color of their skins, were shaking their heads. Never had they been so old, never had they been so proud of being old. All the figures that they had swallowed in the course of their miserable lives as a safeguard against the highly improbable activity of their emotions had choked the channels of circulation..They were ready to prove that with the Armistice of Rethondes the continuance of the war had become a mathematical impossibility…Some chuckled with satisfaction at the thought, but they were not the most dangerous…Others threatened us with the infection of pity…”Alone against the world,” they said. “Why, what is that but a tale for children?” And that is precisely what it was–a tale for children. Hurrah for the children of England!
Men of England, at this very moment you are writing what public speakers like to describe in their jargon as one of the “greatest pages of history”….At this moment you English are writing one of the greatest pages of history, but I am quite sure that when you started, you meant it as a fairy tale for children. “Once upon a time there was a little island, and in that island there was a people in arms against the world…” Faced with such an opening as that, what old cunning fox of politics or business would not have shrugged his shoulders and closed the book?
Saturday, December 23, 2017
2017 READING, CONTINUED
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’s 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.
Wednesday, December 20, 2017
Some books I’ve read during the year and consider very worthwhile…
Tom Jones and other works, by Henry Fielding. Somehow I had never previously read Fielding (who wrote between 1728 and 1755)…now that I have, I am very impressed. Interesting characters, clever and intricate plotting, many passages that are very funny, and the author, I think, shows great insight into human behavior. (In addition to his literary efforts, Fielding served as a magistrate and is credited with establishing London’s first professional police force, popularly known as the Bow Street Runners.)
Fielding sometimes breaks out of the narrative, most notably in Tom Jones, and addresses himself directly to the reader. In one rather touching passage, he explains why he has taken the trouble to write the book–certainly for money, he says, but also “with the hopes of charming ages yet to come. Foretel me that some tender maid, who grandmother is yet unborn, hereafter, when, under the fictitious name of Sophie, she reads the real worth which once existed in my Charlotte, shall from her sympathetic breast send forth the heaving sigh”
In addition to Tom Jones, I’ve also read his Amelia, Joseph Andrews, and the wonderfully-titled An Apology for the Life of Mrs Shamela Andrews. All are IMO well worth reading.
Harmony, by Chicago Grrll Margaret Ball. This is a series, encompassing three books.
With the development of interstellar travel, humanity had the chance for a fresh start. The colonization of a new planet was carried out with the explicit intent to create a society that would avoid the miseries of the past, that would be based on the principle of harmony.
(Think about a society designed from the ground up by someone like Hillary Clinton.) Of course, it works out about as well as utopian projects usually work out.)
For those who don’t fit in to the Harmonious society, there is exile to a colony known as Esilia. Book 1, Insurgents, is focused on the Esilian struggle for independence against the forces of Harmony. Gabrel, a leader of the independence movement, seizes Isovel, daughter of the commander of the invading forces, as hostage.
In Book 2, Awakening, the protagonist Devra is an unlicensed child, who never should have been allowed to be born. In an attempt to overcome the stigma of her very existence, Devra makes a point of extreme conformity to Harmony’s rules and expectations. But when one of her students is threatened with ‘medical rehabilitation,’ she finds herself questioning her role as a good Harmony citizen.
In Book 3, Survivors, Harmony’s society is approaching collapse. Jillian, a soap opera star in holodramas, has been largely insulated from the impoverishment that is afflicting so many. When a farm boy named Ruven comes to the city to plead for better terms for his dairy cooperative, she uses her acting skills to teach him how to appeal to the emotions as well as to logical thought.
A Balcony in the Forest, by Julian Gracq. In preparing for the German onslaught which actually came in May of 1940, the French general staff made some serious errors. One was to view the heavily-wooded sector of the Ardennes as basically impassible by major forces. Hence, the French did not fortify this sector to anywhere near the level of the Maginot Line sector, further to the southeast; furthermore, the troops sent to hold the Ardennes were mostly what one writer referred to as “class B divisions composed of middle-aged reservists.”
The protagonist of Gracq’s novel is one of these middle-aged reservists, a dreamy sort of man named Lieutenant Grange, who is assigned to command a blockhouse and a small group of soldiers. It is the period of the ‘phony war’, and Grange has a hard time believing that the war will ever become hot. He finds that he loves the Ardennes, though, and his assignment gives him a great deal of satisfaction–especially when he meets a local girl named Mona and things develop rapidly between them.
A strange, almost surrealistic book, with some beautiful descriptive writing. A commenter at Goodreads remarked that the Ardennes is portrayed as “a mythic forest, by definition unreal, must also be indifferent to human beings- eternity doesn’t bother itself with trifles- and Grange is but a reclusive watchman on this magic mountain during this staggeringly brief period of months closing shut like the jaws of a wolf devouring a faun.”
Available at Amazon, both Kindle and paperback.
This post to be continued.
Friday, December 15, 2017
TECHNOLOGY, WORK, AND SOCIETY - THE AGE OF TRANSITION
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.
Sunday, December 10, 2017
NEPTUNUS LEX - THE EPILOGUE
After the Neptunus Lex website went down, shortly after his fatal accident, it very fortunately turned out that someone had saved most of the posts offline. For the last several years, Bill Brandt has been posting these restored posts, on an almost daily basis, at The Lexicans.
Sadly but inevitably, Bill has now come to the end of the saved posts. He has some eloquently-written concluding thoughts here.
Great job Bill, I’m really glad you’ve done this.
We can hope that perhaps some additional Lex posts will show up somewhere in the odd corners of the Internet.
Thursday, December 07, 2017
PEARL HARBOR DAY
A post from 2006 by Neptunus Lex.
cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open
Saturday, December 02, 2017
THE FASTEST-GROWING JOB CATEGORY OF THE DECADE?
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.
Saturday, November 25, 2017
PROFESSORS AND THE PORNOGRAPHY OF POWER
Today’s identity politics . . . teaches the exact opposite of what we think a liberal arts education should be. When I was at Yale in the 1980s, I was given so many tools for understanding the world. By the time I graduated, I could think about things as a utilitarian or as a Kantian, as a Freudian or a behaviorist, as a computer scientist or as a humanist. I was given many lenses to apply to any given question or problem.
But what do we do now? Many students are given just one lens—power. Here’s your lens, kid. Look at everything through this lens. Everything is about power. Every situation is analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people. This is not an education. This is induction into a cult. It’s a fundamentalist religion. It’s a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety and intellectual impotence. . . .
Read the whole thing.
So why is the single-lens approach so attractive to many academics?
More than 50 years ago, C S Lewis wrote about some similar tendencies that he observed in British primary education, in his book The Abolition of Man. Referring to two textbook authors who he had critiqued, he remarked that “literary criticism is difficult, and what they actually do is very much easier.” Indeed, it is surely easier to base one’s classes around fashionable themes than around serious intellectual topics, and it probably results in better student reviews, as well.
I’m also reminded of something asserted by Andre Maurois: people who are highly intelligent, but not in any way creative…who are not capable of formulating a system of thought on their own…tend to throw themselves voraciously on those systems they come across, and to apply them more vigorously than would their originators.
Particularly given the vast expansion of higher education in recent decades, it does seem likely that a lot of academics–perhaps the majority–do fall into the “intelligent but not creative” category, and hence will be eager system-adopters rather than objective analyzers and integrators of systems. People of this sort also probably have a tendency to reify abstractions…to treat some categorization or conceptual model, which may be useful under particular circumstances, as if it were actually something real and tangible.
Wednesday, November 15, 2017
Sunday, November 12, 2017
A SEEMINGLY-SAFE TARGET
I’ve written previously about the level of fear, contempt, and anger that many educated/urban/upper-middle-class people demonstrate toward Christians and rural people (especially southerners.) This complex of negative emotions often greatly exceeds anything that these same people feel toward radical Islamists or dangerous rogue-state governments.
One of my relatives posted a snarky meme during the day or two that the Dreamer program being ended was trending showing some hillbilly/redneck types saying they were going to get a tech job now that the Dreamers were out of the way. The meme was presented in a way that you were supposed to say “Ha ha, look at the poor, ugly, unintelligent peasants thinking they can get a tech job”
Sunday, November 05, 2017
ROBOT OF THE WEEK
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.
Wednesday, November 01, 2017
100th ANNIVERSARY OF THE BOLSHEVIK REVOLUTION
Via Sarah Hoyt, who has some thoughts and a comment thread.
Thursday, October 26, 2017
COMING: A BATTERY SUPPLY CRUNCH?
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.
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.
Monday, October 23, 2017
THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS, AS VIEWED FROM A SOVIET LAUNCH FACILITY (rerun)
This month marks the 55th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world dangerously close to thermonuclear war.
Several years ago, I read Rockets and People, the totally fascinating memoir of Soviet rocket developer Boris Chertok, which I reviewed here.
Chertok’s career encompassed both military and space-exploration projects, and in late October 1962 he was focused on preparations for launching a Mars probe. On the morning of Oct 27, he was awakened by “a strange uneasiness.” After a quick breakfast, he headed for the missile assembly building, known as the MIK.
At the gatehouse, there was usually a lone soldier on duty who would give my pass a cursory glance. Now suddenly I saw a group of soldiers wielding sub-machine guns, and they thoroughly scrutinized my pass. Finally they admitted me to the facility grounds and there, to my surprise, I again saw sub-machine-gun-wielding soldiers who had climbed up the fire escape to the roof of the MIK. Other groups of soldiers in full combat gear, even wearing gas masks, were running about the periphery of the secure area. When I stopped in at the MIK, I immediately saw that the “duty” R-7A combat missile, which had always been covered and standing up against the wall, which we had always ignored, was uncovered.
Chertok was greeted by his friend Colonel Kirillov, who was in charge of this launch facility. Kirollov did not greet Chertok with his usual genial smile, but with a “somber, melancholy expression.”
Without releasing my hand that I’d extended for our handshake, he quietly said: “Boris Yevseyevich, I have something of urgent importance I must tell you”…We went into his office on the second floor. Here, visibly upset, Kirillov told me: “Last night I was summoned to headquarters to see the chief of the [Tyura-Tam] firing range. The chiefs of the directorates and commanders of the troop units were gathered there. We were told that the firing range must be brought into a state of battle readiness immediately. Due to the events in Cuba, air attacks, bombardment, and even U.S. airborne assaults are possible. All Air Defense Troops assets have already been put into combat readiness. Flights of our transport airplanes are forbidden. All facilities and launch sites have been put under heightened security. Highway transport is drastically restricted. But most important—I received the order to open an envelope that has been stored in a special safe and to act in accordance with its contents. According to the order, I must immediately prepare the duty combat missile at the engineering facility and mate the warhead located in a special depot, roll the missile out to the launch site, position it, test it, fuel it, aim it, and wait for a special launch command. All of this has already been executed at Site No. 31. I have also given all the necessary commands here at Site No. 2. Therefore, the crews have been removed from the Mars shot and shifted over to preparation of the combat missile. The nosecone and warhead will be delivered here in 2 hours.
Saturday, October 21, 2017
CULTURE, INNOVATION, VICTORY, AND DEFEAT
(Today being Trafalgar Day, it seems like a good time to rerun this post)
In 1797, a Spanish naval official named Don Domingo Perez de Grandallana, wrote a thoughtful document on the general subject “why do we keep losing to the British, and what can we do about it?” His thoughts were inspired by his observations while with the Spanish fleet off Cape St Vincent, in a battle which was a significant defeat for Spain, and are relevant to a question which is very relevant to us today:
What attributes of an organization make it possible for that organization to accomplish its mission in an environment of uncertainty, rapid change, and high stress?
Here are de Grandallana’s key points:
An Englishman enters a naval action with the firm conviction that his duty is to hurt his enemies and help his friends and allies without looking out for directions in the midst of the fight; and while he thus clears his mind of all subsidiary distractions, he rests in confidence on the certainty that his comrades, actuated by the same principles as himself, will be bound by the sacred and priceless principle of mutual support.
Accordingly, both he and his fellows fix their minds on acting with zeal and judgement upon the spur of the moment, and with the certainty that they will not be deserted. Experience shows, on the contrary, that a Frenchman or a Spaniard, working under a system which leans to formality and strict order being maintained in battle, has no feeling for mutual support, and goes into battle with hesitation, preoccupied with the anxiety of seeing or hearing the commander-in-chief’s signals for such and such manoeures…
Thus they can never make up their minds to seize any favourable opportunity that may present itself. They are fettered by the strict rule to keep station which is enforced upon then in both navies, and the usual result is that in one place ten of their ships may be firing on four, while in another four of their comrades may be receiving the fire of ten of the enemy. Worst of all they are denied the confidence inspired by mutual support, which is as surely maintained by the English as it is neglected by us, who will not learn from them.
The quote is from Seize the Fire, by Adam Nicholson.
Thursday, October 12, 2017
LEARNING THE 777
Airline pilot Karlene Petitt is doing transition to the Boeing 777 and blogging about what she learns:
Series will continue at Karlene’s blog
Saturday, October 07, 2017
Wednesday, October 04, 2017
SPUTNIK ANNIVERSARY RERUN: BOOK REVIEW - ROCKETS AND PEOPLE
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:
Thursday, September 28, 2017
WORTHWHILE READING & VIEWING
Animated films: a transition both in technologies and in implicit political messages
Sunday, September 24, 2017
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.
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:
Friday, September 22, 2017
SUMMER RERUN: STUPIDITY - COMMUNIST-STYLE AND CAPITALIST-STYLE
There’s an old story about a Soviet-era factory that made bathtubs. Plant management was measured on the total tonnage of output produced–and valves & faucets don’t add much to the weight, certainly not compared with the difficulty of manufacturing them. So the factory simply made and shipped thousands of bathtubs, without valves or faucets.
The above story may be apocryphal, but the writer “Viktor Suvorov” tells an even worse one, based on his personal experience. At the time, he was working on a communal farm in Russia:
The General Secretary of the Party set a task: there must be a sharp rise in agricultural output. So the whole country reflected on how best to achieve this magnificent aim.
The fertilizer plant serving the communes in Suvorov’s area resolved to do its part:
A vast meeting, thousands strong, complete with brass bands, speeches, placards, and banners, was urgently called at the local Chemical Combine. To a man, they shouted slogans, applauded, chanted patriotic songs. After that meeting, a competitive economy drive was launched at the Chemical Combine to harvest raw materials and energy resources.
The drive lasted all winter, and in the spring, on Lenin’s birthday, all the workers came in and worked without pay, making extra fertilizer from the materials that had been saved…several thousand tons of liquid nitrogen fertilizer, which they patriotically decided to hand over, free of charge, to the Region’s collective farms.
Wednesday, September 20, 2017
SUMMER RERUN: ATTACK OF THE ROBOT BUREAUCRATS
Via Bookworm, here is a truly appalling story from Minnesota. When the fire alarm went off at Como Park High School, a 14-year-old girl was rousted out of the swimming pool, and–dripping wet and wearing only a swimsuit–directed to go stand outside were the temperature was sub-zero and the wind chill made it much worse. Then, she was not allowed to take refuge in one of the many cars in the parking lotbecause of a school policy forbidding students from sitting in a faculty member’s car. As Bookworm notes:
Even the lowest intelligence can figure out that the rule’s purpose is to prevent teachers from engaging sexually with children. The likelihood of a covert sexual contact happening between Kayona and a teacherunder the actual circumstances is ludicrous. The faculty cars were in full view of the entire school. There was no chance of illicit sexual congress.
But the whole nature of bureaucratic rules, of course, is to forbid human judgment based on actual context.
Fortunately for Kayona, her fellow students hadn’t had human decency ground out of them by rules: “…fellow students, however, demonstrated a grasp of civilized behavior. Students huddled around her and some frigid classmates [sic], giving her a sweatshirt to put around her feet. A teacher coughed up a jacket.” As the children were keeping Kayona alive, the teachers were workingtheir way through the bureaucracy. After a freezing ten minutes, an administrator finally gave permission for the soaking wet, freezing Kayla to set in a car in full view of everybody.
As Bookworm notes, this sort of thing is becoming increasingly common. In England in 2009, for example, a man with a broken back lay in 6 inches of water, but paramedics refused to rescue him because they weren’t trained for water rescues. Dozens of similar examples could easily be dredged up.
The behavior of these bureaucrats is very similar to the behavior of a computer program confronted by a situation for which its designers did not explicitly provide. Sometimes the results will be useless, sometimes they will be humorous, often they will be harmful or outright disastrous.
Last year in Sweden, there was rampant rioting that included the torching of many cars. The government of Sweden didn’t do a very good job of protecting its citizens and their property from this outbreak of barbarism. Government agents did, however, fulfill their duty of issuing parking tickets…to burned-out cars. Link with picture. In my post The Reductio as Absurdum of Bureaucratic Liberalism, I said…