Thursday, February 23, 2017
ROBOTS AND JOBS - THE BET
It’s true that the pace of introducing new labor-saving techniques has magnificently quickened in the past two hundred years. This fast pace continues today. Yet still we encounter no evidence that labor-saving techniques permanently increase unemployment.
You’ll reply “This time is different!” Perhaps, but I doubt it. And I’m so confident in my prediction that I’ll put $10,000 of my own my money where my mouth is.
Terms of the wager are at the Boudreaux link. I’m not sure if the bet has been accepted or not.
Meanwhile, here is Bill Gates, suggesting that robots should be taxed. Left undefined, at least in this interview, is a question of Exactly What is a Robot? Is a CNC machine tool a robot? I’d say it absolutely is, as was the case with earlier numerically-controlled machine tools that became pretty common in the 1970s and 1980s. How about an automated teller machine in a bank? And what about “robots” that have no direct physical incarnation but are purely software, such as the office productivity software that accounted for a huge portion of Microsoft’s success? It was largely Microsoft Word and similar software that made secretaries an endangered species in most organizations. (Can you imaging the lobbying, litigation, and regulatory struggles that would surround this definitional issue if politicians were to take Bill’s proposal seriously?)
The proposal also ignores that fact that the United States is not the entire world–taxing robots here would harm our competitiveness vis-a-vis those countries pursuing no such policy. (Which would clearly include China.) The only way to make a US-only anti-robot policy ‘work’ would be to establish very high tariff barriers.
Wednesday, February 15, 2017
With all the current discussion about robotics and artificial intelligence, this seems like an anniversary worth noting: the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator) was formally announced on February 15, 1946. (Or maybe it was February 14.) Originally developed to compute artillery trajectories, it was sufficiently general in its design that it could be programmed to address other kinds of problems as well. The programming was originally done with patch cords, but soon a sort of stored-programming approach was developed wherein the patch cord layout remained the same and the program was entered via an array of rotary switches.
I wonder if these early computers would have made such a strong popular impression if they had not been so physically large.
Sunday, February 12, 2017
After discussing his concerns about automation-driven job losses, he goes on to say “I feel even worse when I hear misleading statements about the source of the problem. Blaming China and NAFTA is a convenient deflection, but denial will only make the wrenching employment dislocation for millions all the more painful.”
I’ve seen this assertion–“offshoring doesn’t matter because Robots”–and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. It should be obvious that both factors play a role; there’s no need for a single-variable explanation. (Actually, offshoring-driven job losses and automation-driven job losses are somewhat less than additive in their effect, since automation generally makes US-based production more relatively attractive.)
What if we regarded code not as a high-stakes, sexy affair, but the equivalent of skilled work at a Chrysler plant? Among other things, it would change training for programming jobs—and who gets encouraged to pursue them. As my friend Anil Dash, a technology thinker and entrepreneur, notes, teachers and businesses would spend less time urging kids to do expensive four-year computer-science degrees and instead introduce more code at the vocational level in high school….Across the country, people are seizing this opportunity, particularly in states hit hardest by deindustrialization. In Kentucky, mining veteran Rusty Justice decided that code could replace coal. He cofounded Bit Source, a code shop that builds its workforce by retraining coal miners as programmers. Enthusiasm is sky high: Justice got 950 applications for his first 11 positions. Miners, it turns out, are accustomed to deep focus, team play, and working with complex engineering tech. “Coal miners are really technology workers who get dirty,” Justice says.
I’m reminded of two things that Peter Drucker said in his 1969 book The Age of Discontinuity. In attacking what he called ‘the diploma curtain’, he wrote “By denying opportunity to those without higher education, we are denying access to contribution and performance to a large number of people of superior ability, intelligence, and capacity to achieve.”
But also, Drucker wrote, in his discussion of the Knowledge Economy:
The knowledge worker of today…is not the successor to the ‘free professional’ of 1750 or 1900. He is the successor to the employee of yesterday, the manual worker, skilled or unskilled…This hidden conflict between the knowledge workers view of himself as a ‘professional’ and the social reality in which he is the upgraded and well-paid successor to the skilled worker of yesterday, underlies the disenchantment of so many highly educated young people with the jobs available to them…They expect to be ‘intellectuals.’ And the find that they are just ‘staff.’
Indeed, many jobs that have been thought of as ‘professional’ and ‘white collar’…programming, financial analysis, even engineering…are increasingly subject to many of the stresses traditionally associated with ‘blue collar’ jobs, such as layoffs and cyclical unemployment. As a higher % of the corporate cost structure becomes concentrated in jobs which are not direct labor, it is almost inevitable that these jobs will be hit increasingly when financial problems make themselves felt.
Drucker’s second point, which I think is very astute, is somewhat orthogonal to the coal-miners-becoming-coders piece, and probably deserves it own post for discussion. Regarding the question of non-college-educated people becoming programmers (of which there has long already been a fair amount), the degree to which succeeds is to some degree coupled with the whole question of h-1b visa policy, and trade policy in general as it relates to offshoring of services.
Tuesday, February 07, 2017
FREEDOM, THE VILLAGE, AND THE INTERNET
See the post at Chicago Boyz
Friday, February 03, 2017
TWO VERY POOR ANALYSES
Forbes ran an article with the headline “Solar employs more people in US electricity generation than oil, coal, and gas combined” and goes on to say “It’s a welcome statistic for those seeking to refute Donald Trump’s assertion that green energy projects are bad news for the American economy.”
Unmentioned in this article is the point that energy production is not done for the purpose of energy production; it is done for the purpose of energy use…and production modes which are more expensive tend to cost jobs downstream. If an excessive emphasis on solar and wind cause electricity prices to rise significantly, the negative impact will fall on those who work in manufacturing and other fields that are energy-intensive.
To take an extreme case, one could easily create millions and millions of jobs in energy generation by requiring that all electricity be generated by human beings turning cranks connected to generators. It is silly to look at job-creation as a good thing in isolation, without considering factors other than the number of people hired. The Forbes article also neglects to mention the point that in most technologies, and certainly in electricity generation, the construction phase of a plant generally requires a lot more labor than does the ongoing operation of that plant.
An even lower depth of mediocrity is reached in this International Monetary Fund article: Counting the cost of energy subsidies. This study considers traffic congestion and vehicle accidents as ‘externalities’ from fossil fuel usage. In reality, of course, the replacement of all gasoline-and-diesel-powered vehicles with electric vehicles recharged from solar/wind…or even their replacement by unicorn-powered vehicles requiring no other energy source whatsoever…would by itself have no effect whatsoever on traffic congestion and vehicle accidents. And while the elimination of automobiles and trucks completely would certainly eliminate traffic congestion, it would also lead to delays in travel which would greatly exceed the magnitude of the congestion-caused delays.
Putting lots of math in a study is not a substitute for common sense.
Tuesday, January 24, 2017
UNCLE HENRY, CHARLIE KELLSTADT, AND DONALD TRUMP
As President Trump has focused on persuading certain specific companies to increase their US employment (or at least to refrain from decreasing it as much as originally planned), concerns have been raised about his ability to operate above the level of the single case and to think in terms of framing general policies. I do share this concern to a certain extent.
But I’m also reminded of Peter Drucker’s story about two old-line merchants.
The first of these, called “Uncle Henry” by those who knew him, was the founder and owner of a large and succesful department store. When Drucker met him, he was already in his eighties. Uncle Henry was a businessman who did things by intuition more than by formal analysis, and his own son Irving, a Harvard B-School graduate, was appalled at “the unsystematic and unscientific way the store was being run.”
Drucker remembers his conversations with Uncle Henry. “He would tell stories constantly, always to do with a late consignment of ladies’ hats, or a shipment of mismatched umbrellas, or the notions counter. His stories would drive me up the wall. But gradually I learned to listen, at least with one ear. For surprisingly enough he always leaped to a generalization from the farrago of anecdotes and stocking sizes and color promotions in lieu of markdowns for mismatched umbrellas.”
Drucker also knew another leading merchant, Charles Kellstadt (who had once run Sears.) Kellstadt and Drucker served together on a Department of Defense advisory board (on procurement policy), and Kellstadt told “the same kind of stories Uncle Henry had told.” Drucker says that his fellow board members “suffered greatly from his interminable and apparently pointless anecdotes.”
On one occasion, a “whiz kid” (this was during the McNamara era) was presenting a proposal for a radically new approach to defense pricing policy. Kellstadt “began to tell a story of the bargain basement in the store in Chillicothe, Ohio, where he had held his first managerial job, and of some problem there with the cup sizes of women’s bras. he would stop every few sentences and ask the bewildered Assistant Secretary a quesion about bras, then go on. Finally, the Assistant Secretary said, “You don’t understand Mr. Kellstadt; I’m talking about concepts.” “So am I,” said Charlie, quite indignant, and went on. Ten minutes later all of us on the board realized that he had demolished the entire proposal by showing us that it was far too complex, made far too many assumptions, and contains far too many ifs, buts, and whens.” After the meeting, another board member (dean of a major engineering school) said admiringly, “Charlie, that was a virtuoso performance. but why did you have to drag in the cup sizes of the bras in your bargain basement forty years ago?” Drucker reports that Charlie was surprised by the question: “How else can I see a problem in my mind’s eye?”
Friday, January 20, 2017
THE BALLPOINT PEN AS AN ECONOMIC CASE STUDY
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has lamented China’s inability to “make ballpoint pens with a smooth writing function.” After five years of research, a state-owned steel company now says it can.
WSJ notes that 80% of the world’s ballpoint pens are made in China…but that thus far, China has not been making all of the pen’s components. Specifically:
The tip of a high-quality ballpoint demands metal work involving high-precision machinery and very hard, ultrathin steel plates. So 90% of pens made in China have imported tips. China’s leaders want “self-sufficiency,” in pens as in semiconductors. Now they claim they’ll have it.
This little story is interesting from at least three angles.
First–as the WSJ story points out, China’s desire to control the entire ballpoint pen supply chain indicates that their leaders still value economic autarky, and that Chinese leadership denunciation of President Trump on grounds of his insufficient respect for free trade carry more than a whiff of hypocrisy.
Second–the ballpoint pen example makes the point that the apparent simplicity of a product does not necessarily reflect the complexity or lack thereof involved in manufacturing it. American economic commentators often fail to grasp this point when they assert that America’s future must lie in producing “advanced high-technology products.”
Third–the example should also clarify the point that the highest value in a product supply chain does not necessarily lie in the assembly of the final product. The final product assembly is usually the most visiblepart of the supply chain, but very often the creation of components that go into that chain involves more complexity and requires more skill than the final assembly process itself. It’s considerably more difficult to make integrated circuits, for example, than to assemble those chips onto circuit boards and to assemble the boards into a plastic or metal case.
Monday, January 16, 2017
LEX ON LEADERSHIP
Neptunus Lex wrote about his “youngster” cruise as a Midshipman attending the Naval Academy. This is the first of two cruises that a Midshipman takes: during the second cruise, your activities are those of an officer…
But during youngster year, you sail as a Sailor. You wear dungarees, chip paint, sweep passageways and stand enlisted watches. You sleep in enlisted berthing, eat in the enlisted mess and attempt to get some sense of the men you are supposed to lead in three year’s time, and the lives they live. ..You are tempted to believe that this work is beneath you. You are a Naval Academy midshipman, the cream of the crop. You are special.
You spend some time in the engineering plant – in a gas turbine ship, an amazingly clean and quiet space. Totally incomprehensible. It resembles nothing at all like the wiring diagrams in your thermodynamics textbooks.
But there’s a 23 year old Sailor who didn’t go to college, never read Thoreau, and who nevertheless understands it all. He patiently tries to teach you how it works. He speaks to you like one would speak to an elderly person in a nursing home, slowly, simply. You feel patronized, and worse: You realize that you do not entirely understand.
You are beginning to learn – not about engineering. But about Sailors.
You’re heading home. Bridge watches now, under the tutelage of 20 year old quartermaster’s mates. Men from small towns that you’ve never hear of, in states you remember dimly from your grade school geography. From farming families, where no one went to college, and no one was expected to. Men who could fix your position to a hundred yards moving at 20 knots across the endless sea using only the stars, a stopwatch and a sextant. Men who could debate the finer points of Strauss and Engels. Men who play classical guitar to an appreciative audience in the 80 man berthing during their time off duty. Who have dreams of their own that they will tell you about, when no one else is listening. Men who would risk their lives to save yours in the midst of a flaming inferno, without hesitating for a moment to reckon the cost, to tally the odds. Men who would die for you, if they had to.
And you begin to realize that you’re not special because of who you are, the grades you got in high school or where you’re going to college. You’re special because of who you’ve been selected to lead, when your time comes.
And that, my friends, is the beginning of wisdom.
There was a general…can’t remember who it was…who remarked that you will can never be a good officer unless you like Soldiers. (And you can’t fake it for long, he added.) I think it is pretty clear that Lex liked Sailors.
One way of evaluating any leader…military, political, business executive..is his attitude toward those he leads or wants to lead.
cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open
Friday, January 13, 2017
AN ODD COUPLE, OR A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN?
It is interesting that there is such a high overlap of political opinion between College Professors and Entertainers…the latter category not being known for their intellectual or scholarly tastes, on the average.
Significance, if any?
Saturday, January 07, 2017
JARGON, PROVERBS, AND MEMES
Texan99, writing at Grim’s Hall, discusses the ‘thick fog of buzzwords’ that pervades the educational arena in this country. My comment is that buzzwords and jargon are worst in education, government, and the ‘nonprofit’ world, but increasingly are also pervading the world of business and having a malign effect therein. Many of the posts I see on LinkedIn, for example, represent attempts by people who have never had a creative idea or insight in their lives to posture a deep thinkers and business intellectuals by maximizing their use of the buzzwords du jour.
Sarah Hoyt draws a distinction between memes and proverbs:
Of all the ways people have come up with to avoid thinking, I like memes the most. They are so ridiculously easy to fall into. You see the words, you see the picture and you go “ah ah, that’s so true.” Even when on a minute’s reflection it makes no sense whatsoever…I think in a way it follows the same pattern that proverbs followed in more ancient cultures…While proverbs were ways not to have to think or short cuts around thinking, they weren’t, by themselves, pernicious…Proverbs are in a way, the encoding of societal wisdom into short cuts to lead people into ways that have worked before…Memes are similar, but you have to remove societal wisdom and put in “the commanding forces of culture and mass media”. RTWT
Andre Beaufre, who in 1940 was a young captain on the French General Staff (later a general, he commanded the French contingent in the Suez attack) commented on his impressions when he first breathed the refined air at the General Staff level:
I saw very quickly that our seniors were primarily concerned with forms of drafting. Every memorandum had to be perfect, written in a concise, impersonal style, and conforming to a logical and faultless plan–but so abstract that it had to be read several times before one could find out what it was about…”I have the honour to inform you that I have decided…I envisage…I attach some importance to the fact that…” Actually no one decided more than the barest minimum, and what indeed was decided was pretty trivial.
Entirely consistent with Beaufre’s observation was a interchange between the artists Picasso and Matisse which took place in the midst of the collapse of 1940:
Matisse: But what about our generals, what are they doing?
Picasso: Our generals? They’re the masters at the Ecole des Beaux Arts!
…ie, men possessed by the same rote formulae and absence of observation and obsessive traditionalism as the academic artists.
The decline in clarity of writing and speaking presages nothing good. Confucius pointed out that “If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.”
NIGHT CARRIER OPERATIONS
Neptunus Lex puts you in the cockpit. It’s a long series…you can always pull the Eject lever–but I don’t think you’re going to want to.
Thanks to Bill Brandt for locating and posting this.
Tuesday, January 03, 2017
WHAT ARE THE LIMITS OF THE ALEXANDER ANALYSIS?
Edward Porter Alexander, who was Lee’s artillery commander at Gettysburg, became a railroad president after the war. His experiences in running a major transportation system probably had something to do with the evolution of his thoughts regarding state’s rights:
Well that (state’s rights) was the issue of the war; & as we were defeated that right was surrendered & a limit put on state sovereignty. And the South is now entirely satisfied with that result. And the reason of it is very simple. State sovereignty was doubtless a wise political instution for the condition of this vast country in the last century. But the railroad, and the steamboat & the telegraph began to transform things early in this century & have gradually made what may almost be called a new planet of it… Our political institutions have had to change… Briefly we had the right to fight, but our fight was against what might be called a Darwinian development – or an adaptation to changed & changing conditions – so we need not greatly regret defeat.
I think a lot of the belief in unlimited globalization is implicitly driven by an extension of Alexander’s argument, with the jet plane, the container ship, and the Internet taking the place of the railroad, steamboat, and telegraph.
How far does this extension make sense? If the ability of locomotives could pull trains across the United States in three days meant that full sovereignty for individual states was obsolete, does the ability of jet airplanes to carry passengers and freight anywhere in the world in less than one day similarly imply that full sovereignty for nations is obsolete?
I suspect that most people at this site will not agree with a transportation-based argument for the elimination of national sovereignty. So, what is valid and what is invalid about Alexander’s analysis, and what are the limits for the extension of its geographical scope? Discuss.
Friday, December 30, 2016
THIS IS WHY WE CAN'T MAKE NICE THINGS
Gone too is the iconic firm’s appliances business, which was sold to Chinese firm Haier. This is really a progression of the economic cycle. While folks like President-elect Donald Trump and financial provocateur Peter Schiff lament that Americans just don’t make stuff anymore, at a certain point, advanced economies should outsource physical work to less-advanced countries. It’s not so much a matter of ability as it is financial efficiency.
Does this writer believe that GE should also divest the jet engine business, the power generation business, and the transportation (locomotive) business? All of these business make physical things, and make substantial amounts of those physical things in the US.
The idea that manufacturing is devoid of intellectual content and hence unworthy of advanced economies is fallacious and has done serious harm–see my post Faux Manufacturing Nostalgia. Happily, this attitude has turned around substantially since I wrote the linked post..to the point that manufacturing is being practically over-romanticized…but islands of the “who needs it?” view still exist.
GE’s reasoning for divesting Appliance seems to have been centered on a desire to focus the company on business-to-business markets rather than consumer markets and, and also, I think, on a perception that these was not sufficient room in the appliance world for product differentiation and a technology edge. “Technology edge,” rightly understood, includes the complexity/difficulty of manufacturing something, not just the intellectual property embedded in the product itself. It certainly did not reflect any conclusion that manufacturing is inherently a low-value function.
It would be silly to argue that a computer programmer in a bank is a “knowledge worker” and a programmer in manufacturing is not. It would be equally silly to argue that a bank branch manager is inherently performing a more highly-skilled job than a shift supervisor in a factory, or that a first-level customer service rep for Amazon is performing a more advanced kind of work than an assembly line worker, or that an operations research expert doing inventory studies for a manufacturing firm is less of a knowledge worker than his equivalent doing inventory studies for Target. But this is implicitly the argument that many of the ‘we don’t need manufacturing here’ crew have been making.
This dismissive attitude toward a vast and complex industry which supports millions of people represents one more example of the constellation of attitudes against which many people rebelled when choosing to vote for Donald Trump.
Saturday, December 24, 2016
Newgrange is an ancient structure in Ireland so constructed that the sun, at the exact time of the winter solstice, shines directly down a long corridor and illuminates the inner chamber. More about Newgrange here and here.
Grim has an Arthurian passage about the Solstice.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, sung by Enya
Monday, December 19, 2016
VIDEO REVIEW: A FRENCH VILLAGE
I’m currently on Season 5 of this series, which ran for 6 seasons on French TV. Set in the fictional town of Villeneuve during the years of the German occupation and directly afterwards, it is simply outstanding – one of the best television series I have ever seen.
Daniel Larcher is a physician who also serves as deputy mayor, a largely honorary position. When the regular mayor disappears after the German invasion, Daniel finds himself mayor for real. His wife Hortense, a selfish and emotionally-shallow woman, is the opposite of helpful to Daniel in his efforts to protect the people of Villaneuve from the worst effects of the occupation while still carrying on his medical practice. Daniel’s immediate superior in his role as mayor is Deputy Prefect Servier, a bureaucrat mainly concerned about his career and about ensuring that everything is done according to proper legal form.
Daniel’s brother Marcel is a Communist. The series accurately reflects the historical fact that the European Communist parties did not at this stage view the outcome of the war as important–it was only “the Berlin bankers versus the London bankers”…but this is a viewpoint that Marcel has a hard time accepting.
In addition to his underground political activism, Marcel works as a foreman at the lumber mill run by a prominent local businessman, Raymond Schwartz. A strong mutual attraction has developed between Raymond and Marie Germain, a farm wife whose husband is away with the army and is missing in action.
Much of the movie’s action takes place at the local school, where Judith Morhange is the (Jewish) principal and Lucienne Broderie is a young teacher. Jules Beriot, the assistant principal, is in love with Lucienne, but hopelessly so, it seems.
German characters range from Kurt, a young soldier with whom Lucienne shares a love of classical music, all the way down to the sinister sicherheitdienst officer Heinrich Mueller. The characters include several French police officers, who make differing choices about the ways in which they will handle life and work under the Occupation.
The series does a fine job of bringing all these characters–and many more–to life. Very well-written and well-acted, well-deserving of its long run on French television. Highly recommended.
In French, with English subtitles that (unlike the case with many films) are actually readable. Season 1 is available on Amazon streaming, and seasons 2-5 are available there in DVD form. MHZ Networks is another available source for the series. (Season 6, which I believe is now running in France, is not yet available in translation.)
Not to be missed.
Thursday, December 15, 2016
WORTHWHILE READING & VIEWING
Students clam up as soon as conversation veers close to anything controversial and one side might be viewed as politically incorrect. The open exchange of ideas that used to make courses such as Contemporary Moral Problems exciting doesn’t happen. It’s not possible to teach the course the way I used to teach it.
Also at the GE blog: The California Duck Must Die – a very good explanation of the load-matching problems created when ‘renewable’ sources become a major element of the electrical grid. Media discussion of all the wind and solar capacity installed has tended to gloss over these issues.
Friday, December 09, 2016
TECHNOLOGY AND OFFSHORING
Monday, December 05, 2016
AN INTERESTING STORY ABOUT GOVERNMENT FUNDING
If the government wants to give money to your organization, that’s a good thing, right?
Here’s a letter to the editor that recently appeared in the Financial Times:
Sir, I was raised in a Catholic orphanage, along with 800 boys and girls, pre-kindergarten through high school. It was established in 1883. I experienced none of the “abuse, neglect and trafficking” JK Rowling talks about (“Rowling shines a light on the false incentives distorting aid”, Gillian Tett, November 19). That is, until the orphanage began accepting funds from the state rather than via charitable donations from religious organisations.
Once government money began flowing in, the orphanage had to adhere to all the latest politically correct modalities then in vogue: no more dormitories, only small “cottages” of 10 with live-in grievance counsellors rather than nuns; no more in-residence classrooms — the kids now had to be bussed to the nearest school; no more football and basketball teams — everybody had to get a trophy; and no more need to work on that 850-acre farm, or to work in the kitchen, in the bakery, in the dairy, in the powerhouse shovelling coal, or in the shoe and carpenter shops — these things would be provided by state subsidies.
Knock on the door of any one of its graduates and you would find that person a veteran of the second world war, the Korean war, Vietnam, the Gulf war, simply working in the corporate world as a productive member of our society. Now, its graduates are wards of the state.
In time, the orphanage dwindled from 800 children to 80 — the rapacious after-effects of public funding. Most recently it became entangled in equal rights abuses, the legal costs absorbing scare funds for upkeep and maintenance, before finally sinking into insolvency and closure. That orphanage out on the Illinois prairie is now surely one of Rowling’s “fairy tales”.
Jeremiah Norris (Hudson Institute)
Nobody can plan the actions of even a thousand living persons, separately. Anyone attempting to control millions must divide them into classes, and make a plan applying to these classes. But these classes do not exist. No two persons are alike. No two are in the same circumstances; no two have the same abilities; beyond getting the barest necessities of life, no two have the same desires.
She was talking about individuals, but a similar point could be made about organizations.
The people who talk so much about ‘diversity’ rarely seem to understand (or at least to care) that top-down government management is a destroyer, not an enabler, of true diversity.
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
THE AMERICAN VIRTUAL CIVIL WAR
Musings on Cirque des Crazi, at Ricochet, was inspired by two long-time (since childhood) friends of the author and his wife…one a senior nun and the other a retired IRS manager…who have “been looney, angry, mean and distempered crazies before, during and since the election”…”Yes, they are Hilaryites. They are the scourge of (his wife’s) Facebook, showing no mercy or measure of humanity. Both use language that would make Trump blush. Many people on Ricochet have reported similar insanity and we all watch the media created Cirque Des Crazi on the streets of blue cities and the academic child care centers formerly known as Higher Education.
Read and discuss...cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open
Sunday, November 20, 2016
BOOK REVIEW: THE ROAD BACK (rerun)
Erich Maria Remarque
(I had intended to rerun this post during the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, which took place from July 1 to November 18, 1916…missed that window, but of course the war lasted for two more years after the Somme)
The narrator is a young German who served in the First World War. The war is finally over, and Ernst, together with his surviving comrades, has returned to the high school from which they departed in 1914. The Principal is delivering a “welcome home” speech, and it is a speech in the old oratorical style:
“But especially we would remember those fallen sons of our foundation, who hastened joyfully to the defence of their homeland and who have remained upon the field of honour. Twenty-one comrades are with us no more; twenty-one warriors have met the glorious death of arms; twenty-one heroes have found rest from the clamour of battle under foreign soil and sleep the long sleep beneath the green grasses..”
There is suddden, booming laughter. The Principal stops short in pained perplexity. The laughter comes from Willy standing there, big and gaunt, like an immense wardrobe. His face is red as a turkey’s, he is so furious.
“Green grasses!–green grasses!” he stutters, “long sleep?” In the mud of shell-holes they are lying, knocked rotten. ripped in pieces, gone down into the bog–Green grasses! This is not a singing lesson!” His arms are whirling like a windmill in a gale. “Hero’s death! And what sort of thing do you suppose that was, I wonder?–Would you like to know how young Hoyer died? All day long he lay in the wire screaming. and his guts hanging out of his belly like macaroni. Then a bit of shell took off his fingers and a couple of hours later another chunk off his leg; and still he lived; and with his other hand he kept trying to pack back his intestines, and when night fell at last he was done. And when it was dark we went out to get him and he was as full of holes as a nutmeg grater.—Now, you go and tell his mother how he died–if you have so much courage.”
Not only Willy, but several other student/soldiers rise to challenge the tone of the Principal’s speech:
“But gentlemen,” cries the Old Man almost imploringly, “there is a misunderstanding–a most painful misunderstanding—”
But he does not finish. He is interrupted by Helmuth Reinersmann, who carried his brother back through a bombardment on the Yser, only to put him down dead at the dressing-station.
“Killed,” he says savagely, “They were not killed for you to make speeches about them. They were our comrades. Enough! Let’s have no more wind-bagging about it.”
The assembly dissolves into angry confusion.
Then suddenly comes a lull in the tumult. Ludwig Breyer has stepped out to the front. “Mr Principal,” says Ludwig in a clear voice. “You have seen the war after your fashion—with flying banners, martial music, and with glamour. But you saw it only to the railway station from which we set off. We do not mean to blame you. We, too, thought as you did. But we have seen the other side since then, and against that the heroics of 1914 soon wilted to nothing. Yet we went through with it–we went through with it because here was something deeper that held us together, something that only showed up out there, a responsibility perhaps, but at any rate something of which you know nothing and of which there can be no speeches.”
Ludwig pauses a moment, gazing vacantly ahead. He passes a hand over his forehead and continues. “We have not come to ask a reckoning–that would be foolish; nobody knew then what was coming.–But we do require that you shall not again try to prescribe what we shall think of these things. We went out full of enthusiasm, the name of the ‘Fatherland’ on our lips–and we have returned in silence,. but with the thing, the Fatherland, in our hearts. And now we ask you to be silent too. Have done with fine phrases. They are not fitting. Nor are they fitting to our dead comrades. We saw them die. And the memory of it is still too near that we can abide to hear them talked of as you are doing. They died for more than that.”
Now everywhere it is quiet. The Principal has his hands clasped together. “But Breyer,” he says gently. “I–I did not mean it so.”
Ludwig Breyer’s words: “We do require that you shall not again try to prescribe what we shall think of these things…Have done with fine phrases” capture well the break which the Great War caused in the relationship between generations, and even in the use of language. It is a disconnect with which we are still living.
Wednesday, November 16, 2016
ATTACK OF THE JOB-KILLING ROBOTS, PART 2
In my previous post of this series, I remarked that most discussion of the employment effects of robotics/artificial intelligence/etc seems to be lacking in historical perspective…quite a few people seem to believe that the replacement of human labor by machinery is a new thing.
This post will attempt to provide some historical perspective on today’s automation technologies by sketching out some of the past innovations in the mechanization of work, focusing on “robots,” broadly-defined…ie, on technologies which to some degree involve the replacement or augmentation of human mind/eye/hand, rather than those that are primarily concerned with the replacement of human and animal muscular energy…and will discuss some of the political debate that took place on mechanization & jobs in the 1920s through 1940s.
Throughout most of history, the production of yarn for cloth was an extremely labor-intensive process, done with a device called a distaff, almost always employed by women, and requiring many hours per day to generate a little bit of product. (There even exists a medieval miniature of a woman spinning with the distaff while having sex…whether this is a comment on the burdensomeness of the yarn-making process, or a slam at the love-making skills of medieval men, I’m not sure—-probably both.) Eventually, probably around 1400-1500 in most places in Europe, the spinning wheel came into use, improving the productivity of yarn-making by a factor estimated from 3:1 to as much as ten or more to one.
Gutenberg’s printing press was invented somewhere around 1440. I haven’t seen any estimates of its effect on labor productivity, compared with the then-prevailing method of hand copying of manuscripts, but surely it was at least 1000 to 1 or more.
The era from 1700-1850 was marked by tremendous increases in the productivity of the textile trades. The flying shuttle and other advances greatly improved the weaving process; this created a bottleneck in the supply of yarn, which was partly addressed by the invention of the Spinning Jenny–a foot-powered device that could improve the yarn production of one person by 5:1 or better. Power spinning and power looms yielded considerable additional productivity improvements.
An especially interesting device was the Jacquard Loom (1802), which used punched cards to direct the weaving of patterned fabrics. In its initial incarnation, the Jacquard was a hand loom: its productivity did not come from the application of mechanical power but rather from the automation of the complex thread-selection operations previously carried out by a “Draw Boy.”
Turning now to woodworking: in 1818, Blanchard’s Copying Lathe automated the production of complex shape–a prototype was automatically traced and copied. It was originally intended for making gunstocks, but also served in producing lasts for shoemakers, and I believe also chair and table legs.
Another major advancement in the clothing field was the sewing machine. French inventory Barthelemy Thimonnier invented a machine in 1830, but was driven out of the country by enraged tailors and political instability. The first commercially-successful machines were invented/marketed by Americans Walter Hunt, Elias Howe, and Isaac Singer, and were in common use by the 1850s.
By the late Victorian period the sewing machine had been hailed as the most useful invention of the century releasing women from the drudgery of endless hours of sewing by hand. Factories sprung up in almost every country in the world to feed the insatiable demand for the sewing machine. Germany had over 300 factories some working 24 hours a day producing countless numbers of sewing machines.
The beginnings of data communications could be seen in gold ticker and stock ticker systems created by Edison and others (circa 1870) , which relayed prices almost instantaneously and eliminated the jobs of the messenger boys who had previously been the distribution channel for this information. Practical calculating machines also appeared in the 1870s. But the big step forward in mechanized calculation was Hollerith’s punched card system (quite likely inspired in part by the Jacquard), introduced in 1890 and used for the tabulation of that year’s census. These systems were quickly adopted for accounting and record keeping purposes in a whole range of industries and government functions.
Professor Amy Sue Bix, in her book Inventing Ourselves out of Jobs?, describes the fear of technological unemployment as silent movies were replaced by the ‘talkies’. “Through the early 1920s…local theaters had employed live musicians to provide accompaniment for silent pictures. Small houses featured only a pianist or violinist, but glamorous ‘movie places’ engaged full orchestras.” All these jobs were threatened when Warner Brothers introduced its Vitaphone technology, with prerecorded disks synchronized to projectors. “Unlike other big studios, Warner did not operate its own theater chains and so had to convince local owners to screen their productions. Theater managers would be eager to show sound movies, Harry Warner hoped, since they could save the expense of hiring musicians.”
The American Federation of Musicians mounted a major PR campaign in an attempt to convince the public that ‘living music’ was better than ‘canned sound.’ A Music Defense League was established, with membership reaching 3 million…but the ‘talkies’ remained popular, and the AFM had to admit defeat. A lot of musicians did lose their jobs.
Saturday, November 12, 2016
ATTACK OF THE JOB-KILLING ROBOTS
Here’s a new factory for making automobile frames, specifically designed to minimize the need for human labor. The CEO of the company that built it actually said, “We set out to build automobile frames without people.”
At the start of the process, rough steel plates are inspected by electronic sensors, automatically pushing aside any that deviate from tolerances. Conveyors take the plates through punching, pressing, assembling, and nailing machines, as well as a machine that can insert 60 rivets simultaneously in each frame. A set of finishing machines then rinse, dry, spray-paint, and cool the frames. Aside from a few men moving frames between conveyor belts, the floor routine of the plant requires almost no hand labor.
And today’s robotics and artificial-intelligence advances go far beyond automating routine manufacturing labor and take over the kind of cognitive functions once thought to be exclusive to human beings. Here, for example, is a new AI-based system that displaces much of the thought-work which has been required of the people operating railway switch and signal installations:
The NX control machine is in effect the “brain” of the system. It automatically selects the best optional route if the preferred route is occupied. It will allow no conflicting routes to be set up. It eliminates individual lever control of each switch and signal.
Pretty scary from the standpoint of maintaining anything like full employment, don’t you think?
Friday, November 11, 2016
DON BEAUDREAUX SUPPORTS GOVERNMENT BY EXPERTS
Saturday, November 05, 2016
SELL YOUR SOUL OR LOSE YOUR LIVELIHOOD
Sebastian Haffner, whose memoir I reviewed here, describes what happened to his father–a civil servant under both Weimar and the Kaiser–following the Nazi takeover. The elder Haffner, long-since retired, had considerable accomplishments to his credit: “There had been great pieces of legislation in his administrative area, on which he had worked closely. They were important, daring, thoughtful, intellectual achievements, the fruits of decades of experience and years of intense, meticulous analysis and dedicated refinement”–and it was extremely painful to him to see this work ruthlessly trashed by the new government. But worse was to come.
One day Mr Haffner received an official letter. It required him to list all of the political parties, organizations, and associations to which he had ever belonged in his life and to sign a declaration that he ‘stood behind the government of national uprising without reservations.’ Failure to sign would mean the loss of his pension, which he had earned through 45 years of devoted service.
After agonizing about it for several days, he finally filled out the form, signed the declaration, and took it to the mailbox before he could change his mind.
“He had hardly sat down at his desk again when he jumped up and began to vomit convulsively. For two or three days he was unable to eat or keep down any food. It was the beginning of a hunger strike by his body, which killed him cruelly and painfully two years later.”
Haffner Senior was retired; he would surely have no chance for other employment if he crossed the new regime. He could either violate his convictions and sign the document, or sentence his wife and himself to total impoverishment and possibly actual starvation.
As recently as 10 years ago, it would have seemed unlikely that any American would have to face Mr Haffner’s dilemma. But things have changed. If current trends continue, it is very likely that YOU will have to foreswear your beliefs or face career and financial devastation.
Plenty of markers along this dark path are already visible. Things are worst in academia, it seems. At Yale, lecturer Erika Christakis resigned after being vitriolically attacked for suggesting that people not get all stressed up about Halloween costumes. Her husband, Nicholas, has also resigned from Yale. Ms Christakis says that many of those were intellectually supportive of the couple were afraid to make their support public: “Numerous professors, including those at Yale’s top-rated law school, contacted us personally to say that it was too risky to speak their minds. Others who generously supported us publicly were admonished by colleagues for vouching for our characters.”
Just the other day, I ran across this article, which uncomfortably parallels the Haffner story.
(Iowa State University) students are told that they must abide by the school’s policy against “harassment” of anyone in the university community. Students must complete a “training program” consisting of 118 slides online, covering the university’s non-harassment policies and procedures, and then pledge never to violate them.
But what if a student thinks that the ISU policy goes way beyond preventing true harassment and amounts to an abridgement of his rights under the First Amendment?
In that case, ISU reserves the right to withhold the student’s degree. So either the student agrees to abide by the policy even though it may well keep him from speaking out as he’d like to, or have his academic work go for naught.
Iowa State is going beyond ‘only’ requiring you to shut up about your opinions and will also require you to positively affirm beliefs which you may not share.
The attack on individuals’ careers and finances due to their political/philosophical beliefs is by no means limited to academia. There is the case of Brendan Eich, who was pushed out as CEO of Mozilla because of his personal support (in 2008) of a law which banned same-sex marriage in California. There are multiple cases of small businesspeople subjected to large fines because of their refusal to violate their convictions by baking a cake or providing other services for a same-sex wedding.
And don’t think that just because you support gay marriage…even if you support what you think is 100% of the ‘progressive’ worldview–that you are safe. Deviationism can always be found, as the Old Bolsheviks discovered during the time of Stalin. Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis, herself a self-defined feminist, was investigated by the university after complaints were made about an essay she published under the title “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academia.” Kipnis writes:
A tenured professor on my campus wrote about lying awake at night worrying that some stray remark of hers might lead to student complaints, social-media campaigns, eventual job loss, and her being unable to support her child. I’d thought she was exaggerating, but that was before I learned about the Title IX complaints against me.