Politics, culture, business, and technology

I also blog at ChicagoBoyz.


Selected Posts:
Sleeping with the Enemy
Dancing for the Boa Constrictor
Koestler on Nuance
A Look into the Abyss
Hospital Automation
Made in America
Politicians Behaving Badly
Critics and Doers
Foundations of Bigotry?
Bonhoeffer and Iraq
Misvaluing Manufacturing
Journalism's Nuremberg?
No Steak for You!
An Academic Bubble?
Repent Now
Enemies of Civilization
Molly & the Media
Misquantifying Terrorism
Education or Indoctrination?
Dark Satanic Mills
Political Violence Superheated 'steem
PC and Pearl Harbor
Veterans' Day Musings
Arming Airline Pilots
Pups for Peace
Baghdad on the Rhine

Book Reviews:
Forging a Rebel
The Logic of Failure
The Innovator's Solution
They Made America
On the Rails: A Woman's Journey

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betsy's page
one hand clapping
a schoolyard blog
joy of knitting
lead and gold
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no credentials
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a constrained vision
victory soap
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right reason
quid nomen illius?
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dean esmay
brand mantra
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right on the left coast
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Thursday, November 30, 2006  

The Antikythera Mechanism is a 2000-year-old device, somewhat resembling a clock, found in 1902 by sponge divers in the waters off a Greek island. It has long been believed that it was a form of analog computer, used for astronomical calculations, but its precise operating mechanism was not well-understood. I remember seeing this device quite a few years ago in the National Archaelogical Museum of Athens.

Recent research has used 3-D x-ray imaging to reconstruct the workings of the device's mechanism, and surface imaging to recover the inscriptions on the dials. The inscriptions also indicate that the device was built sometime between 150 BC and 100 BC. It can calculate the positions of the sun, Moon, Mercury and Venus for any chosen date, and can apparently also do the same for Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

The device in its original form contained 37 gears, all made of bronze and cut by hand. Differential gears were used: although these are best known for their application in driving the rear wheels of cars, they can also add and subtract shaft angles, and this is apparently how they were used in the Antikythera Mechanism.

The research team hopes to eventually create a working replica of the device.

Wikipedia article here.

(via Right on the Left Coast)

4:16 PM

Tuesday, November 28, 2006  

Lieutenant Daniel Lenherr, a British Army officer, had just taken part in a parade marking Remembrance Day. After the parade, Lt Lenherr and his wife decided to visit London's Harrods, a well-known London department store. They were not allowed to enter: a security guard told Lenherr that other customers might be intimidated by his uniform.

5:02 PM

Monday, November 27, 2006  

Right Thinking Girl has great pictures.

6:04 PM


Carnival of the Capitalists is up.

Here is Carnival of the Insanities.

Dr Sanity, the collector and diagnostician of the insanities, also offers touch and go landings around the psychosphere.

5:53 PM


Jonathan and Ginny expand on my post Thanksgiving and Temporal Bigotry.

8:07 AM

Sunday, November 26, 2006  

The New York Times has a piece about the success of a NYC-area online grocer, FreshDirect, which contrasts with the failure of a well-publicized and well-funded venture in the same field: Webvan, founded in the late 1990s, managed to destroy about $1.2 billion in investor wealth before disappearing. Also, here is a Forbes article about FreshDirect. (Even for FreshDirect, the term "success" must be qualified--the company has grown to revenues of $20MM/yr, but is not yet turning a profit. Based on these two articles, though, the outlook appears positive.)

The people running Webvan bought into the "get big fast" mantra which was popular at the time, and put a lot of money into huge distribution facilties, equipped with automated materials-handling equipment and located in multiple cities. FreshDirect, in contrast, focused initially on a single geographical market. They focused less on providing their distribution center with lavish equipment and more understanding and optimizing the details of the logistics process.

The Webvan/FreshDirect comparison provides additional evidence for some of the points made by Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor in their book, The Innovator's Solution. From my review of this book:

In a venture dedicated to the introduction of a disruptive technology--whether a start-up business or a division of a larger company--early profitability is more important than early rapid growth. This goes directly against the popular "get-big fast-you-can-worry-about-profitability-later" mantra, but Christenson and Raynor make good arguments for their position. "Competing against nonconsumption and moving disruptively up-market are critical elements of a successful new-growth strategy--and yet by definition, these disruptive markets are going to be small for a time." Venture managements which are on the hook for unreasonable early growth targets are likely to launch doomed frontal attacks on entrenched competitors in existing, large markets, rather than patiently growing new markets in which they have the edge.

(Although FreshDirect is not yet making a profit, it appears to be a lot closer to the break-even point than Webvan ever came.)

A couple of other things I thought were interesting in the FreshDirect stories:

(1)From the NYT article: (FreshDirect) has already become something of a cult in New York, thanks to produce, fish and meats that put most supermarkets to shame, usually at lower prices. A handful of new apartment buildings have installed refrigerators in their lobbies, built to FreshDirect specifications, to lure residents who want their groceries delivered during the day. Real estate agents selling home buyers on up-and-coming neighborhoods like Inwood have taken to emphasizing that FreshDirect delivers there. When a friend of mine saw a delivery man walking on her Brooklyn street, she chased him down to confirm that, indeed, the company had begun delivering to her part of Park Slope.

This points out the extreme importance of geography in businesses like on-line groceries. Areas with a high concentration of apartment buildings may well be more attractive, due to the refrigerator-in-the-lobby option as well as the higher population density.

(2)Also from the NYT article: FreshDirect’s executives will try hard to convince you that their business isn’t really about convenience. Besides selling good food, the business is about helping people shop in ways they never could in an actual store. It’s about the Web as an information sorter.

When you’re looking at, say, crackers, you can sort them by price, by the amount of saturated fat per serving or by any number of other things. In recent months, the company has also loaded hundreds of recipes from some wonderful cookbooks onto its site. You can now click on one of the recipes and quickly order all the ingredients.

It strikes me that as consumer packaged goods companies continue to obsessively break their product lines down into smaller and smaller segments--33 different variants of just about anything you can name--the value of "the Web as an information sorter" will increase. Certainly, the aisle of a supermarket is not an ideal place to figure out what the differences among those 33 variants really are and which one you want.

It will be interesting to see how the FreshDirect story unfolds, particularly when they venture beyond the NY area into new territories.

8:09 AM

Saturday, November 25, 2006  

Here are some deserving blogs that you might want to check out:

Dr Melissa
Dr Helen
Right on the Left Coast
Digital Rules
College Affordability & Productivity
The Energy Blog.

7:29 AM

Friday, November 24, 2006  

...as a motor fuel. Financial Times (11/24) reports that the Chinese government has established a national standard for methanol fuel, and that local companies are building plants for production of this fuel from coal. Plants now in the pipeline are said to have a capacity equivalent to about 20% of China's present oil consumption, which means that these plants will be able to produce around 10% of the oil used by the time the plants come on-line in 2011-2013. (Chinese oil demand is expected to double over this timeframe.) Shaanxi province, which is a major producer of coal, is making a particular effort to promote methanol as a fuel: if your car runs on pure methanol, then a sticker gets you free passage on the province's toll roads.

China is also producting large amounts of ethanol, but many people there are concerned that production of ethanol from corn will reduce China's ability to achieve "food security."

More about methanol here. Ethanol, methanol, and butanol are all forms of alcohol: see my post The Butanol Alternative for discussion of the latter.

11:03 AM

Thursday, November 23, 2006  
(rerun--originally posted 11/27/03)

Stuart Buck encountered a teacher who said "Kids learn so much these days. Did you know that today a schoolchild learns more between the freshman and senior years of high school than our grandparents learned in their entire lives?" ("She said this as if she had read it in some authoritative source", Stuart comments.)

She probably had read it in some supposedly-authoritative source, but it's an idiotic statement nevertheless. What, precisely, is this wonderful knowledge that high-school seniors have today and which the 40-year-olds of 1840 or 1900 were lacking?

The example of knowledge that people usually throw out is "computers." But the truth is, to be a casual user of computers (I'm not talking about programming and systems design), you don't need much knowledge. You need "keyboarding skills"--once called "typing." And you need to know some simple conventions as to how the operating system expects you to interact with it. That's about it. Not much informational or conceptual depth there.

Consider the knowledge possessed by by the Captain of a sailing merchant ship, circa 1840. He had to understand celestial navigation: this meant he had to understand trigonometry and logarithms. He had to possess the knowledge--mostly "tacit knowledge," rather than book-learning--of how to handle his ship in various winds and weathers. He might well be responsible for making deals concerning cargo in various ports, and hence had to have a reasonable understanding of business and of trade conditions. He had to have some knowledge of maritime law.

Outside of the strictly professional sphere, his knowedge probably depended on his family background. If he came from a family that was reasonably well-off, he probably knew several of Shakespeare's plays. He probably had a smattering of Latin and even Greek. Of how many high-school (or college) seniors can these statements be made today?

(In his post, Stuart compares knowledge levels using his grandfather--a farmer--as an example.)

Today's "progressives," particularly those in the educational field, seem to have a deep desire to put down previous generations, and to assume we have nothing to learn from them. It's a form of temporal bigotry, and is the direct opposite of the spirit of appreciation upon which we should be focusing particularly at Thanksgiving.

As C S Lewis said: If you want to destroy an infantry unit, you cut it off from its neighboring units. If you want to destroy a generation, you cut it off from previous generations. (Approximate quote.)

How better to conduct such destruction than to tell people that previous generations were ignorant and that we have nothing to learn from them?

10:04 AM


The History Channel is running Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower tonight at 8PM/7c. I saw it when they ran it a couple of days ago, and it's pretty well done.

8:19 AM

Monday, November 20, 2006  

See my post at ChicagoBoyz.

2:14 PM

Sunday, November 19, 2006  

Despite all the concern about the balance of trade and the increased dependence on imports, US exports are up 15.8% from a year ago. Real exports of goods grew 1.3% from August to September, and 15.7% from a year ago--the fastest annual growth rate in nine years. This from BusinessWeek. (11/27)

How is it possible for exports to be growing this fast and the trade deficit to simultaneously be worsening? Clearly, imports are growing even faster. A higher proportion of U.S. production is being exported instead of being consumed domestically--18% today as compared with 12% in 1990. The U.S. economy is becoming even less of an autarky than it has traditionally been--and this means not just more imports, but more exports as well. So, when you buy a consumer product that is labelled "Made in China," bear in mind that the airplane on which the product was shipped to the U.S. was likely "Made in the USA"--and the same is likely true of much of the production equipment with which the product was built.

What industries and products are driving the growth in exports? I took a look at this data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and pulled out a few highlights. Year-to-date export growth (versus 2005 year-to-date) by major category is:

Foods, Feeds, and Beverages $5.4B
Industrial Supplies and Materials $30.1B
Capital Goods, except Automotive $40.1B
Automotive Vehicles, Parts, and Engines $8.0B
Consumer Goods $9.9B

Some subcategories that stand out within the "Capital Goods" category are:

Civilian Aircraft $8.2B
...parts & engines are another 2.1B, for a total of $10.3B

Industrial Machinery, other $3.8B
...metalworking machine tools are another $1.4B, for a total of $5.2B

Electric Apparatus $3.4B

Semiconductors $5.2B

Within the other categories, some interesting items are:

Corn $1.6B

Plastics $1.9B
...the related category of Chemicals--organic is $2.2B, for a total of $4.1B

Pharmaceutical preparations $2.1B

Again, these amounts are year-to-year changes, not absolute values of exports. (The 2006 Jan-Sep absolute value for "electric apparatus," for example, is $22.2B.)

Who is buying these exports? The BusinessWeek article gives growth rates broken down geographically, as follows:

Canada 9.4%
Mexico 9.9%
Europe 20.7%
Pacific Rim 15.2%
Latin America 25.7%

James C Cooper, author of the BW article, thinks that the strength in exports may help to offset the housing recession.

9:53 AM


Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems to be trying to present an angelic image; however, this picture will make Americans think of beings of a more earthly sort.

8:03 AM

Saturday, November 18, 2006  

On July 15--the same day that Palestinian rockets fired from Northern Gaza killed one Israeli civilian and seriously injured two others--the UN Human Rights Council met in special session today to condemn Israel—the only country the body has censured during its five-month existence. The pretext for slamming Israel this time was the tragic deaths of 19 in the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, which resulted from errant Israeli artillery fire as the Jewish state sought to defend itself against the Kassam rocket attacks. Bangladesh said Israel was guilty of "crimes against humanity." Cuba, which currently chairs the Non-Aligned Movement, said that Israel is perpetrating a "true genocide" against the Palestinian people. Sudan accused Israel of "monstrous" actions.

Following the condemnation, US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton gave his reactions to a reporter:

Well, you have to ask yourself, looking at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, for example, which meets for the third time today to pass a resolution on Israel, having found itself unable to -- in its busy schedule to deal with Burma or North Korea or the Sudan, how much legitimacy the council or these resolutions have to begin with.

So there's a real problem with the UN human rights machinery. We said there was a problem. It's the reason we opposed the establishment of this Human Rights Council. And nothing has happened since the creation of the council to change our view on it.

Bolton also pointed out that countries that are themselves "gross abusers of human rights" have been allowed to participate as voting members in the Human Rights Council, despite US opposition.

And on September 18, the full General Assembly passed a resolution which was clearly directed against Israel. Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman stormed out of the session after telling members, "I caution everyone who will support this resolution. By doing so, you will be an accomplice to terror. The blood of more innocents will be on your hands." Once again, John Bolton said what needed to be said:

Many of the sponsors of that resolution are notorious abusers of human rights themselves, and were seeking to deflect criticism of their own policies...This type of resolution serves only to exacerbate tensions by serving the interests of elements hostile to Israel's inalienable and recognized right to exist...In a larger sense, the United Nations must confront a more significant question, that of its relevance and utility in confronting the challenges of the 21st century. We believe that the United Nations is ill served when its members seek to transform the organization into a forum that is a little more than a self-serving and a polemical attack against Israel or the United States.

The newly-empowered Democrats, of course, want to take John Bolton out of his job. Democrat Joe Biden, the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, went so far as to say he saw "no point in considering Mr. Bolton's nomination again."

Read here about the guy that many Democrats--and some Republicans--would like to see as Bolton's replacement.

Taking Bolton out of his job at this time would send a terrible message. It would signal lack of resolution in the face of terror and an unwillingness to stand up to the posturing of hypocritical dictatorships. Weakness of this type would certainly result in increased bloodshed throughout the world.

Check out Blogging for Bolton. Call your Senators--phone numbers are at the link--and let them know you support John Bolton's continuation in office. Many lives may depend on it.

UPDATE: Michelle Malkin videoblogs for Bolton.

7:50 PM

Friday, November 17, 2006  

An Israeli company has developed a process which they claim can produce oil from shale at $17/barrel. I wouldn't place too much confidence in the precision of production-cost numbers at this early stage in the game; still, even if they're off by 2:1 this would be very significant.

More at BusinessWeek.

Meanwhile, in the US, three companies have been given the go-ahead for experimental shale projects in western Colorado. I don't know whether any of them have yet had discussions with the Israeli company about its new conversion process.

8:50 AM

Wednesday, November 15, 2006  

The nursery rhyme police are coming to Britain.

Americans should bear in mind that ideas like this rarely stay limited to one side of the Atlantic.

6:24 PM


On CNN Headline News tonight, Glenn Beck has a program called Exposed: The Extremist Agenda. It's particularly focused on the Iranian regime and the vast differences between the way it portrays itself to the outside world--and the messages that it sends to its own people. The 7PM (ET) show is on now; it will rerun at 9PM ET and at midnight.

5:03 PM

Sunday, November 12, 2006  

There's been tremendous discussion (and hype) regarding ethanol as a motor fuel. Significant amounts of this fuel are being produced, and significant government subsidies are in place to encourage such production.

Some experts have argued that butanol, another form of alcohol, would be a better biofuel. DuPont and BP evidently think this argument has merit: they have in place a joint venture for biofuels, and have announced that it will begin butanol production, on a limited scale, in 2007. Advantages of butanol over ethanol include:

(1) Higher energy density, so that a vehicle can go more miles on a single tank of fuel
(2) Unlike ethanol, butanol can be transported by pipeline. (Because of its affinity for water, of which small amounts can get into pipelines, ethanol needs to go by barge, rail, or truck.)
3) Butanol improves blend flexibility--it can be mixed with gasoline in higher proportions without requiring major engine modifications

DuPont and BP aren't the only butanol players; here's a another company which is focused on butanol fuels and has a patented production process.

It's not totally clear how the energy balance of butanol compares with that of ethanol--here's an Iowa State professor who thinks it will be even worse than ethanol. On this other hand, this guy has spent 6 years working on butanol production processes, and he thinks the butanol production should require significantly less energy than does ethanol. I'm thinking that DuPont/BP would be unlikely to be pursuing this particular fuel unless that they were convinced that the energy balance could be made at least as favorable as ethanol.

One negative of butanol is that its octane number is lower than that of ethanol.

More information:

The Energy Blog

Green Car Congress

DuPont/BP biobutanol site

Disclosure: I'm a DuPont shareholder.

6:37 AM

Saturday, November 11, 2006  

If you haven't already contributed to Project Valour-IT, this would be a good time to consider doing so. It's a project to provide voice-activated laptops for soldiers who, due to hand injuries or other reasons, are unable to use standard keyboards. Information at the above link; you can contribute here.

7:35 AM


If you haven't already contributed to Project Valour-IT, this would be a good time to consider doing so. It's a project to provide voice-activated laptops for soldiers who, due to hand injuries or other reasons, are unable to use standard keyboards. Information at the above link; you can contribute here.

7:35 AM

Thursday, November 09, 2006  

It will probably be a few days before I get my thoughts together for a substantial post. But for now: what scares me most about the Democratic victory is that the leadership of this party does not seem to understand that the threats we face are existential in nature--that devastating harm to this country, and to civilization itself, are well within the realm of possibility--and still less does the Democratic leadership understand the nature of those who oppose us.

Ralph Peters: One of the most consistently disheartening experiences an adult can have today is to listen to the endless attempts by our intellectuals and intelligence professionals to explain religious terrorism in clinical terms, assigning rational motives to men who have moved irrevocably beyond reason. We suffer under layers of intellectual asymmetries that hinder us from an intuititive recognition of our enemies.

I doubt if anyone has ever called Nancy Pelosi an intellectual, but there is no doubt that she and other Democratic leaders are strongly influenced by the attitudes that Peters describes.

There are, of course, many precedents for failure to comprehend the nature of the enemy. Here's one that I think is relevant:

Paul Reynaud--who became Prime Minister of France just two months before the German invasion of 1940--incisively explained what was at stake at that point in time, and why it was so much greater than what had been at stake in 1914:

People think Hitler is like Kaiser Wilhelm. The old gentleman only wanted to take Alsace-Lorraine from us. But Hitler is Genghis Khan. (approximate quote)

If more Frenchmen (and other Europeans, and Americans) had seen what Reynaud saw--and seen it early enough--the odds of avoiding the full horrors of WWII and of the Holocaust would have been greatly improved. Too many people preferred to believe that the man couldn't be as crazy and evil as he sounded.

The enemies we face are Genghis Khan. Believe it.

Extended excerpt from the Ralph Peters article here.
See also my post When National Leaders Are Madmen.

9:03 PM

Tuesday, November 07, 2006  

See my post at ChicagoBoyz.

9:40 AM

Monday, November 06, 2006  

...then bear this in mind: Even if your local candidate is a moderate and a good guy, a vote for a Democrat still means putting people like Pelosi, Hastings, and Kucinich in positions of power.

Nancy Pelosi: Could become Speaker of the House. Pelosi has opposed ballistic missile defense, a position that isn't very intelligent in the light of the happenings in Iran and North Korea. And she has indicated that she will not name Jane Harmon, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, as its Chairman...which means the position would likely go to the next Democrat in line...

Alcee Hastins: In 1989, after being acquitted in a criminal trial, Hastings was stripped of his position as a federal judge -- impeached by the House in which he now serves, and convicted by the Senate -- for conspiring to extort a $150,000 bribe in a case before him, repeatedly lying about it under oath and manufacturing evidence at his trial. Is it even sane to contemplate someone like this chairing an intelligence committee during time of danger?

Demmis Kucinich: Potentially Chairman of the Subcommittee on national security. Kucinich refused to condemn Hezbollah terrorists, calling instead for us to have a "recognition that connects us to a common humanity and from that draw a flicker of hope to enkindle the warm glow of peace." Right.

There are also plenty of Democrats with dangerous views who, although not slated for Congressional office, would undoubtedly gain in influence given a Democrat-controlled Congress. Formed Democratic Presidential candidate Wesley Clark, for example, called U.S. support for Israel in the recent air campaign against Hezbollah a serious mistake. And Jimmy Carter is coming out with a new book, titled Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, which accuses Israel of conducting an apartheid policy and moreover says that "Because of powerful political, economic, and religious forces in the United States, Israeli government decisions are rarely questioned or condemned."

Dangerous times call for adult leadership. Pelosi, Hastings, Kucinich, Clark, and Carter aren't it. Whatever you may like about your local Democratic candidate, ask yourself if his good points are really worth the risk to our civilization that would flow from giving vastly increased power to such people.

11:33 AM

Sunday, November 05, 2006  

Orson Scott Card, a Democrat, is going to be voting for Republican candidates on Tuesday.

To all intents and purposes, when the Democratic Party jettisoned Joseph Lieberman over the issue of his support of this war, they kicked me out as well.

A thoughtful and fairly long piece, which definitely deserves to be read.

8:39 AM

Saturday, November 04, 2006  

About 6 months ago, I wrote about the situation at Gallaudet University,
nation's preeminent college for deaf and hearing-disabled students--many students and faculty members were opposing the selection of Jane Fernandes as President, one of the main reasons being the allegation that she was "not deaf enough." (Although she was born severely hearing-impaired, she is able to speak and didn't learn American Sign Language until she was 23. She also has a husband and children who have no hearing problems.) Things got nasty enough for the chairwoman of the board of trustees to resign, citing "aggressive threats" against her.

The governing board has now removed Fernandes from her job.

Dr Martin Luther King wanted people to be judged by "the content of their characters." It sounds to me like the dominant forces at Gallaudet were less interested in the content of of Fernandes's character than in the mechanics of her auditory facilities.

For decades now, "progressives" have focused on defining people primarily as members of groups, rather than as individuals, and on creating and deepening fault lines across groups. In the way Dr Fernandes was treated, we see the end result of this process.

If you like this kind of thing, be sure and vote for Democratic candidates--that will help ensure lots more of the same.

7:25 PM

Wednesday, November 01, 2006  

...that the U.S. should adapt a more "internationalist" foreign policy. (link)

I guess she wants us to pay more attention to the opinions of people like Javier Solana.

6:01 PM

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