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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critical mass
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invisible adjunct
red bird rising
academic game
rachel lucas
betsy's page
one hand clapping
a schoolyard blog
joy of knitting
lead and gold
damian penny
annika's journal
little miss attila
no credentials
university diaries
trying to grok
a constrained vision
victory soap
business pundit
right reason
quid nomen illius?
sister toldjah
the anchoress
reflecting light
dr sanity
all things beautiful
dean esmay
brand mantra
economics unbound
dr melissa
dr helen
right on the left coast
digital Rules
college affordability
the energy blog
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kesher talk
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Saturday, September 29, 2007  

In September 1946, IBM introducted the IBM 603 Electronic Multiplier. It was not the first machine to calculate using electronic methods, but it was the first one to be made available commercially, as a standard production product, with a list price.

The 603 didn't do much. It took two numbers from a punched card, multiplied them together, and punched the result out on the same card...this was done at the rate of slightly under 2 cards per second. To get this functionality, you paid a rental of about $500/month, which probably represents a purcase-price equivalent of about $18000. Remember, those prices are in 1946 dollars, so in today's money, the 603 costs about $7500 per month or $270,000 as a purchase. The fact that companies and other organizations were willing to pay this much money for a machine with such limited functionality indicates what a bottleneck computation must have been in the pre-computer era. (Prior to the 603, IBM did offer a machine with the ability to multiply, but it was an electromechanical device which took several seconds for each operation.)

The 603 allowed IBM to introduce its customers and its field force to electronics with a device that was much less complex and threatening than the "giant electronic brains" of the era, and hence helped paved the way for the company's later success with general-purpose computers. This was a somewhat serendipitous result, since neither Watson Sr nor Watson Jr was yet convinced that the general-purpose computer would ever be more than a rare and expensive tool for scientists. They (especially Watson Jr) did believe, however, that electronics in some form would be important to IBM's future, and the 603 was the first incarnation of that belief.

Only about 100 of the 603s were made before IBM upgraded the product to the considerably more capable IBM 604...a device that could be programmed to a limited extent using a plugboard, but was still much simpler than the stored-program computers of the day. Thousands of 604s were sold, and were used for applications ranging from garden-variety accounting to aircraft and missile design to the design of the lenses for the Todd-AO widescreen projection system for movie theaters. I expect that there are airplanes flying today that were designed with the aid of 604s.

Often, a relatively simple product can play an important transitional role in the acceptance of a new technology.

7:26 AM

Thursday, September 27, 2007  

The U.S. trade deficit has been around for a long time...so long that it seems like a natural feature of the international economic order This interesting Financial Times article points out that the deficit is falling (as a percent of GDP) and suggests that it will be further reduced--maybe even two zero.

U.S. exports are growing rapidly, partly as a function of the weakness of the dollar. Export growth is running about 14.8 per cent year-over-year, while import growth is only 5.1 per cent. That's a ratio of about 3:1.

Also, if the problems in the U.S. housing market spread to the broader economy, then pressures on consumer spending will act against imports, further narrowing the export-import gap.

Definitely a thought-provoking article.

6:22 PM

Wednesday, September 26, 2007  

See my post at ChicagoBoyz.

6:24 PM

Thursday, September 20, 2007  

One might think that making bicycle parts (sold to bike manufacturers for assembly into finished products) would be a boring business, without much scope for innovative thinking. But then, one would be wrong.

BusinessWeek (9/17) has a story on Shimano, a leading OEM supplier to the bicycle industry. Shimano observed that--despite all the highly-visible biking enthusiasts with their expensive, high-technology bikes--ridership in the U.S. has actually gone down since 1996. Research done by the design consultancy IDEO suggested the reason why many people had stopped riding: they were intimidated by the perception that cycling had become highly technical, expensive, and really only for serious athletes in great shape and with lots of time to devote to the sport. The situation was not helped by certain bike-shop employees who took a dismissive attitude toward customers who just wanted a basic bike, preferring to spend their time with the congnoscenti. But there was hope: "Everyone we talked to, as soon as we talked about bikes, a smile came to their face," observed IDEO's David Webster.

Shimano set out to rebuild the casual-biking market...a real challenge, given their position in the supply chain. Remember, Shimano neither manufactures bikes nor sells them--it is only a component supplier.

What they did was to develop a design concept for a "fun" bike, which somewhat resembled a child's bike in that it is braked by pedaling backwards rather than by using a lever--also, there was no need to change gears. This was accomplished not by restricting the bike to a single gear ratio, but rather by an automatic transmission controlled by a microprocessor. The design also had comfort and convenience features, like a mini-trunk to store a cell phone.

Then, Shimano went out to convince bike manufacturers that they should build products based on this design concept. Most were initially dubious. "It was kind of like Audi meets Dr Seuss," said a product manager at Raleigh America. "Shimano thought this was the next big thing, and we were like, 'Is it?'" Finally, Raleigh and two other companies agreed to give the idea a try.

Shimano also undertook the improve the shopping experience with an empathy training program for bike industry execs who have direct contact with bike-shop staff. The (mostly male) execs were sent to buy cosmetics at Sephora, the idea being to give them an appreciation of the experience of shopping for something you know little or nothing about. The company also addressed the concerns of potential customers about riding safety, by lobbying for more bicycle paths and creating a website to help people find safe routes in the communities.

Results so far? The 30,000 bikes made since the spring are sold out. The marketing campaign is being expanded this fall.

I've said it before: there are no inherently boring industries, just boring people who create boring companies. Happily, it sounds like Shimano is run by the other kind of executive. Our fate, my dear Brutus, is not in our SIC codes, but in ourselves.

(SIC code = Standard Industrial Classification code)

8:00 PM

Wednesday, September 19, 2007  

Try this history and civics test. Hopefully, you will do better than the typical American college student. Based on tests administered to 14000 students, less than half of college seniors know that NATO was formed to resist Soviet expansion, or that Yorktown was the battle that ended the American Revolution. See a summary of the results here.

At most colleges, scores did not improve very much between the freshman year and the senior year. At Cornell, they actually went down.

Note the predictable excuse-making by spokesmen for the higher-education establishment

5:47 AM

Tuesday, September 18, 2007  

The President recently invited several milbloggers to come in for a round-table interview. There's a report at The Mudville Gazette; see also the Washington Post.

8:01 AM

Sunday, September 16, 2007  

Leaders don't create followers. They create more leaders.

--Tom Peters, quoted in IBD 6/23/04

Previous Worth Pondering

4:49 PM


As a counterpoint to the post immediately below this one, see my Chicago Boyz post about the way some municipal governments are treating manufacturers.

UPDATE: An interesting discussion on the place of manufacturing in the American psyche, at the above link.

6:28 AM

Friday, September 14, 2007  

In 1998, Drew Greenblatt bought a small company, Marlin Steel Wire Products, that made wire baskets and racks for retailers and the food service industry. Among other things, Marlin made the racks used by cafes to display bagels. At the time, bagel shops were opening all over the place, and Greenblatt felt that with a little modernization and cost reduction (he moved the company from Brooklyn to Baltimore) the business could do very well.

Then the Atkins diet came along, putting a damper on the bagel boom. At the same time, Chinese manufacturers began offering low-cost substitutes for Marlin's products. In an attempt to reduce his own costs, Greenblatt invested in fast and expensive production robots, but the business still lost money--$200K on total sales of about $1 million.

Read here about how Greenblatt saved his business and grew it to the $3 million level, while increasing the workforce from 16 to 22 and raising the average wage from $6/hr to more that $15/hr today. Another article here.

Via ShopFloor.org

Marlin's website is here.

7:16 AM

Tuesday, September 11, 2007  

(This is a rerun, with minor updates, of my post from this day in 2006.)

I am increasingly worried about our prospects for success in the battle against those who would destroy our civilization. America and the other democracies possess great military, economic, and intellectual strengths--but severe internal divisions threaten our ability to use these resources effectively.

Within days of the collapse of the Towers, it started. "Progressive" demonstrators brought out the stilt-walkers, the Uncle Sam constumes, and the giant puppets of George Bush. They carried signs accusing America of planning "genocide" against the people of Afghanistan.

Professors and journalists preached about the sins of Western civilization, asserting that we had brought it all on ourselves. A well-known writer wrote of her unease when her daughter chose to buy and display an American flag. Some universities banned the display of American flags in dormitories, claiming that such display was "provocative."

Opinions such as these have metastacized to the point at which they are no longer irrelevant to mainstream politics. Former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe, along with other leading Democrats, attended a special screening of Michael Moore's movie Farenheit 9/11. Moore is well-known for his outrageous statements about the country in which he lives--things he is credibly reported to have said include: "(Americans) are possibly the dumbest people on the planet . . . in thrall to conniving, thieving smug [pieces of the human anatomy]," (in an interview with the British newspaper The Mirror) and "That's why we're smiling all the time. You can see us coming down the street. You know, `Hey! Hi! How's it going?' We've got that big [expletive] grin on our face all the time because our brains aren't loaded down" (to a crowd in Munich) and "You're stuck with being connected to this country of mine, which is known for bringing sadness and misery to places around the globe." (to a crowd in Cambridge, England.) And about the terrorists who are killing Americans and Iraqis on a daily basis in Iraq, Moore had this to say: "The Iraqis who have risen up against the occupation are not `insurgents' or `terrorists' or `The Enemy.' They are the REVOLUTION, the Minutemen, and their numbers will grow — and they will win."

This is the individual who shared Jimmy Carter's box at the Democratic National Convention, and who continues to be very popular in "progressive" circles.

Imagine if a former President, in the midst of World War II, had embraced a man who spoke to foreign audiences about the stupidity of the American people and referred to our German and Japanese enemies as "heroes." Imagine also that such attitudes had been openly embraced by a large part of the Republican Party leadership and by many well-known writers and entertainers. Could Franklin Roosevelt have led the nation to victory under such circumstances?

And continuously, there has been the steady drip-drip-drip of moral equivalence. In September 2003, Howard Dean, now Democratic National Committee Chairman, stated that the US should not "take sides" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Actually, the refusal to draw a bright line against Palestinian terrorism is a major factor that enabled 9/11 and other terrorist atrocities.

Susan Turnbull, Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee, referred to the killing of terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as murder. Follow this link and you can hear it for yourself. Yes, she corrected herself and changed it to the "bombing" of Zarqawi. However: As far as I can tell, Turnbull is a native speaker of the English language. And I don't think any native English speaker would use the term "murdered" unless they disapproved of what had been done. Certainly, few Americans during WWII would have referred to the "murder" of Admiral Yamamoto (whose plane was shot down after his movement plans became known via communications intercepts) or the "murder" of German war criminals who were executed after the war.

Many individuals, particularly among religious leaders, show a stunning naivete. Annika quotes from a homily at a church in her neighborhood: "What if, instead of bombing Afghanistan, we had dropped food, medicine and education?"

How could anyone with an IQ above refrigerator temperature say such a thing? Even if education could somehow be "dropped," isn't this priest aware that the Taliban specifically denied education to women, and greatly limited the kinds of education that were available to men? Does he think the Taliban's executions at the soccer stadium, or its destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, were motivated by a desire for food and medicine?

People who say such things are so caught up in the catch-phrases they have been taught that they are completely unable to understand the real motivations of the enemy.

Bryan Preston: Rather than accept the reality of an enemy that cannot and therefore will not negotiate away what he believes to be the will of God, and rather than accept that this enemy will understand nothing outside total victory or total defeat, and rather than understand that this enemy’s goals include enslaving the entire world in a global caliphate, and rather than accept that this reality necessitates the use of all tools including military might to defend ourselves, millions have embraced an alternate reality. The reality of the enemy outside the West and its motivations being too terrifying and too far beyond their own control, millions now imagine that the enemy in this war is within. The enemy, to them, isn’t the turbaned man behind the plot to hijack multiple airplanes and crash them into multiple buildings in America. The real enemy, to these millions, is the man in the Oval Office, and the man or men behind him.


Five years on, the illness of replacing an implacable, indeed alien enemy with one from our own civilizational family has spread and metastasized through the majority of one of our two political parties, and may yet claim a majority of the country itself. History has a way of fading out as the day’s current noise rises in volume, and to them 9-11 is either history or a historic lie. The loudest voice, though not always or even often right, is often the one that gets the last word. And the 9-11 deniers and their allies across the left are nothing if not loud.

Five years on, it’s hard to take a positive look at the war because we are failing to comprehend it. The mass denial of reality is taking half our arsenal of unity and morale away from us. Those of us who see the threat for what it is still say that we will prevail because we are right and because we are America, but that’s just letting the others off the hook. If we’re going to prevail anyway, why should they snap out of their fog? And why should we demand that they do? The truth is, we need the denial to end and we need our countrymen to understand and help, but since we’re powerless to cure it with reason we shrug or laugh at it. But it’s eating away at our ability to defend ourselves.

It has to be said: The mass denial of reality is taking half our arsenal of unity and morale away from us. We are not dealing here merely with normal differences about policy that can be debated by rational individuals. We are have in our midst a significant number of individuals who are filled with rage toward their own country, who are highly susceptible to bizarre conspiracy theories, who lack any form of historical perspective, who are increasingly eager to engage in scapegoating.

Last year, I visited an old industrial facility that has been restored to operating condition. One of the machines there, dating from around 1900, was called an attrition mill. It contains two steel discs, which rotate at high speed in opposite directions, crushing the kernels of grain between them.

I fear that our civilization is caught in a gigantic attrition mill, with one disc being the terrorist enemy, and the other being the reality-deniers within our own societies.

Links worth following:


Fearless Dream

Roger L Simon

A post byJane Galt, written six months after 9/11, when she was volunteering at the World Trade Center site.

A worthwhile essay at The American Thinker: The Moral Emptiness of the Left. Also see Bret Stephens on some of the roots of the left's confused thinking on terrorism.

Finally, Reflecting Light has some eloquent words.

UPDATE: Lead and Gold has links, excerpts, and reflections, all of which are well worth reading.

Neptunus Lex was operations officer on an aircraft carrier when the news came in. Read the comments, too.

6:22 AM

Sunday, September 09, 2007  

Paul Graham, who is (among other things) an entrepreneur and a venture capitalist, observes that:

No one ever measures recruiters by the later performance of people they turn down.

...to which I would add: While recruiters are rarely measured by the later performance of those turned down, their companies are always measured in this way--in that the absence of good employees who could have been hired is certain to have an adverse impact on both the top and bottom lines. (Particularly, of course, if they go to work for competitors.)

Graham's seed-stage investment firm, Y Combinator, funds about 40 companies a year, out of about 900 applications representing a total of about 2000 people.

Between the volume of people we judge and the rapid, unequivocal test that's applied to our choices, Y Combinator has been an unprecedented opportunity for learning how to pick winners. One of the most surprising things we've learned is how little it matters where people went to college.I thought I'd already been cured of caring about that. There's nothing like going to grad school at Harvard to cure you of any illusions you might have about the average Harvard undergrad. And yet Y Combinator showed us we were still overestimating people who'd been to elite colleges. We'd interview people from MIT or Harvard or Stanford and sometimes find ourselves thinking: they must be smarter than they seem. It took us a few iterations to learn to trust our senses.

The whole thing is well worth reading.

Via the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog.

7:25 AM

Saturday, September 08, 2007  

An interesting interview with Alieu Conteh, who started the first major cell phone service in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The country has less than 2000 miles of paved roads, and in 1999, when Conteh launched his business, there were fewer than 15000 houses with wireline telephones and no more than 10000 mobile phones--out of an estimated population of 65 million. Conteh's company now has two million subscribers.

Previous Cool Startup Stories.

6:23 AM

Friday, September 07, 2007  

...because it increasingly seems that the first 3 digits must be one, nine, and three.

Hatred of Jews has reached new heights in Europe and many points south and east of the old continent. Last year I chaired a blue-ribbon committee of British parliamentarians, including former ministers and a party leader, that examined the problem of anti-Semitism in Britain…Our report showed a pattern of fear among a small number of British citizens — there are around 300,000 Jews in Britain, of whom about a third are observant — that is not acceptable in a modern democracy. Synagogues attacked. Jewish schoolboys jostled on public transportation. Rabbis punched and knifed. British Jews feeling compelled to raise millions to provide private security for their weddings and community events. On campuses, militant anti-Jewish students fueled by Islamist or far-left hate seeking to prevent Jewish students from expressing their opinions.

This above is from Denis MacShane, a British member of Parliament. See my post at Chicago Boyz.

5:54 AM

Wednesday, September 05, 2007  

...and Palestinian terrorists celebrated by firing rockets at a day-care center in Israel. "Islamic Jihad" claimed responsibility, saying that the attack was a "present for the new school year."

See also Shabbat in Sderot, which comes via Seraphic Secret.

Most old-media coverage of the attack refers to the rockets as "home made" and "inaccurate," in an attempt to make it seem as if these atrocities are really no big deal. I deconstruct this meme at Defining Weaponry Down.

6:02 AM

Monday, September 03, 2007  

On September 1, 1939, Germany launched a massive assault on Poland, thereby igniting the Second World War. See my post at Chicago Boyz, which is based on an earlier Photon Courier post.

7:49 AM

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