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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Tuesday, April 29, 2014  

Christopher Hayes, who writes at The Nation, sees a connection between human slavery–in particular, human slavery as practiced in the US prior to 1865–and the use of fossil fuels. Specifically, he argues that the reluctance of energy companies and their investors to lose the financial value of their fossil-fuel assets is directly analogous to the reluctance of pre-Civil-War southern slaveholders to lose the financial value of their human “property”…and he goes on the assert that environmentalists attacking the use of fossil fuels are in a moral and tactical position similar to that of the pre-war Abolitionists.
His article reminded me of a few things.
1) Sometime around 1900, a young  PR man who had recently been hired by GE in Schenectady realized that he had a problem. He had gotten his job through glowing promises about all the great press coverage he would get for the company.  But his boss had called him in and announced that he had “a terrific front-page story” about a 60,000 kilowatt turbine generator that the company had just sold to Commonwealth Edison…and the PR man accurately realized that this story would get maybe a paragraph on the financial pages.  Looking for ideas, he went to see GE’s legendary research genius, Charles Steinmetz, explaining that headlines need drama, and “there’s nothing dramatic about a generator.”
Steinmetz picked up a pencil and did a little calculating…and quickly determined that this one rotating machine could do as much physical work as 5.4 million men. The slave population in the US on the eve of the Civil War had been 4.7 million.  To the young PR man, Steinmetz said: ”I suggest you send out a story that says we are building a single machine that, through the miracle of electricity, will each day do more work than the combined slave population of the nation at the time of the Civil War.”
2) Frederick Douglass, himself a former slave, visited a shipyard in New Bedford shortly after obtaining his freedom.  Here are his comments on observing a cargo being unloaded:
In a southern port, twenty or thirty hands would have been employed to do what five or six did here, with the aid of a single ox attached to the end of a fall. Main strength, unassisted by skill, is slavery’s method of labor. An old ox, worth eighty dollars, was doing, in New Bedford, what would have required fifteen thousand dollars worth of human bones and muscles to have performed in a southern port.
3)  Speaking of GE…Owen Young was a farm boy who grew up to become Chairman of that company.  To his biographer (Ida Tarbell), he provided a vivid word-picture of what life had been like for a farm wife back in the slightly earlier times. Here, he remembers Monday–wash day:
He drew from his memory a vivid picture of its miseries: the milk coming into the house from the barn; the skimming to be done; the pans and buckets to be washed; the churn waiting attention; the wash boiler on the stove while the wash tub and its back-breaking device, the washboard, stood by; the kitchen full of steam; hungry men at the door anxious to get at the day’s work and one pale, tired, and discouraged woman in the midst of this confusion.
continued at Chicago Boyz

9:38 AM

Saturday, April 26, 2014  

There is an airline grade simulator for the Concorde supersonic transport, located in the UK and available to the public, with instruction by former Concorde flight crew members.
The simulator was originally built in 1975 as a full-motion simulator, with the “motion” part provided by six hydraulic rams. The view out the cockpit windows was created by moving a television camera over a large model landscape in an adjacent room. I’m not sure whether the flight dynamics calculations were done by analog, digital, or a combination of both methods. In 1987, the simulator was upgraded to replace the TV camera and the physical map with computer-generated imagery. Original cost of the simulator was £3 million, and the 1987 upgrade cost an additional £3 million.
When Concord operations ceased in 2003, the simulator was decommissioned and re-installed at the Brooklands Museum, minus the hydraulic actuators for the motion feature. (“enabling access to a Concorde cockpit for less able visitors to the museum” is the reason stated for this decision, but I would imagine it also had something to do with the maintenance costs for the hydraulics.)  The restoration of the simulator involved the replacement of whatever electronic systems were doing the computations with modern flight simulator software, and a more modern projection system for the visuals. The flight controls and the majority of the flight instruments are connected to the simulation engine, along with some sections of the Flight Engineer’s panel.
Simulator time is available for 165 pounds for about an hour, with 15 minutes actually at the controls, or the “Gold” package at 425 for a two-hour “flight” with 30 minutes at the controls, plus lunch and champagne.
cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open

9:37 AM

Tuesday, April 22, 2014  

Saw a bumper sticker today that said, “I’m a member of the 99%, and I vote.”
…intended to imply, surely, that members of the 99% (based on income) have common economic interests on which they should be voting together.
But a professor of environmental studies, on the one hand, and a welder working in the oil/gas industry, on the other, do not have common economic interests, even if their incomes are exactly the same. Quite the opposite..the professor is likely to profit from a more restrictive approach to energy infrastructure, whereas the welder is likely to suffer economically from those same policies.
An inner-city couple concerned with getting their kids a good education does not have common interests with the local head of a teachers’ union striving to maintain antediluvian policies and consequent low standards, even if they are in the same income bracket.
The game the Democrats and their media sycophants are playing is this: to try to focus public attention on generalized income-based class conflict in order to divert attention from the preferential treatment given by government to certain groups at the expense of others.  The hope is that if sufficient anger can be generated and directed at “the rich,” people will be less likely to reject those politicians who want to cripple America’s energy infrastructure, leave the public schools to continue their multigenerational wrecking program, etc etc.

cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open

1:07 PM


Modern Mechanix has the full text of Time Magazine’s 1955 article on the emerging computer industry, centered around an adulatory interview with Tom Watson Jr of IBM.
I mentioned the interesting backstory on this article in comments at my review of Watson Jr’s excellent autobiography. The magazine had assigned a reporter named Virginia Bennett to find out about “automation in America.” She went to see Remington Rand, whose UNIVAC product was then the epitome of computing coolness…but, “fortunately for us, they weren’t very forthcoming that day.”  Walking back to her office, she passed the IBM building, saw the “Defense Calculator”  (IBM 701) in the window, and decided to see if IBM would be interested in doing the interview. When she asked the receptionist who she could speak with, the receptionist was smart enough to say, “Well, the head of this company is Mr Watson. He isn’t in the building today, but his son Tom is the president and you can certainly see him.”
The resulting article was very powerful publicity for IBM, and surely no help at all for Remington Rand’s relative industry standing.  If the receptionist had greeted the reporter with the all-too-typical bureaucratic approach (“The Watsons are very busy men, you’ll have to call Public Relations and make an appointment.”) the outcome would likely have been quite different.  Tom Jr notes that his father considered the receptionist position very important, and always chose those women himself.
In comments to my review of Tom Jr’s autobiography (see link above), I quoted an Israel general who asserted that “there is no substitute for the alert and intelligent infantryman” and noted that this is also true of the alert and intelligent front-line employee.

cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open

12:40 PM

Friday, April 18, 2014  

When airplanes first started to be used for serious transportation purposes, sometime after World War I, the problems involved with flight at night and in periods of low visibility became critical. Transcontinental airmail, for example, lost much of its theoretical speed advantage if the plane carrying the mail had to stop for the night. Gyroscopic flight instruments addressed the problem of controlling the airplane without outside visual references, but there remained the problem of navigation.
An experiment in 1921 demonstrated that airmail could be successfully flown coast-to-coast, including the overnight interval, with the aid of bonfires located along the route.  The bonfires were soon displaced by a more permanent installation based on rotating beacons. The first lighted airway extended from Chicago to Cheyenne…the idea was that pilots of coast-to-coast flights could depart from either coast in early morning and reach the lighted segment before dusk.  The airway system rapidly expanded to cover much of the country–by 1933, the Federal Airway System extended to 18,000 miles of lighted airways, encompassing 1,550 rotating beacons. The million-candlepower beacons were positioned every ten miles along the airway, and in clear weather were visible for 40 miles. Red or green course lights at each beacon flashed a Morse identifier so that the pilot could definitely identify his linear position on the airway.
Lighted airways solved the navigation problem very well on a clear night, but were of limited value in overcast weather or heavy participation. You might be able to see the beacons through thin cloud or light rain, but a thicker cloud layer, or heavy rain/snow, might leave you without navigational guidance.
The answer was found in radio technology. The four-course radio range transmitted signals at low frequency (below the AM broadcast band) in four quadrants. In two of the quadrants, the Morse letter N (dash dot) was transmitted continuously; in the other two quadrants, there was continuous transmission of  the Morse A (dot dash.) The line where two quadrants met formed a course that a pilot could follow by listening to the signal in his headphones: if he was exactly “on the beam,” the A and the N would interlock to form a continuous tone; if he was to one side or the other, he would begin to hear the A or N code emerging.
The radio range stations were located every 200 miles, and were overlaid on the lighted airways, the visual beacons of which continued to be maintained. The eventual extent of the radio-range airway system is shown in this map. All that was required in the airplane was a simple AM radio with the proper frequency coverage.
The system made reliable scheduled flying a reality, but it did have some limitations. Old-time pilot Ernest Gann described one flight:
Beyond the cockpit windows, a few inches beyond your own nose and that of your DC-2′s, lies the night. Range signals are crisp, the air smooth enough to drink the stewardess’s lukewarm coffee without fear of spilling it…Matters are so nicely in hand you might even flip through a magazine while the copilot improves his instrument proficiency…
Suddenly you are aware the copilot is shifting unhappily in his seat. “I’ve lost the range. Nothing.”
You deposit the Saturday Evening Post in the aluminum bin which already holds the metal logbook and skid your headphones back in place…There are no signals of any kind or the rap of distance voices from anywhere in the night below. There is only a gentle hissing in your headphones as if some wag were playing a recording of ocean waves singing on a beach.
You reach for a switch above your head and flip on the landing lights. Suspicion confirmed. Out of the night trillions of white lines are landing toward your eyes. Snow. Apparently the finer the flakes the more effective. It has isolated you and all aboard from the nether world. The total effect suggests you might have become a passenger in Captain Nemo’s fancy submarine.
continued at Chicago Boyz

8:02 AM

Tuesday, April 15, 2014  

…that would be today’s Democratic Party.
Do not fail to read this important and on-target post by Daniel Greenfield, aka Sultan Knish.
cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open

6:04 AM

Friday, April 11, 2014  

(Originally posted in January 2010–now an April perennial)
Chevy Chase, MD, is an affluent suburb of Washington DC. Median household income is over $200K, and a significant percentage of households have incomes that are much, much higher. Stores located in Chevy Chase include Tiffany & Co, Ralph Lauren, Christian Dior, Versace, Jimmy Choo, Nieman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Saks-Jandel.
PowerLine observed that during the 2008 election season, yards in Chevy Chase were thick with Obama signs–and wonders how these people are now feeling about the prospect of sharp tax increases for people in their income brackets.
The PowerLine guys are very astute, but I think they’re missing a key point on this one. There are substantial groups of people who stand to benefit financially from the policies of the Obama/Pelosi/Reid triumvirate, and these benefits can greatly outweigh the costs of any additional taxes that these policies require them to pay. Many of the residents of Chevy Chase–a very high percentage of whom get their income directly or indirectly from government activities–fall into this category.
Consider, for starters, direct employment by the government. Most Americans still probably think of government work as low-paid, but this is much less true than it used to be. According to this, 19% of civil servants now make $100K or more. A significant number of federal employees are now making more than $170,000. And, of course, the more the role of government is expanded, the more such jobs will be created, and the better will be the prospects for further pay increases.
If one member of a couple is a federal employee making $100K and the other is making $150K, that would be sufficient to allow them to live in Chevy Chase and occasionally partake of the shopping and restaurants. But to make the serious money required to really enjoy the Chevy Chase lifestyle, it’s best to look beyond direct government employment and pursue careers which indirectly but closely benefit from government activity…which are part of the “extended government,” to coin a phrase.

continued at Chicago Boyz

5:31 AM

Tuesday, April 08, 2014  
RERUN--BOOK REVIEW: Father, Son, & Co.
Thomas Watson Jr and Peter Petrie

(Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the announcement of the IBM System/360 series (original press release here)…seems like a good time to rerun this book review, which I originally posted in 2011)
Buy the book: Father, Son & Co.
When Tom Watson Jr was 10 years old, his father came home and proudly announced that he had changed the name of his company. The business that had been known as the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company would now be known by the grand name International Business Machines.
That little outfit?” thought young Tom to himself, picturing the company’s rather random-seeming collection of products, which included time clocks, coffee grinders, and scales, and the “cigar-chomping guys” who sold them. This was in 1924.
This is the best business autobiography I’ve read. It’s about Watson Jr, his difficult relationship with his father, the company they built, and the emergence of the computing industry. It is an emotional, reflective, and self-critical book, without the kind of “here’s how brilliant I was” tone that afflicts too many executive autobiographies. With today being IBM’s 100th anniversary (counting from the incorporation of CTR), I thought it would be a good time to finally get this review finished and posted.
Watson’s relationship with his father was never an easy one. From an early age, he sensed a parental expectation that he would follow his father into IBM, despite both his parents assuring him that this was not the case and he could do whatever he wanted. This feeling that his life course was defined in advance, combined with fear that he would never be able to measure up to his increasingly-famous father, was likely a factor in the episodes of severe depression which afflicted him from 13 to 19. In college Watson was an indifferent student and something of a playboy. His most significant accomplishment during this period was learning to fly airplanes—-”I’d finally discovered something I was good at”–a skill that would have great influence on his future. His first job at IBM, as a trainee salesman, did little to boost his self-confidence or his sense of independence: he was aware that local IBM managers were handing him easy accounts, wanting to ensure success for the chief executive’s son. It was only when Watson joined the Army Air Force during WWII–he flew B-24s and was based in Russia, assisting General Follett Bradley in the organization of supply shipments to the Soviet Union–that he proved to himself that he could succeed without special treatment. As the war wound down, he set his sights on becoming an airline pilot–General Bradley expressed surprise, saying “Really? I always thought you’d go back and run the IBM company.” This expression of confidence, from a man he greatly respected, helped influence Watson to give IBM another try.
The products that Watson had been selling, as a junior salesman, were punched card systems. Although these were not computers in the modern sense of the word, they could be used to implement some pretty comprehensive information systems. Punched card systems were an important enabler of the increasing dominance of larger organizations in both business and government: the Social Security Act of 1935 was hugely beneficial to IBM both because of the systems they sold to the government directly and those sold to businesses needing to keep up with the required record-keeping.
continued at Chicago Boyz

7:53 AM

Saturday, April 05, 2014  
RERUN -- BOOK REVIEW: Defying Hitler
by Sebastian Haffner

(I originally posted this review in early 2010. I’m sure we have quite a few new readers since then, and believe this is an important book worthy of a broader audience…hence the rerun)
How does an advanced and civilized nation turn into a pack of hunting hounds directed against humans? Sebastian Haffner addresses the question in this memoir, which describes his own experiences and observations from early childhood until his departure from Germany in 1939. It is an important document–not only for the light it sheds on this particular and dreadful era in history, but also for its more general analysis of the factors leading to totalitarianism and of life under a totalitarian state. It is also a very personal and human book, with vivid portraits of Haffner’s parents, his friends, and the women he loved. Because of its importance and the fact that it is relatively little-read in the United States (Amazon ranking 108654–I picked up my copy at the Gatwick airport), I’m reviewing it here at considerable length.
The title (probably not chosen by the author himself) is perhaps unfortunate. Haffner was not a member of an organization dedicated to overthrowing the Nazi state, along the lines of a Hans Oster or a Sophie Scholl. His defiance, rather, was on a personal level–keeping his mind free of Nazi ideology, avoiding participation in Nazi crimes, and helping victims of the regime where possible. Even this level of defiance required considerable courage–more than most people are capable of. As Haffner summarizes life under a totalitarian regime:
With fearful menace the state demands that the individual give up his friends, abandon his lovers, renounce his beliefs and assume new, prescribed ones. He must use a new form of greeting, eat and drink in ways he does not fancy, employ his leisure in occupations he abhors, make himself available for activities he despises, and deny his past and his individuality. For all this, he must constantly express extreme enthusiasm and gratitude.
Haffner was born in 1907, and many of his earliest and most vivid memories center around the First World War. To this seven-year-old boy, the war was something very exciting–a reaction that surely was shared by many boys of his age in all of the belligerent countries. As Haffner remembers it, he was not at all motivated by hate for the enemy–although there was plenty of propaganda intended to inculcate such hate–but rather by a kind of sporting instinct:
In those childhood days, I was a war fan just as one is a football fan…I hated the French, the English, and the Russians as little as the Portsmouth supporters detest the Wolverhampton fans. Of course, I prayed for their defeat and humiliation, but only because these were the necesary counterparts of my side’s victory and triumph.
The German defeat came as a severe shock to young Sebastian, who had in no way expected it: The same was true of the severe social disruption which pervaded Germany during this period:
Some days there was no electricity, on other no trams, but it was never clear whether it was because of the Spartacists or the Government that we had to use oil lamps or go on foot.
In 1919, Haffner joined a sports club called the Old Prussia Athletics Club. This was a right-wing sports club–so far had the politicization of daily life already progressed. Although the club was anti-Socialist, it was not anti-Semitic–indeed, several of the members (including the club’s best runner) were Jewish, and probably participated as enthusiastically as other members in street fights with the Socialist youth.
After a time, the political situation calmed down–temporarily, as we now know. The Old Prussia Athletic Club was dissolved:
Many of us sought new interests: stamp-collecting, for example, piano-playing, or the theatre. Only a few remained true to politics, and it struck me for the first time that, strangely enough, those were the more stupid, coarse and unpleasant among my schoolfellows.
Haffner assigns much of the credit for the political and economic stabilization to the statesman Walter Rathenau–”an aristocratic revolutionary, an idealistic economic planner, a Jew who was a German patriot, a German patriot who was a liberal citizen of the world..cultured enough to be above culture, rich enough to be above riches, man of the world enough to be above the world.” But while Rathenau was admired and even loved by many, he was hated by many others. He was murdered in 1922. This killing was followed shortly by the great inflation which began in 1923. In Haffner’s view, the impact of this episode is almost impossible to overstate: he calls it “the unending bloody Saturnalia, in which not only money but all standards lost their value.”
That year newspaper readers could again play a variation of the exciting numbers game they had enjoyed during the war…this time the figures did not refer to military events..but to an otherwise quite uninteresting, everyday item in the financial pages: the exchange rate of the dollar. The fluctuation of the dollar was the barometer by which, with a mixture of anxiety and excitement, we measured the fall of the mark.
By the end of 1922, prices had already risen to somewhere between 10 and 100X the pre-war peacetime level, and a dollar could purchase 500 marks. It was inconvenient to work with the large numbers, but life went on much as before.
But the mark now went on the rampage…the dollar shot to 20,000 marks, rested there for a short time, jumped to 40,000, paused again, and then, with small periodic fluctuations, coursed through the ten thousands and then the hundred thousands…Then suddenly, looking around we discovered that this phenomenon had devastated the fabric of our daily lives.
cross-posted at Chicago Boyz

2:57 PM

Wednesday, April 02, 2014  

…famously asked Sigmund Freud. A couple of neuroscience researchers have attempted to answer that question, at least as far as the preferred profession of a romantic hero goes. Researchers Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam analyzed 15,000 Harlequin romance novels (fifteen thousand???)  and tabulated the professions of the male leads.
I don’t know to what degree Harlequin readers are representative of romance-novel readers as a whole, nor to what degree romance-novel readers are representative of the female population as a whole…but for what it’s worth, here’s the list that resulted from the study.

continued at Chicago Boyz

8:49 AM

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