Thursday, September 28, 2017
WORTHWHILE READING & VIEWING
Animated films: a transition both in technologies and in implicit political messages
Sunday, September 24, 2017
Prior to WWII, only a small minority of Americans had checking accounts. With the postwar economic boom and with some promotion (here’s an ABA video intended to educate Americans about the virtues of the check), the number of checking-account-holders grew sharply, and the problem of processing all the checks became an increasingly large absorber of clerical workers.
Attempting to dig itself out of the paperwork flood, Bank of America hired Stanford Research Institute to develop an automated solution. The prototype system, called ERMA, was operational in early 1956. The now-familiar MICR characters, printed in magnetic ink, were introduced to provide automatic account identification, so that only the amount of the check needed to be entered manually. An ERMA system maintained account data (for up to 32000 customers) on a magnetic drum, so that overdrafts and stop-check requests could be identified in real time. An automated check-sorting machine was included in the system.
EMRA employed 8000 vacuum tubes and drew 80KW of power….it was not a stored-program computer but was wired for its specific function. Development of follow-on production machines, which were solid-state and stored-program, was accomplished by NCR and GE.
It still seems remarkable that checks…flimsy paper documents that are often treated pretty roughly…can be processed and sorted at 10 per second (in the case of ERMA) or even faster in the case of follow-on systems. I read somewhere that when the ERMA system was being demonstrated to GE CEO Ralph Cordiner, he took one of his own checks, folded it in half, dropped in on the floor and stepped on it a couple of times, and then requested that it be included in the processing run. Apparently the system handled it just fine.
I post items like this because they provide needed perspective in our present “age of automation” when there is so much media focus of robotics, artificial intelligence, and ‘the Internet of Things,’ but not a whole lot of understanding for how these fit on the historical technology growth trajectory.
Previous Robot Emeritus posts:
Friday, September 22, 2017
SUMMER RERUN: STUPIDITY - COMMUNIST-STYLE AND CAPITALIST-STYLE
There’s an old story about a Soviet-era factory that made bathtubs. Plant management was measured on the total tonnage of output produced–and valves & faucets don’t add much to the weight, certainly not compared with the difficulty of manufacturing them. So the factory simply made and shipped thousands of bathtubs, without valves or faucets.
The above story may be apocryphal, but the writer “Viktor Suvorov” tells an even worse one, based on his personal experience. At the time, he was working on a communal farm in Russia:
The General Secretary of the Party set a task: there must be a sharp rise in agricultural output. So the whole country reflected on how best to achieve this magnificent aim.
The fertilizer plant serving the communes in Suvorov’s area resolved to do its part:
A vast meeting, thousands strong, complete with brass bands, speeches, placards, and banners, was urgently called at the local Chemical Combine. To a man, they shouted slogans, applauded, chanted patriotic songs. After that meeting, a competitive economy drive was launched at the Chemical Combine to harvest raw materials and energy resources.
The drive lasted all winter, and in the spring, on Lenin’s birthday, all the workers came in and worked without pay, making extra fertilizer from the materials that had been saved…several thousand tons of liquid nitrogen fertilizer, which they patriotically decided to hand over, free of charge, to the Region’s collective farms.
Wednesday, September 20, 2017
SUMMER RERUN: ATTACK OF THE ROBOT BUREAUCRATS
Via Bookworm, here is a truly appalling story from Minnesota. When the fire alarm went off at Como Park High School, a 14-year-old girl was rousted out of the swimming pool, and–dripping wet and wearing only a swimsuit–directed to go stand outside were the temperature was sub-zero and the wind chill made it much worse. Then, she was not allowed to take refuge in one of the many cars in the parking lotbecause of a school policy forbidding students from sitting in a faculty member’s car. As Bookworm notes:
Even the lowest intelligence can figure out that the rule’s purpose is to prevent teachers from engaging sexually with children. The likelihood of a covert sexual contact happening between Kayona and a teacherunder the actual circumstances is ludicrous. The faculty cars were in full view of the entire school. There was no chance of illicit sexual congress.
But the whole nature of bureaucratic rules, of course, is to forbid human judgment based on actual context.
Fortunately for Kayona, her fellow students hadn’t had human decency ground out of them by rules: “…fellow students, however, demonstrated a grasp of civilized behavior. Students huddled around her and some frigid classmates [sic], giving her a sweatshirt to put around her feet. A teacher coughed up a jacket.” As the children were keeping Kayona alive, the teachers were workingtheir way through the bureaucracy. After a freezing ten minutes, an administrator finally gave permission for the soaking wet, freezing Kayla to set in a car in full view of everybody.
As Bookworm notes, this sort of thing is becoming increasingly common. In England in 2009, for example, a man with a broken back lay in 6 inches of water, but paramedics refused to rescue him because they weren’t trained for water rescues. Dozens of similar examples could easily be dredged up.
The behavior of these bureaucrats is very similar to the behavior of a computer program confronted by a situation for which its designers did not explicitly provide. Sometimes the results will be useless, sometimes they will be humorous, often they will be harmful or outright disastrous.
Last year in Sweden, there was rampant rioting that included the torching of many cars. The government of Sweden didn’t do a very good job of protecting its citizens and their property from this outbreak of barbarism. Government agents did, however, fulfill their duty of issuing parking tickets…to burned-out cars. Link with picture. In my post The Reductio as Absurdum of Bureaucratic Liberalism, I said…
Friday, September 15, 2017
SUMMER RERUN: BOOK REVIEW - THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH
This was the first thing Mark had been asked to do which he himself, before he did it, clearly knew to be criminal. But the moment of his consent almost escaped his notice; certainly, there was no struggle, no sense of turning a corner. There may have been a time in the world’s history when such moments fully revealed their gravity, with witches prophesying on a blasted heath or visible Rubicons to be crossed. But, for him, it all slipped past in a chatter of laughter, of that intimate laughter between fellow professionals, which of all earthly powers is strongest to make men do very bad things before they are yet, individually, very bad men.
Read the post at Chicago Boyz
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
ROBOTS OF THE WEEK
Sewing robots. Although spinning and weaving have long been highly mechanized, the final phase of the apparel-making value chain has resisted automation:
IN 1970 William J. Bank, president of the Blue Jeans Corporation, predicted that there would be a man on Mars before the production of apparel was automated. Almost half a century later, he has not yet been proved wrong.
But that may change soon, given recent development in robotic sewing. Two companies, Softwear Automation (Atlanta) and Sewbo (Seattle) are pursuing different strategies: Softwear’s approach is to create computer vision and robotic manipulation which is intelligent and subtle enough to deal with highly flexible fabric, whereas Sewbo’s approach is to temporarily stiffen the fabric in order to make working with it more like metalworking.
Depending on how well these systems work in practice, and how the technology evolves, they may turn out to be not only the robots of the week, but the robots of the year or even the decade. Apparel-making is a vast industry, concentrated in nations which are not-so-well-off economically, and employs a large number of people. A high level of automation would likely result in much of this production being relocated closer to the markets, thus saving transportation costs and shortening supply cycles. The consequences for countries like China, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka could be pretty unpleasant.
Most likely, unforeseen problems will slow the full deployment of these systems and an Apparel Apocalypse will not occur. It would certainly be wise, though, for the leaderships of apparel-manufacturing-intensive countries to focus on the need to develop a broader employment base.
Saturday, September 09, 2017
REMEDIAL READING FOR A 'NEW YORKER' WRITER
This New Yorker writer seems to feel that, had government been adequately respected, funded and supported (and the dangers of Climate Change properly recognized), the ‘Cajun Navy’ of volunteer rescuers would not have been needed.
Glenn Reynolds suggests that the author has apparently never read Alexis de Tocqueville. (Or, alternatively, I would suggest, may have read him but not really understood him all that well)
Tocqueville, of course, wrote famously (in his book Democracy in America) about the tendency of Americans to come together and form voluntary associations to accomplish particular goals, without anyone having to tell them to do so.
In both places the government numbers as many heads as the people; it preponderates, acts, regulates, controls, undertakes everything, provides for everything, knows far more about the subject’s business than he did hiself–is, in short, incessantly active and sterile.
Tuesday, September 05, 2017
MACHINE TOOLS AND GLASSMAKING
A visit to the American Precision Museum, dedicated to the history of the American machine tool industry, and also to the Simon Pearce glass facility. At Chicago Boyz.