Saturday, December 30, 2017
2017 READING, CONTINUED
Fed Up, by Danielle DiMartino Booth. Following a successful career on Wall Street, the author in 2008 took a job as an analyst with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. In this primarily-male organization, she did not experience discrimination on account of her sex…but she did face serious prejudice against her on account of not having a PhD. Her take on the Fed is that is is far too theoretical in its approach and too limited in the backgrounds of its staff:
Grasping the modus operandi of the Federal Reserve requires first anchoring in your mind two words: hubris and myopia. We know better than you. Only our models can decipher and predict the economy.
The Fed’s battalion of economists–from the top down–believe that their training in the world’s top universities and their unique schooling in analysis gives them wisdom and insight, when in fact their training often blinds them to reality…Virtually no one I met at the bank had ever worked on Wall Street, managed a business, or handled their own investments.
Indeed, her negative views of the Fed pretty much extends to the economics profession as a whole Referring to a letter signed by 364 prominent economist in March 1981, which predicted disaster as a result of Margaret Thatcher’s fiscal policies, she approvingly quotes Geoffrey Howe, chancellor of the exchequer, to the effect that an economist was like “a man who knows 364 ways of making love, but doesn’t know any women.” She also cites a 1991 report by the American Economics Association which concluded that university economics programs “may be turning out a generation with two many idiot savants, skilled in technique but innocent of real economic issues.”
One Fed official that she does speak of very highly is Richard Fisher, who was president of the Dallas Fed when she was there and was a noted critic of the way the quantitative easing program was carried out. (He is now an advisor to Barclays and a member of the PepsiCo board.)
Forgotten Victory, by Gary Sheffield. This is basically a revisionist history of the First World War. The author argues that–contrary to common opinions–the war, although tragic, was not futile, and that the British Army was not the incompetent organization as which it has often been portrayed, but rather was an institution which develop the ability to learn and to adapt:
The (British Expeditionary Force) did not simply gape at the trenches with incomprehension in the winter of 1914-15. Instead, British soldiers at all levels began a process of innovation and experimentation as the BEF rapidly began to adjust to the new conditions of warfare.
If a unit bethought itself of some useful improvisation, such as a new method of firing rifle grenades, carrying rations or making ingenious loopholes combining a better field of fire with greater safety, details were collected and circulated by Army Headquarters.
One area of technical innovation cited by the author was in the artillery. ‘Predicted’ bombardments, using improved calculation methods which accounted for variation in individual guns as well as such factors as wind speed, allow the preliminary ‘registration’ fires to be dispensed with or at least shortened, thereby increasing the element of surprise. The instantaneous fuse, which triggered the burst before the shell buried itself in the ground, greatly improved the artillery’s effectiveness at cutting barbed-wire entanglements. And sound ranging, which has been described as ‘the Manhattan Project of the Great War’, employed some first-class scientific minds and resulted in the ability to locate and destroy enemy artillery positions more effectively.
More important than the technical and tactical points, of course, is the question of whether the war was really necessary at all. The author argues that, at least from Britain’s standpoint, it was.
This book probably deserves a stand-alone review and discussion thread.
The Green Glass Sea, by Ellen Klages. I picked this up at a book sale…it is actually a children’s book, recommended for grades 5-8, but makes it good adult reading as well. Dewey Kerrigan, a 10-year-old aspiring inventor, sets off on a cross-country train trip to be with her father, who is engaged in war work. She is engaged in designing a radio when a fellow passenger, Dick Feynman, offers to help her. They are both bound for the same destinations, Los Alamos.
Wednesday, December 27, 2017
A TALE FOR CHILDREN
The Christmas season, in combination with seeing the Churchill movie Darkest Hour, reminded me of a passage from the French author Georges Bernanos.
In May/June 1940, Nazi Germany defeated the French army. Britain was forced to withdraw its troops at Durkirk–along with virtually all their heavy equipment. Few would have been willing to bet on Britain’s survival…after quickly devastating the (then highly-regarded) French army and demonstrating highly-effective use of airpower, Nazi Germany seemed unstoppable.
In December of that year, Bernanos, then living in Brazil, wrote as follows:
No one knows better than I do that, in the course of centuries, all the great stories of the world end by becoming children’s tales. But this particular one (the story of England’s resistance–ed) has started its life as such, has become a children’s tale on the very threshold of its existence. It mean that we can at once recognize in it the threefold visible sign of its nature. it has deceived the anticipations of the wise, it has humiliated the weak-hearted, it has staggered the fools. Last June all these folk from one end of the world to the other, no matter what the color of their skins, were shaking their heads. Never had they been so old, never had they been so proud of being old. All the figures that they had swallowed in the course of their miserable lives as a safeguard against the highly improbable activity of their emotions had choked the channels of circulation..They were ready to prove that with the Armistice of Rethondes the continuance of the war had become a mathematical impossibility…Some chuckled with satisfaction at the thought, but they were not the most dangerous…Others threatened us with the infection of pity…”Alone against the world,” they said. “Why, what is that but a tale for children?” And that is precisely what it was–a tale for children. Hurrah for the children of England!
Men of England, at this very moment you are writing what public speakers like to describe in their jargon as one of the “greatest pages of history”….At this moment you English are writing one of the greatest pages of history, but I am quite sure that when you started, you meant it as a fairy tale for children. “Once upon a time there was a little island, and in that island there was a people in arms against the world…” Faced with such an opening as that, what old cunning fox of politics or business would not have shrugged his shoulders and closed the book?
Saturday, December 23, 2017
2017 READING, CONTINUED
It is now known that when Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936, his forces were under orders to withdraw if faced by serious opposition by the (then-much-superior) French and British militaries. But these countries did not take action, being focused on their economic problems and convincing themselves that the German move wasn’t really much of a threat. But they didn’t know about the Withdrawal Order. What if they had?
Some of the characters are fictional, others are real people imagined as following different trajectories. The central figure is a German officer named Karl von Haydenreich; he has become friends with American officer Dwight Eisenhower and this friendship will prove critical in changing the course of history.
Very well-done, should not be missed.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz. Advice about running a startup from a venture capitalist…the author is cofounder of the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz. A lot of worthwhile points, some of which should be obvious, others not so much so.
Understanding what you did wrong if you hired an executive who did not work out: Horowitz goes through several possible causes of the failure, including this:
You hired for lack of weakness rather than for strengths. This is especially common when you run a consensus-based hiring process. The group will often find the candidate’s weaknesses, but they won’t place a high enough value on the areas where you need the executive to be a world-class performer. As a result, you hire an executive with no sharp weakness, but who is mediocre where you need her to be great.
On excessive focus on quantitative metrics: “Management purely by numbers is sort of like painting by numbers–it’s strictly for amateurs.”
I especially like Horowitz’s emphasis on the importance of organization design, and the point that all such designs are compromises…indeed:
The first rule of organizational design is that all organizational designs are bad. With any design, you will optimize communication among some parts of the organization at the expense of other parts. For example, if you put product management in the engineering organization, you will optimize communication between product management and engineering at the expense of product management and marketing. As a result, as soon as you roll out the new organization, people will find fault with it, and they will be right…Think of the organizational design as the communications architecture for your company. If you want people to communicate, the best way to accomplish that is to make them report to the same manager. By contrast, the further away people are on the organizational chart, the less they will communicate. The organizational design is also the template for how the company communicates with the outside world.
The book’s was inspired by this thought: “Every time I read a management or self-help book, I find myself saying, ‘That’s fine, but that wasn’t really the hard thing about the situation.'” For example:
The hard thing isn’t hiring great people. That hard thing is when those ‘great people’ develop a sense of entitlement and start demanding unreasonable things…The hard thing isn’t dreaming big. The hard thing is waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat when the dream turns into a nightmare.
Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Economy, by Tim Harford. Includes not just the sort of things that would typically show up in an ‘inventions’ list, but also such things as double-entry bookkeeping, tradable debt, the welfare state, and the department store.
Regarding the latter, Harford credits Harry Gordon Selfridge, who worked for Marshall Field, with creating the concept. Key to the new stores was the idea that “just looking” was okay, indeed was to be positively encouraged.
Selfridge swept away the previous shopkeepers’ custom of stashing the merchandise in places where sales assistants had to fetch it for you…he instead laid it out in the open-aisle displays we now take for granted, where you can touch a product, pick it up, and inspect it from all angles, without a salesperson hovering by your side…Shopping had long been bound up with social display: the old arcades of the great European cities, displaying their fine cotton fashions–gorgeously lit with candles and mirrors–were places for the upper classes not only to see but to be seen. Selfridge had no truck with snobbery or exclusivity. (When he opened his London store), His advertisements pointedly made cleaer that the ‘whole British public’ would be welcome–no cards of admission are required.”
Harford also mentions an Irish immigrant to America named Alexander Turney Stewart. It was Stewart who introduced “the shocking concept of not hassling customers the moment they walked through the door. He called this novel policy ‘free entrance.” Stewart also introduced the concept of the clearance sale and established a no-haggle pricing policy for his good.
Discussion of inventions such as the department store provides a useful reminded that so many of the things we take for granted–with ‘things’ including assumptions about ways of doing things as well as tangible objects–haven’t always existed; somebody had to think of them and drive them into reality.
This post to be further continued.
Wednesday, December 20, 2017
Some books I’ve read during the year and consider very worthwhile…
Tom Jones and other works, by Henry Fielding. Somehow I had never previously read Fielding (who wrote between 1728 and 1755)…now that I have, I am very impressed. Interesting characters, clever and intricate plotting, many passages that are very funny, and the author, I think, shows great insight into human behavior. (In addition to his literary efforts, Fielding served as a magistrate and is credited with establishing London’s first professional police force, popularly known as the Bow Street Runners.)
Fielding sometimes breaks out of the narrative, most notably in Tom Jones, and addresses himself directly to the reader. In one rather touching passage, he explains why he has taken the trouble to write the book–certainly for money, he says, but also “with the hopes of charming ages yet to come. Foretel me that some tender maid, who grandmother is yet unborn, hereafter, when, under the fictitious name of Sophie, she reads the real worth which once existed in my Charlotte, shall from her sympathetic breast send forth the heaving sigh”
In addition to Tom Jones, I’ve also read his Amelia, Joseph Andrews, and the wonderfully-titled An Apology for the Life of Mrs Shamela Andrews. All are IMO well worth reading.
Harmony, by Chicago Grrll Margaret Ball. This is a series, encompassing three books.
With the development of interstellar travel, humanity had the chance for a fresh start. The colonization of a new planet was carried out with the explicit intent to create a society that would avoid the miseries of the past, that would be based on the principle of harmony.
(Think about a society designed from the ground up by someone like Hillary Clinton.) Of course, it works out about as well as utopian projects usually work out.)
For those who don’t fit in to the Harmonious society, there is exile to a colony known as Esilia. Book 1, Insurgents, is focused on the Esilian struggle for independence against the forces of Harmony. Gabrel, a leader of the independence movement, seizes Isovel, daughter of the commander of the invading forces, as hostage.
In Book 2, Awakening, the protagonist Devra is an unlicensed child, who never should have been allowed to be born. In an attempt to overcome the stigma of her very existence, Devra makes a point of extreme conformity to Harmony’s rules and expectations. But when one of her students is threatened with ‘medical rehabilitation,’ she finds herself questioning her role as a good Harmony citizen.
In Book 3, Survivors, Harmony’s society is approaching collapse. Jillian, a soap opera star in holodramas, has been largely insulated from the impoverishment that is afflicting so many. When a farm boy named Ruven comes to the city to plead for better terms for his dairy cooperative, she uses her acting skills to teach him how to appeal to the emotions as well as to logical thought.
A Balcony in the Forest, by Julian Gracq. In preparing for the German onslaught which actually came in May of 1940, the French general staff made some serious errors. One was to view the heavily-wooded sector of the Ardennes as basically impassible by major forces. Hence, the French did not fortify this sector to anywhere near the level of the Maginot Line sector, further to the southeast; furthermore, the troops sent to hold the Ardennes were mostly what one writer referred to as “class B divisions composed of middle-aged reservists.”
The protagonist of Gracq’s novel is one of these middle-aged reservists, a dreamy sort of man named Lieutenant Grange, who is assigned to command a blockhouse and a small group of soldiers. It is the period of the ‘phony war’, and Grange has a hard time believing that the war will ever become hot. He finds that he loves the Ardennes, though, and his assignment gives him a great deal of satisfaction–especially when he meets a local girl named Mona and things develop rapidly between them.
A strange, almost surrealistic book, with some beautiful descriptive writing. A commenter at Goodreads remarked that the Ardennes is portrayed as “a mythic forest, by definition unreal, must also be indifferent to human beings- eternity doesn’t bother itself with trifles- and Grange is but a reclusive watchman on this magic mountain during this staggeringly brief period of months closing shut like the jaws of a wolf devouring a faun.”
Available at Amazon, both Kindle and paperback.
This post to be continued.
Friday, December 15, 2017
TECHNOLOGY, WORK, AND SOCIETY - THE AGE OF TRANSITION
I recently read an intriguing book concerned with the exponential advances in technology and the impact thereof on human society. The author believes that the displacement of human labor by technology is in its very early stages, and sees little limit to the process. He is concerned with how this will affect–indeed, has already affected–the relationship between the sexes and of parents and children, as well as the ability of ordinary people to earn a decent living. It’s a thoughtful analysis by someone who clearly cares a great deal about the well-being of his fellow citizens.
Sunday, December 10, 2017
NEPTUNUS LEX - THE EPILOGUE
After the Neptunus Lex website went down, shortly after his fatal accident, it very fortunately turned out that someone had saved most of the posts offline. For the last several years, Bill Brandt has been posting these restored posts, on an almost daily basis, at The Lexicans.
Sadly but inevitably, Bill has now come to the end of the saved posts. He has some eloquently-written concluding thoughts here.
Great job Bill, I’m really glad you’ve done this.
We can hope that perhaps some additional Lex posts will show up somewhere in the odd corners of the Internet.
Thursday, December 07, 2017
PEARL HARBOR DAY
A post from 2006 by Neptunus Lex.
cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open
Saturday, December 02, 2017
THE FASTEST-GROWING JOB CATEGORY OF THE DECADE?
In Robert Heinlein’s SF novel Revolt in 2100, American society fallen under the rule of a rigid theocracy. The protagonist is introduced in the following passage…
It was cold on the rampart. I slapped my numbed hands together, then stopped hastily for fear of disturbing the Prophet. My post that night was just outside his personal apartments-a post that I had won by taking more than usual care to be neat and smart at guard mount . . . but I had no wish to call attention to myself now.
I was young then and not too bright-a legate fresh out of West Point, and a guardsman in the Angels of the Lord, the personal guard of the Prophet Incarnate. At birth my mother had consecrated me to the Church and at eighteen my Uncle Absolom, a senior lay censor, had prayed an appointment to the Military Academy for me from the Council of Elders.
Uncle Absolom: a senior lay censor…In the real America in 2017, ‘censor’ is no longer a role restricted to the pages of science fiction novels or to a limited military activity in time of war, but is rather becoming a mainstream occupation, and a fast-growing one.
Facebook, for example, is hiring 3000 people to add to its existing 4500 on the team “reviewing posts with hate speech, crimes, and other harming posts.” (The illiterate phrasing of the preceding sentence was evidently perpetrated by the professional journalists at TechCrunch, not by FB itself) YouTube (owned by Google) also employs many people to review videos which are believed to be inappropriate or worse. There are also programmers and system designers employed in creating and tuning software to facilitate the censorship function, and there are actually startups focused on this area.
It has often been observed that the number of college administrators is growing much faster than the numbers of college faculty. A nontrivial number of these are engaged in what are basically censorship functions. Even in business, the censorship of wrongspeech has become a major function of Human Resources and a consumer of management time.
There are also plenty of volunteer censors, eager to report people of whose speech they disapprove and get them fired or instigate mob action against them…for example, Lena Dunham, who sent the following Instagram message directed to airline travelers (and possibly flight crews as well)..
I’m at the airport. And I think people now know, when I’m at the airport, they have to f—ing watch out for me, because I hear and I see all.
There are multiple reasons for the censorship boom: (1) With social media, communications that were once private are now semipublic and mediated by the social media company (2) Content that was once created and distributed by a relatively small number of media companies..who in effect conducted their own internal censorship process…is now created by a much larger number of individuals and distributed via social media, especially Twitter (3) Many of the previously-generally-accepted standards of behavior and speech have eroded (4) There appears to be growing hostility toward free speech, driven partly but not entirely by academic theorists (5) There are a lot of people who are just plain sadists and bullies, and shutting other people down gives them pleasure. Social media gives them new scope for this activity.
With regard to (1), the social media companies…especially FB…really do have a dilemma. There is an obvious public interest in preventing the dissemination of terrorist propaganda and operational plans, and an obvious human interest in responding to desperate cries for help, as with the suicides that were pre-announced on Facebook. And the semipublic nature of FB communications implies that individual and group posts can have an impact on FB’s brand, whereas phone conversations and emails would have no such impact on the brand of the carrier involved. Meanwhile, the Leftist orientation of most of these companies, combined with Silicon Valley groupthink, does not tend toward policies that are particularly supportive of free speech.
With regard to (5), I am reminded of a passage in Goethe’s Faust….Gretchen, after finding that she is pregnant by Faust, is talking with her awful friend Lieschen, who (still unaware of Gretchen’s situation) is licking her chops about the prospect of humiliating another girl (Barbara) who has also become pregnant outside of marriage. Here’s Gretchen, reflecting on her own past complicity in such viciousness:
How readily I used to blame
Some poor young soul that came to shame!
Never found sharp enough words like pins
To stick into other people’s sins
Black as it seemed, I tarred it to boot
And never black enough to suit
Would cross myself, exclaim and preen–
Now I myself am bared to sin!
There’s a lot of this…”sharp enough words like pins to stick in other people’s sins”, combined with the pleasure of preening…in the amateur censors of our day. And the amateur censors often operate by activating the professional censors.