Monday, December 24, 2018
Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays to all!
See my recent posts at Chicago Boyz
Wednesday, August 08, 2018
I'M STILL HERE
...have been posting at Chicago Boyz, but have not had time to cross-post. Will try to do so in the future, at least for especially important posts.
You can find my recent posts at CB by using this link.
Monday, April 16, 2018
MEDIA AND POLITICS
An 'art installation' at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art suggests some thoughts about the role of imagery and sensory experiences in political propaganda. At Chicago Boyz.
Tuesday, March 27, 2018
WELL, THIS IS INTERESTING
Back in 1975, California Governor Jerry Brown was opposed to allowing Vietnamese refugees into California.
cross-posted at Chicago Boyz, where comments are open
Sunday, March 04, 2018
WORTHWHILE READING & VIEWING
At Chicago Boyz
Wednesday, February 28, 2018
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND HUMAN BEHAVIOR
WSJ has an story on the use of artificial intelligence to predict potential suicides. The article cites a study indicating that “the traditional approach of predicting suicide,” which includes doctors’ assessments, was only slightly better than random guessing.
In contrast, when 16,000 patients in Tennessee were analyzed by an AI system, the system was able to predict with 80-90% accuracy whether someone would attempt suicide in the next two years, using indicators such as history of using antidepressants and injuries with firearms. (It would have been nice to see numbers cited for false negatives vs false positives…also, I wonder how nearly the same results could have been achieved by use of traditional statistical methods, without appeal to AI technology.)
Another approach, which has been tested in Cincinnati schools and clinics, uses an app which records sessions between therapists and patients, and then analyzes linguistic and vocal factors to predict suicide risk.
Both Apple (Siri) and Facebook have been working to identify potential suicides. The latter company says that in a single month in fall 2017, its AI system alerted first responders in 100 cases of potential self-harm. (It doesn’t sound like the system contacts the first responders directly; rather, it prioritizes suspected cases for the human moderators, who then perform a second-level review.) In one case, a woman in northern Argentina posted “This can’t go on. From here I say goodbye.” Within 3 hours, a medical team notified by Facebook reached the woman, and, according to the WSJ article, “saved her life.”
It seems very likely to me that, in the current climate, attempts will be made to extend this approach into the prediction of self-harm into the prediction of harm to others, in particular, mass killings in schools. I’m not sure how successful this will be…the sample size of mass killings is, fortunately. pretty small…but if it is successful, then what might the consequences be, and what principles of privacy, personal autonomy, and institutional responsibility should guide the deployment (if any) of such systems?
For example, what if an extension of the linguistic and vocal factors analysis mentioned above allowed discussions between students and school guidance counselors to be analyzed to predict the likelihood of major in-school violence? What should the school, what should law enforcement be allowed to do with this data?
Does the answer depend on the accuracy of the prediction? What if people identified by the system will in 80% of cases commit an act of substantial violence (as defined by some criterion), but at the same time there are 10% false positives (people the system says are likely perpetrators, but who are actually not)? What if the numbers are 90% accuracy and only 3% false positives?
Sunday, February 18, 2018
A FRENCH VILLAGE: COMPLETE SERIES NOW AVAILABLE
I’ve previously mentioned this series, set in the (fictional) French town of Villeneuve during the years of the German occupation and afterwards. It is simply outstanding – one of the best television series I have ever seen. The program ran from 2009-207 on French TV, and all the seasons are now available in the US, with subtitles. Having now watched the whole thing, my very positive opinion of the series is sustained.
Daniel Larcher is a physician who also serves as deputy mayor, a largely honorary position. When the regular mayor disappears after the German invasion, Daniel finds himself mayor for real. His wife Hortense, a selfish and emotionally-shallow woman, is the opposite of helpful to Daniel in his efforts to protect the people of Villaneuve from the worst effects of the occupation while still carrying on his medical practice. Daniel’s immediate superior in his role as mayor is Deputy Prefect Servier, a bureaucrat mainly concerned about his career and about ensuring that everything is done according to proper legal form.
The program is ‘about’ the intersection of ultimate things…the darkest evil, the most stellar heroism….with the ‘dailyness’ of ordinary life, and about the human dilemmas that exist at this intersection. Should Daniel have taken the job of mayor in the first place?…When is it allowable to collaborate with evil, to at least some degree, in the hope of minimizing the damage? Which people will go along, which will resist, which will take advantage? When is violent resistance…for example, the killing by the emerging Resistance of a more or less random German officer…justified, when it will lead to violent retaliation such as the taking and execution of hostages?
Arthur Koestler has written about ‘the tragic and the trivial planes’ of life. As explained by his friend, the writer and fighter pilot Richard Hillary:
“K has a theory for this. He believes there are two planes of existence which he calls vie tragique and vie triviale. Usually we move on the trivial plane, but occasionally in moments of elation or danger, we find ourselves transferred to the plane of the vie tragique, with its non-commonsense, cosmic perspective. When we are on the trivial plane, the realities of the other appear as nonsense–as overstrung nerves and so on. When we live on the tragic plane, the realities of the other are shallow, frivolous, frivolous, trifling. But in exceptional circumstances, for instance if someone has to live through a long stretch of time in physical danger, one is placed, as it were, on the intersection line of the two planes; a curious situation which is a kind of tightrope-walking on one’s nerves…I think he is right.”
In this series, the Tragic and the Trivial planes co-exist…day-to-day life intermingles with world-historical events. And the smallness of the stage…the confinement of the action to a single small village….works well dramatically, for the same reason that (as I have argued previously) stories set on shipboard can be very effective.
Tuesday, February 13, 2018
ATTACK OF THE JOB-KILLING ROBOTS, PART 3
The final months of World War II included the first-ever battle of robots: on one side, the German V-1 missile and on the other, an Allied antiaircraft system that automatically tracked the enemy missiles, performed the necessary fire-control computations, and directed the guns accordingly. This and other wartime projects greatly contributed to the understanding of the feedback concept and the development of automatic control technology. Also developed during the war were the first general-purpose programmable digital computers: the Navy/Harvard/IBM Mark I and the Army/MIT ENIAC…machines that, although incredibly limited by our presented-day, standards were at the time viewed with awe and often referred to as ‘thinking machines.’
These wartime innovations in feedback control and digital computation would soon have enormous impact on the civilian world.
This is one in a continuing series of posts in which I attempt to provide some historical context for today’s discussions of automation and its impact on jobs and society…a context of which people writing about this topic often seem to have little understanding.
continued at at Chicago Boyz
Saturday, February 10, 2018
A 60-YEAR-OLD FIGHTER DESIGN -- STILL OPERATIONAL
In 2009, Neptunus Lex paid tribute to the MIG-21, which he referred to as “a noble adversary.” At the time, it appeared that the airplane was about to be phased out of service by those countries still operating it. Didn’t happen that way. though…the airplane is still in use by several countries, most notably India, which still operates more than 200 of them.
Design studies for the MIG-21 began in 1953, with first flight in 1958 and production shipments beginning in 1959. As analogy for the design’s longevity, imagine the Red Baron’s Fokker triplane from 1918 still being employed in a military role in the post-Vietnam era of 1977!
Also, there’s a pretty decent movie, based on real events, about the 1966 Israeli operation to steal a MIG-21 from Iraq. The moviemakers were evidently unable to get their hands on a real MIG-21 (in 1988), so a MIG-15 was used for the flying scenes instead.
More MIG-21 information here.
Monday, February 05, 2018
THE DETAILS OF WORK AND THE REALITIES OF AUTOMATION
At Chicago Boyz
Wednesday, January 31, 2018
TOCQUEVILLE FORESAW THIS
Alexis de Tocqueville:
[The power of government] covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power… does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, until each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and hard-working animals, of which the government is the shepherd.’
I disagree with Tocqueville about “such a power..does not tyrannize”, it certainly does tyrannize, and to a greater degree than many of the kings and emperors of the past. Neither George III or Kaiser Wilhelm II ever thought to issue edicts about which pronouns people were allowed to use. This California bill is in the true spirit of the totalitarianisms of the 20th century: Naziism and Communism.
Speaking of totalitarianism, here’s Arthur Koestler, in his novel Darkness at Noon. Rubashov, an Old Bolshevik who has been arrested by the Stalinist regime, is reflecting on his Communist beliefs and where they may have led him astray.
A short time ago , our leading agriculturist, B , was shot with thirty of his collaborators because he maintained the opinion that nitrate artificial manure was superior to potash. No. 1 is all for potash; therefore B. and the thirty had to be liquidated as saboteurs. In a nationally centralized agriculture , the alternative of nitrate or potash is of enormous importance: it can decide the issue of the next war. If No. 1 was in the right, history will absolve him, and the execution of the thirty-one men will be a mere bagatelle. If he was wrong . . .
Isn’t this reminiscent of today’s leftist who say that climate change is a a matter of “enormous importance”, it can decide not something as relatively minor as “the issue of the next war” but the entire fate of the human race and hence, free speech on this matter must be suppressed?
Koestler’s Rubashov explains to himself that since the Revolution has overthrown all the rules of ‘cricket-morality’, the State is now ‘sailing without ballast’…and begins to see where this must inevitably lead:
to settle a difference of opinion, we know only one argument: death, whether it is a matter of submarines, manure, or the Party line to be followed in Indo-China. Our engineers work with the constant knowledge that an error in calculation may take them to prison or the scaffold; the higher officials in our administration ruin and destroy their subordinates, because they know that they will be held responsible for the slightest slip and be destroyed themselves; our poets settle discussions on questions of style by denunciations to the Secret Police, because the expressionists consider the naturalistic style counter-revolutionary, and vice versa.
We are not yet at the point in America where people are sentenced to physical death for political deviations, but now on a regular basis people have their careers destroyed–sometimes a form of economic death–for such deviations.
And it is worth noting that the California bill in question was introduced not by some back-bencher no one has ever heard of, but by the Democratic Majority Leader of the California Assembly.
Tuesday, January 23, 2018
ARE THOSE ROBOTS SLACKING OFF ON THE JOB?
Much concern is being expressed these days about technological unemployment driven by robotics, artificial intelligence, etc. But labor productivity numbers have been more in the direction of stagnation than in the direction of a sharp break upwards…see for example this BLS analysis. Note especially Chart 5, which compares productivity growth in three periods: 1947-2007, 2001-2007, and 2009-2016.
See also this piece, which looks at total factor productivity across continents.
So, what is going on here? Why have the remarkable innovations and heavy corporate and government investments in technology not had more of a positive effect on productivity? I have my own ideas, but am curious about what others think.
Friday, January 19, 2018
BONHOEFFER ON STUPIDITY AND THE PUBLIC SPHERE
Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. … The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other. The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, for instance, the intellect, suddenly atrophy or fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances. The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with him as a person, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.
Thursday, January 04, 2018
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.
Saturday, November 25, 2017
PROFESSORS AND THE PORNOGRAPHY OF POWER
Today’s identity politics . . . teaches the exact opposite of what we think a liberal arts education should be. When I was at Yale in the 1980s, I was given so many tools for understanding the world. By the time I graduated, I could think about things as a utilitarian or as a Kantian, as a Freudian or a behaviorist, as a computer scientist or as a humanist. I was given many lenses to apply to any given question or problem.
But what do we do now? Many students are given just one lens—power. Here’s your lens, kid. Look at everything through this lens. Everything is about power. Every situation is analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people. This is not an education. This is induction into a cult. It’s a fundamentalist religion. It’s a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety and intellectual impotence. . . .
Read the whole thing.
So why is the single-lens approach so attractive to many academics?
More than 50 years ago, C S Lewis wrote about some similar tendencies that he observed in British primary education, in his book The Abolition of Man. Referring to two textbook authors who he had critiqued, he remarked that “literary criticism is difficult, and what they actually do is very much easier.” Indeed, it is surely easier to base one’s classes around fashionable themes than around serious intellectual topics, and it probably results in better student reviews, as well.
I’m also reminded of something asserted by Andre Maurois: people who are highly intelligent, but not in any way creative…who are not capable of formulating a system of thought on their own…tend to throw themselves voraciously on those systems they come across, and to apply them more vigorously than would their originators.
Particularly given the vast expansion of higher education in recent decades, it does seem likely that a lot of academics–perhaps the majority–do fall into the “intelligent but not creative” category, and hence will be eager system-adopters rather than objective analyzers and integrators of systems. People of this sort also probably have a tendency to reify abstractions…to treat some categorization or conceptual model, which may be useful under particular circumstances, as if it were actually something real and tangible.
Wednesday, November 15, 2017
Sunday, November 12, 2017
A SEEMINGLY-SAFE TARGET
I’ve written previously about the level of fear, contempt, and anger that many educated/urban/upper-middle-class people demonstrate toward Christians and rural people (especially southerners.) This complex of negative emotions often greatly exceeds anything that these same people feel toward radical Islamists or dangerous rogue-state governments.
One of my relatives posted a snarky meme during the day or two that the Dreamer program being ended was trending showing some hillbilly/redneck types saying they were going to get a tech job now that the Dreamers were out of the way. The meme was presented in a way that you were supposed to say “Ha ha, look at the poor, ugly, unintelligent peasants thinking they can get a tech job”
Sunday, November 05, 2017
ROBOT OF THE WEEK
If you call the front desk at a hotel and ask to have towels (for example) delivered to your room, then a robot may shortly make its appearance at your door. Savioke Relay can find its own way to its destination, taking the elevator when needed.
Customer reactions seem to be positive.
Wednesday, November 01, 2017
100th ANNIVERSARY OF THE BOLSHEVIK REVOLUTION
Via Sarah Hoyt, who has some thoughts and a comment thread.
Thursday, October 26, 2017
COMING: A BATTERY SUPPLY CRUNCH?
Several governments have signaled their intent to ban or greatly restrict the internal combustion engine from automotive use, requiring instead pure electrics or in some cases hybrids. These include China, France, and the United Kingdom, as well as the US state of California. Volvo says that from 2019 all its new models will be electric or hybrid, and General Motors is planning to introduce 20 electric models over the next six years.
The core of an electric vehicle is the battery, and these are large, heavy objects: the battery pack for a Tesla Model S comes in at 1300 pounds. Where are all the batteries for the envisaged exponential growth of electrics going to come from?…this question encompasses the mining and processing of the raw materials and the fabrication of these processed materials into battery cells, as well as the assembly of the cells into finished battery packs.
Will severe supply constraints for some of these materials put a practical limit on the growth of electric vehicles, even in the face of government subsidies and draconian edicts? Here’s a recent article in the Financial Times:
Volkswagen’s failed attempt to secure at least five years’ supply of cobalt highlights the challenge facing the world’s biggest automakers as they attempt to secure the materials needed for their push into electric vehicles. Last month’s tender came as other carmakers, such as BMW and Tesla Motors, are also trying to lock-in stocks of the metal. That could test to the breaking point a niche market that is heavily dependent on a handful of mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the most impoverished and politically volatile countries in Africa.
Demand for cobalt in EV batteries is expected to grow fourfold by 2020, and eleven-fold by 2025, according to Wood Mackenzie.
The graph accompanying the article indicates that the price of high-grade cobalt has risen from $15/pound in January of this year to $30/pound in October.
Monday, October 23, 2017
THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS, AS VIEWED FROM A SOVIET LAUNCH FACILITY (rerun)
This month marks the 55th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world dangerously close to thermonuclear war.
Several years ago, I read Rockets and People, the totally fascinating memoir of Soviet rocket developer Boris Chertok, which I reviewed here.
Chertok’s career encompassed both military and space-exploration projects, and in late October 1962 he was focused on preparations for launching a Mars probe. On the morning of Oct 27, he was awakened by “a strange uneasiness.” After a quick breakfast, he headed for the missile assembly building, known as the MIK.
At the gatehouse, there was usually a lone soldier on duty who would give my pass a cursory glance. Now suddenly I saw a group of soldiers wielding sub-machine guns, and they thoroughly scrutinized my pass. Finally they admitted me to the facility grounds and there, to my surprise, I again saw sub-machine-gun-wielding soldiers who had climbed up the fire escape to the roof of the MIK. Other groups of soldiers in full combat gear, even wearing gas masks, were running about the periphery of the secure area. When I stopped in at the MIK, I immediately saw that the “duty” R-7A combat missile, which had always been covered and standing up against the wall, which we had always ignored, was uncovered.
Chertok was greeted by his friend Colonel Kirillov, who was in charge of this launch facility. Kirollov did not greet Chertok with his usual genial smile, but with a “somber, melancholy expression.”
Without releasing my hand that I’d extended for our handshake, he quietly said: “Boris Yevseyevich, I have something of urgent importance I must tell you”…We went into his office on the second floor. Here, visibly upset, Kirillov told me: “Last night I was summoned to headquarters to see the chief of the [Tyura-Tam] firing range. The chiefs of the directorates and commanders of the troop units were gathered there. We were told that the firing range must be brought into a state of battle readiness immediately. Due to the events in Cuba, air attacks, bombardment, and even U.S. airborne assaults are possible. All Air Defense Troops assets have already been put into combat readiness. Flights of our transport airplanes are forbidden. All facilities and launch sites have been put under heightened security. Highway transport is drastically restricted. But most important—I received the order to open an envelope that has been stored in a special safe and to act in accordance with its contents. According to the order, I must immediately prepare the duty combat missile at the engineering facility and mate the warhead located in a special depot, roll the missile out to the launch site, position it, test it, fuel it, aim it, and wait for a special launch command. All of this has already been executed at Site No. 31. I have also given all the necessary commands here at Site No. 2. Therefore, the crews have been removed from the Mars shot and shifted over to preparation of the combat missile. The nosecone and warhead will be delivered here in 2 hours.
Saturday, October 21, 2017
CULTURE, INNOVATION, VICTORY, AND DEFEAT
(Today being Trafalgar Day, it seems like a good time to rerun this post)
In 1797, a Spanish naval official named Don Domingo Perez de Grandallana, wrote a thoughtful document on the general subject “why do we keep losing to the British, and what can we do about it?” His thoughts were inspired by his observations while with the Spanish fleet off Cape St Vincent, in a battle which was a significant defeat for Spain, and are relevant to a question which is very relevant to us today:
What attributes of an organization make it possible for that organization to accomplish its mission in an environment of uncertainty, rapid change, and high stress?
Here are de Grandallana’s key points:
An Englishman enters a naval action with the firm conviction that his duty is to hurt his enemies and help his friends and allies without looking out for directions in the midst of the fight; and while he thus clears his mind of all subsidiary distractions, he rests in confidence on the certainty that his comrades, actuated by the same principles as himself, will be bound by the sacred and priceless principle of mutual support.
Accordingly, both he and his fellows fix their minds on acting with zeal and judgement upon the spur of the moment, and with the certainty that they will not be deserted. Experience shows, on the contrary, that a Frenchman or a Spaniard, working under a system which leans to formality and strict order being maintained in battle, has no feeling for mutual support, and goes into battle with hesitation, preoccupied with the anxiety of seeing or hearing the commander-in-chief’s signals for such and such manoeures…
Thus they can never make up their minds to seize any favourable opportunity that may present itself. They are fettered by the strict rule to keep station which is enforced upon then in both navies, and the usual result is that in one place ten of their ships may be firing on four, while in another four of their comrades may be receiving the fire of ten of the enemy. Worst of all they are denied the confidence inspired by mutual support, which is as surely maintained by the English as it is neglected by us, who will not learn from them.
The quote is from Seize the Fire, by Adam Nicholson.