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

arts & letters daily
natalie solent
critical mass
john bruce
joanne jacobs
number 2 pencil
roger l simon
common sense and wonder
sheila o'malley
invisible adjunct
red bird rising
academic game
rachel lucas
betsy's page
one hand clapping
a schoolyard blog
joy of knitting
lead and gold
damian penny
annika's journal
little miss attila
no credentials
university diaries
trying to grok
a constrained vision
victory soap
business pundit
right reason
quid nomen illius?
sister toldjah
the anchoress
reflecting light
dr sanity
all things beautiful
dean esmay
brand mantra
economics unbound
dr melissa
dr helen
right on the left coast
digital Rules
college affordability
the energy blog
tinkerty tonk
meryl yourish
kesher talk
assistant village idiot
evolving excellence
neptunus lex
the daily brief
roger scruton
bookworm room
villainous company
lean blog

site feed

A link to a website, either in this sidebar or in the text of a post, does not necessarily imply agreement with opinions or factual representations contained in that website.

<< current

An occasional web magazine.

For more information or to contact us, click here.

E-mails may be published, with or without editing, unless otherwise requested.

Monday, February 27, 2006  

Here is a New York Times op-ed titled We Can Live With a Nuclear Iran. The assumption seems to be that the Iranian regime will conduct itself in something resembling a rational manner.

The author of this piece really needs to reflect on the words of Ralph Peters, which I quoted several days ago:

One of the most consistently disheartening experiences an adult can have today is to listen to the endless attempts by our intellectuals and intelligence professionals to explain religious terrorism in clinical terms, assigning rational motives to men who have moved irrevocably beyond reason. We suffer under layers of intellectual asymmetries that hinder us from an intuititive recognition of our enemies.

In 1940, Paul Reynaud--who became Prime Minister of France just two months before the German invasion--incisively explained what was at stake at that point in time, and why it was so much greater than what had been at stake in 1914:

People think Hitler is like Kaiser Wilhelm. The old gentleman only wanted to take Alsace-Lorraine from us. But Hitler is Genghis Khan. (approximate quote)

There were many self-defined "realists" at the time who thought Reynaud was exaggerating...just as there are many "realists" today who assert that the Iranian regime can be dealt with through the ordinary methods of the balance of power. They are missing Peters' point about the danger of assigning rational motives to those who have moved irrevocably beyond reason.

See also my post When National Leaders are Madmen.

8:21 PM


Carnival of the Capitalists is up at Ideologic.

And Carnival of the Insanities is up at Dr Sanity.

9:30 AM

Sunday, February 26, 2006  

When Ben Franklin conducted his kite experiments, one of the things he did was to store some of the electricity coming down the string in a Leyden Jar--a glass jar with foil on both sides of the glass. The Leyden Jar is an example of what would now be called a capacitor. It now appears that capacitors, with some recently developed enhancements, may play an important role in the solution to today's energy problems.

Like batteries, capacitors store electricity, but they work in a completely different manner. While batteries are based on chemical reactions, capacitors store electrical charges directly. For decades, capacitors have been heavily used in electrical and electronics applications. In these applications, they store electricity, but usually for short periods--from fractions of a second down to very small fractions of a second.

In recent years, the ultracapacitor has been developed; it has much more energy storage capability than the conventional capacitor. Ultracapacitors may soon be able to compete with batteries for a wide range of energy storage applications. One advantage of the ultracapacitor (vis-a-vis the battery) lies in its ability to be charged and discharged very quickly. This could be important in hybrid and electric vehicles: rapid discharging is important when you want a quick burst of acceleration; rapid charging is important when you need to turn the vehicle around without several hours of downtime. Another ultracapacitor advantage is longer life: the device can survive many more charge-discharge cycles than can a battery, which has obvious economic importance. Today's ultracaps do not, however, store as much energy as an equivalently-sized battery: they are all about power (the rate of doing work) rather than energy (the capability for doing work over time.)

According to this estimate, the ultracapacitor market will be only $88 million in 2006, but is projected to be more than twice that by 2009. A major player in the ultracap market is Maxwell Technologies, which has a revenue run rate of about $48 million. Maxwell's ultracaps are being used for a range of applications, including medical, space, and consumer electronics. Here's a press release about the use of ultracaps to power electric forklifts--in this application, the ultracaps will work in conjunction with hydrogen fuel cells. And here's a piece on the use of ultracaps for hybrid buses.

Maxwell isn't the only player in this emerging industry: here's a post about EEStor, a rather secretive start-up in Austin. Kleiner Perkins is an investor in this venture.

Right now, ultracaps are useful mainly for "surge" energy. In a hybrid car, for example, the ultracap might work in conjunction with a battery and a small engine, with the ultracap used to provide power when you floor it on a hill and the battery providing longer-term storage. But with continued improvements in cost and in energy density--if numbers like those being quoted in the post on EEStor can really be achieved--the ultracap might be able to replace the battery entirely. Ultracaps could also be used for plug-in hybrids or for pure electrics; for the latter application, their fast recharge time would be a major advantage. And the improved acceleration performance possible with the ultracap (owing to its fast discharge capability) should be a real factor in consumer appeal. One issue with ultracaps, though, will be leakage: some percentage of the charge, variously quoted at 1%-3%, is lost every day. This won't matter all that much for hybrids; it matters a lot for pure electrics.

In addition to their applications in transportation, it seems to me that ultracaps could play an important role in the electrical grid. One of the major plagues of grid operation is the difficulty of storing electricity: having ultracaps with a few seconds to a few hours of storage capacity scattered around the grid should make an important contribution to stability and economics.

Wouldn't Benjamin Franklin be thrilled to see where the Leyden Jar has led? As he used to sing while working on his equipment:

If I could save charge in a bottle
The first thing that I’d like to do...

(with apologies to Jim Croce)

As always, nothing on this weblog should be considered as investment advice.

hat tip: Ergosphere.

7:40 AM

Saturday, February 25, 2006  

When I visited the WWII bombers a few days ago, I picked up a copy of The Air Marshals, by Allen Andrews. It's an analysis of the leadership styles and management techniques of those who ran the air forces of Britain (Dowding, Portal, Harris, Tedder), the U.S. (Arnold), and Germany (Goering).

Early in the book, the author tells of the work (in late 1939) of Birger Dahlerus, a Swedish industrialist who was attempting to act as an intermediary between the British and German governments. After one meeting with Hitler, Dahlerus found the Fuehrer's behavior so bizarre that he remarked:

He seemed more like a phantom from a story book than a real human being.

Isn't this the way that the present leadership of Iran would strike any normal person? More like phantoms from story books than real human beings. (See the post immediately below this one for one minor example of this regime's bizarre behavior.)

But storybook phantoms can have real-world consequences. A few pages earlier in the book, the author excerpts a bizarre telephone call made by Goering to Nazi agents in Vienna (1938), and reflects:

It is at once instructive and humiliating for ordinary responsible citizens all over the world to realize that half-extemporized orders of this not notably intelligent nature, such as might have been issued by an astute master pirate, were the words that changed the maps of Europe, sent political panic coursing through the West, whipped up rearmament, started a war in which thirty millions died, and altered the record of history for ever.

There are too many people today in positions of influence who refuse to recognize that phantoms from story books sometimes do become the leaders of nations... and that to treat such leaders as rational decision-makers is itself highly irrational.

We ignore this reality at our deadly peril.

7:57 PM

Friday, February 24, 2006  

...have serious mental problems.

And regimes who employ people like this should not have nuclear weapons.

6:13 PM


...and everyone else who is interested in management and leadership. Laurence Haughton is conducting a Microsoft Live Meeting on Feb 28th; the subject is The Art of Follow-Through: How to make sure that every team executes successfully. More information and a sign-up sheet here.

I discussed some of the ideas in one of Haughton's books in this post.

4:09 PM

Thursday, February 23, 2006  

Noon. Tommorow, Friday, Feb 24. Danish Embassy. Downtown Washington, DC.

UPDATE: The report is that there were about 200 people there--not great, but I guess pretty reasonable given the short notice and the time of day. Instapundit has links and pictures.

7:17 PM


In 1933, the Oxford Union--which calls itself "the world's foremost debating society"--considered the resolution: Resolved, that this house will in no circumstances fight for King and country. The resolution passsed, 275 to 153, and contributed to the intellectual climate which allowed Germany to rearm and pursue its expansionistic policies. Certainly, any Nazi official who became aware of the results of this debate would have been greatly encouraged.

In 2003, the Oxford Union debated the resolution: This House believes the USA is the greatest barrier to world peace. this resolution failed, but not by a wide margin: 195-151.

And in 2006, the Cambridge Union debated the resolution: Zionism is a danger to the Jewish People. This one passed, 125 to 121, with 71 abstentions. See what Melanie Phillips has to say about this affair.

Melanie also writes about the response of the Chief Rabbi of the U.K., Sir Jonathan Sacks, to the preposterous decision by the Church of England to "divest" from certain companies doing business with Israel, and the repellant answer given by a church spokesman to this response.

8:23 AM

Wednesday, February 22, 2006  

..if you live in, or anywhere near, the DC metro area. Christopher Hitchens is organizing a demonstration in support of Denmark and its defense of the right of free speech. If you can possibly make it, please participate.

It will be at noon, this Friday, outside the Danish embassy. Check the link for more details.

If you blog, please post something about this.

6:58 PM


I have more on ethanol-related trade issues at Chicago Boyz.

9:43 AM

Monday, February 20, 2006  

I knew Sheila would have an extensive series of posts, and she did not disappoint.

6:30 PM


I'm in Florida right now, and what should fly over yesterday evening but a World War II bomber, followed a few minutes later by another one. The Collings Foundation Wings of Freedom Tour is now in progress; schedule here. The planes making the tour are a B-17, a B-25, and a B-24. You can visit the airplanes for a small donation, and for a substantially larger donation, you can actually take a ride! If the tour is coming to an airport near you, these planes are well worth seeing.

As a corrective to any excessive glamorization of WWII air combat, I recommend the air force poems of Randall Jarrell, a major American poet who served in the Army Air Forces during that conflict. Here is Death of the Ball Turret Gunner:

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

The above is probably Jarrell's best-known work, but there are many more poems derived from his WWII experiences. One of the most haunting is A Front (as in "cold front"), which begins:

Fog over the base: the beams ranging
From the five towers pull home from the night
The crews cold in fur, the bombers banging
Like lost trucks down the levels of the ice.

(One of the bombers has lost half of its radio equipment: it can transmit, but cannot receive...and thereby, has lost its navigation as well as its communications, since it cannot receive the signals from the electronic navigation stations ("the beams ranging from the five towers") which were to guide it home. Those on the ground can hear the bomber crew, but their attempts to help are lost in the void.)

And here's an excerpt from Losses:

In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school--
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen.
When we lasted long enough they gave us medals;
When we died they said, "Our casualties were low."

They said, "Here are the maps"; we burned the cities.

7:58 AM

Sunday, February 19, 2006  

This month in 1946, the ENIAC--generally considered to be the first electronic computer--was unveiled to the public. ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator) contained almost 18,000 vacuum tubes. The machine's memory contained 20 registers, each of 10 decimal digits--that's equivalent to about 100 bytes in modern terminology. Basic operation speed was 5,000 additions per second; multiplication speed was 385 operations/second.

These numbers portray a machine that was very slow compared to today's computers--but when built, ENIAC was much faster than any computing device that had previously existed. Indeed, it's been asserted that during ENIAC's brief career (it operated until 1955), it did more computing than had been performed by the entire human race prior to that time.

ENIAC, which was designed by Presper Eckert and John William Mauchley, was built by the U.S. Army for the primary purpose of creating artillery firing tables, a process which had previously been done by hand and by electromechanical (analog) computers. The first alternative was slow and labor-intensive; the second was limited in its accuracy.

Programming ENIAC was very different from programming a modern computer: it was accomplished by plugging in cables and setting switches to direct the flow of information as desired for a particular application. Interestingly, all of the original ENIAC programmers (and I don't think the term "programmer" even existed at the time) were women.

Here's an interview with ENIAC co-inventor Eckert, recorded in 1989 but only now being published.

7:32 PM


See my post over at Chicago Boyz.

6:15 PM

Friday, February 17, 2006  

This NYT editorial writer seems to prefer Putin's conciliatory approach to Hamas to some of the more aggressive approaches being consider by the Bush administration. I think this individual needs to reflect on the first paragraph in the excerpt from the Ralph Peters essay, in the post immediately below this one.

Meryl offers some reading material about the realities of Hamas.

10:35 AM

Wednesday, February 15, 2006  

Ralph Peters, the writer and former Army intelligence officer, has an article in The Weekly Standard (2/6) titled The Counterrevolution in Military Affairs. Like everything Peters writes, it's well worth reading--indeed, it's worth buying the magazine for. Samples:

One of the most consistently disheartening experiences an adult can have today is to listen to the endless attempts by our intellectuals and intelligence professionals to explain religious terrorism in clinical terms, assigning rational motives to men who have moved irrevocably beyond reason. We suffer under layers of intellectual asymmetries that hinder us from an intuititive recognition of our enemies.


Why is America blamed even when American involvement is minimal or even nonexistent? How has the most beneficial great power in history been transformed by the international media into a villain of relentless malevolence?

There's a straightforward answer: In their secular way, the world's media are as unable to accept the reality confronting them as are Islamic fundamentalists.


We have reached the point (as evidenced by the first battle of Fallujah) where the global media can overturn the verdict of the battlefield. We will not be defeated by suicide bombers in Iraq, but a chance remains that the international media may defeat us.

An important article that deserves close reading and careful thought.

7:34 PM


...and others of the same ilk.

4:28 PM

Monday, February 13, 2006  

Here's a letter from the Mayor of Tall'Afar, Iraq, to the soldiers of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment:

In the Name of God the Compassionate and Merciful

To the Courageous Men and Women of the 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment, who have changed the city of Tall’ Afar from a ghost town, in which terrorists spread death and destruction, to a secure city flourishing with life.

To the lion-hearts who liberated our city from the grasp of terrorists who were beheading men, women and children in the streets for many months.

To those who spread smiles on the faces of our children, and gave us restored hope, through their personal sacrifice and brave fighting, and gave new life to the city after hopelessness darkened our days, and stole our confidence in our ability to reestablish our city.

Please read the whole thing.

6:32 PM


I had lunch on Saturday with the talented Little Miss Attila, who, despite her fearsome nom de blog, is very nice.

1:07 PM

Sunday, February 12, 2006  

Today's New York Times has an article (in the business section) with the title "Iraq War's Virtues May Be Debatable. The Profits Aren't." The article includes a table showing the profits of five defense contractors, which is introduced with the words: "Just look at the money machines these contractors have become as the war drags on."

Okay. Let's look. One of the companies included in the table is Raytheon. The statistics shown in the table for RTN are these: 2005 profit, $.9 billion; percentage change since 2004, 108.9%.

Let's look a little deeper. From Raytheon's 2005 financial summary, some key numbers are:

Revenue $21894MM
Operating Income $1687MM
Net Income $871MM
Shareholders Equity $10709MM

A little simple division yields some common measures of profitability:
Operating Margin 7.7%
Profit Margin 3.9%
Return on Equity 8.1%

Now let's compare this with another company: The New York Times Company. From that company's 2005 financial summary:

Revenue $3372MM
Operating Incomes $481MM
Net Income $259MM
Shareholders Equity $1560MM
(Balance sheet items were not included in the NYT earnings release, so I used an analyst's estimate for equity...it's very close to the most recent reported quarterly data, and shareholders equity is not a number that usually changes greatly from quarter to quarter.)

Doing some division, again we have:

Operating Margin 14.2%
Profit Margin 7.6%
Return on Equity 16.6%

So, operating margin at NYT is almost twice what it is at RTN (14.2% vs 7.7%.) Profit margin (net income / sales) is also much higher: 7.6% vs 3.9%. And return on equity, which to my mind is a better indication of profitability than either of the other numbers, is more than twice as much.

But what about the growth in profit? The NYT article correctly shows that Raytheon's net income grew 108.9% from $417MM in 2004 to $871MM in 2005. This is the kind of growth that the NYT can only dream about (its net income fell from $292MM to $259MM over the same period.)

As everyone should know, high percentage growth is much easier to achieve on a small base. And Raytheon's 2004 results were lousy: return on sales was 2%, and return on equity a truly awful 3.9%. Recovering from a bad year to something like a normal state does not indicate exorbitant profits, even if the percentage gain is very high.

I don't see how anyone who knows anything about finance could look at the 2004 and 2005 results for Raytheon and conclude that the company is making unreasonable levels of profit. Maybe this is the case with some of the other companies listed in the article, but the data shown is inadequate for the drawing of a conclusion one way or the other...indeed, the selective presentation of information in this article is an open invitation to the drawing of invalid conclusions.

9:27 AM

Friday, February 10, 2006  

The Town Manager of Stoughton, MA, decided to fly the Danish flag in solidarity with that beleaguered country. Read about the reaction from some citizens.

(via Lead and Gold)

4:21 PM

Thursday, February 09, 2006  

See my post over at Chicago Boyz.

5:59 PM


A report from Denmark on the impact and potential of the "Buy Danish" movement. I checked, and a Google search on the phrase "buy Danish" really does get around 100,000 hits.

(See my earlier FreedomShopping post for context on this).

If you have a Safeway in your area, the "Safeway Select" brand of Blue Cheese called "Primo Taglio" is imported from Denmark (even though the name certainly doesn't sound Danish) and is quite good. (I gave a few crumbs of it to my dog, and now he desperately wants more.)

5:43 PM


Terrence Moore, principal of a charter school in Colorado, writes about his experiences interviewing certified teachers...ed-school graduates one and all...for job openings in his school. There's the "social studies" candidate who says his favorite time period in history is the 20th century...but who doesn't know the difference between Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill. And there's the "reading specialist" with the master's degree in "literacy"..and who says he uses phonics a lot in teaching reading..but is unable to answer basic questions about the sounds that can be made by a particuar letter. Moore goes on to sum up the problem:

Perhaps more egregious than such appalling ignorance of the basic facts in subjects education majors propose to teach your children is their failure to understand that such ignorance should be a disqualification for entering the field of teaching altogether. To education majors, knowing the basic outline of World War II, including some details of the life of that "other guy" Winston Churchill, is wholly unnecessary. In the mind of the typical ed-school graduate, the substance of what one is to teach students--whether history, math, science, or grammar--is just something a teacher "looks up" moments before teaching a subject, or dresses up with some gimmick because the teacher does not imagine young people could have a natural interest in a subject he has no fondness for himself.

Indeed, it does seem that the idea that knowledge is actually both valuable and interesting is alien to many "educators."

I think the words that need to be spoken to those who run America's ed schools are those used by Oliver Cromwell in dismissing the Long Parliament:

You have sat too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!

Thanks to A Constrained Vision for the link.

1:05 PM

Tuesday, February 07, 2006  

The BBC manages to turn a program on ancient Rome into an opportunity to endorse moral equivalency. Melanie Phillips was watching:

I was watching Boris Johnson's BBC2 TV programme The Dream of Rome this evening, marvelling at his re-invention in yet another new guise as telly presenter, when I nearly fell out of my armchair having heard him say that the Christians who martyred themselves for their faith under the Romans were the equivalent of modern Islamic suicide bombers. What astounding moral illiteracy. The Christians were real martyrs; that is, they were killed, or sometimes actively sought their own killing, for their faith. The Islamic suicide bombers are mass murderers; they kill others for their faith. The Islamic suicide bombers use their bodies as lethal weapons to do mass murder. That is not martyrdom but homicide.

Shouldn't the Tories' higher education spokesman know the difference?

4:45 PM

Sunday, February 05, 2006  

The invention of the transistor was an event of tremendous economic importance. Although there was already a substantial electronics industry, based on the vacuum tube, the transistor gave the field a powerful shot of adrenaline and brought about the creation of vast amounts of new wealth.

As almost everyone knows, the transistor was invented by John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley, all researchers at Bell Laboratories, in 1946. But a recent article in Spectrum suggests that the true history of the transistor is more complex...and interesting not only from the standpoint of the history of technology, but also from the standpoint of economic policy.

The story begins in Germany, during World War II. Owing to short-sighted decisions by the Nazi leadership, Germany's position in radar technology had fallen behind the capabilities of Britain and of the United States. (Reacting the the prospect of airborne radar, Herman Goering had said "My pilots do not need a cinema on board!")

But by 1943, even the dullest Nazi could see the advantages that the Allies were obtaining from radar. In February of that year, Goering ordered an intensification of radar research efforts. One of the scientists assigned to radar research was Herbert Matare, who had been an electronics experimenter as a teenager and had gone on the earn a doctorate.

A key issue in military radar was the need for shorter wavelengths--which allowed for better target resolution (such as the ability to pick up the periscope of a submerged submarine) and also facilitated the miniaturization of radar equipment. Vacuum tube diodes (diode: a device that allows electricity to travel only in one direction) did not work well at these wavelengths, because the distance between the electrodes in the tube was too large. Matare was working with an alternative: crystal rectifiers similar to those he had tinkered with as a teenager.

In the course of this work, he noticed that when configured in a certain way, a device made of germanium could do more that provide a one-way gate: it could amplify. A small signal could control a more powerful current. In principal, the vacuum tube--fragile, bulky, power-hungry, and hot-running--could be replaced with devices of this type.

Focused on his war work, Matare did not have time to pursue the possibilities of his invention. (And very fortunately, he and his colleagues in German science and industry never came close to matching the Allied achievements in radar.) After the war, Matare moved to Paris and went to work for a Westinghouse subsidiary, Compagnie des Freins et Signaux Westinghouse. There he met Heinrich Welker, another German, a theoretical physicist who, remarkably, had also developed a transistor-like device, and the two men began working together on understanding the technology and its potential. After they began obtaining consistent results, in 1948, they contacted the director of the PTT, the French government agency responsible for posts and telecommunications. He was too busy to come by for a demonstration. But after the announcement of the transistor by Bell Labs in July of that year, there was a sudden upsurge of interest in the Welker/Heinrich project, and the PTT minister found time to visit the lab. He urged them to apply for a French patent on the device and also suggested that they call it by a slighly different name: the transistron. By 1949, the device was in limited commercial use: first as an amplifier on the Paris-Limoges telephone line, and later on the lines running from France to Algiers.

The Spectrum article tells what happened next: not much. But the French government and Westinghouse failed to capitalize on the technical advantages in semiconductors that they then appeared to have. After Hiroshima, nuclear physics had emerged as the dominant scientific discipline in the public mind, and nuclear power was widely heralded as the wave of the future. France became enchanted with puruing the nuclear genie unbottled in the 1940s, while ignorant of its promising transistron.

Matare and Welker struggled on in Paris, but as support for their work fell off, they started looking for other alternatives. In 1951, Welker went to work at Siemens, eventually becoming head of R&D and making important contributions to optoelectronics. Matare started his own company, Intermetall, which was based on Dusseldorf. In 1953, he demonstrated what was probably the world's first transistor radio--built around four Intermetall transistors. He sold the firm to a U.S.-based company, Clevite Corp, which failed to aggressively pursue the potential of the transistor.

It was another U.S. firm, Texas Instruments, that first made a substantial business out of the transistor. Most of the enterprises built around the emerging semiconductor field were in two countries: the U.S. and Japan. Neither France nor Germany profited as they could have from the work of Matare and Welker.

Why did things turn out this way? Michael Riordan, author of the Spectrum article, suggests a couple of factors: first, that Bell Labs had a better theoretical understanding of how transistors actually worked, leading to improved devices and production techniques; second, the presence of more of a talent infrastructure in the U.S. due to its intensive wartime radar work. But I would also emphasize another point.

When governments become involved in technology choices, they tend to pursue that which is fashionable at the moment...and in France in the early 1950s, that was nuclear power, not semiconductor electronics. Corporations, too, often pursue that which is fashionable or that which has short-term payoff. But in a healthy and innovative economy, the high-potential idea that is dropped by one corporation will be picked up by another--either an existing one, or a startup. (As Intel was founded by individuals who didn't think Fairchild Semiconductor was moving fast enough to exploit the integrated circuit.)

Research and development is very important, but it's not enough. For R&D to achieve results, there must also exist a culture which facilitates that commercialization of the new technology. Such cultures tend to involve a high degree of decentralization--either within an enterprise or across an entire economy--precisely because everything cannot be foreseen in a master plan.

Unfortunately, it appears that many individuals in leadership positions fail to grasp the importance of decentralization and individual entrepreneurship--especially in government and especially in Europe. See this rather depressing document called Creating an Innovative Europe (referenced in Michael Mandel's post here) which contains language like:

Large scale strategic actions are called for in key sectors to provide an environment in which supply-side measures for research investment can be combined with the process of creating a demand and a market.

The Group identifies several examples: e-Health, Pharmaceuticals, Energy, Environment, Transport and Logistics, Security, and Digital Content.

They call for an independent High Level Coordinator to be appointed to orchestrate European action in each area across Member States, different parts of government and the Commission, business, academia and other stakeholders.

Would such a document, written in 1950, have identified "semiconductor electronics' as a "key sector?" It seems unlikely, based on the experience of Matare and Welker. And, even if the planners had had the vision to understand the importance of the transistor, would a top-down process involving "stakeholders" (like incumbent vacuum-tube manufacturers) have ever permitted it to leave the lab for the production floor?

9:14 AM

Saturday, February 04, 2006  

Michael Mandel, Chief Economist of BusinessWeek, has a thought-provoking cover story in the current issue: Why The Economy Is a Lot Stronger than You Think. He argues that in knowledge-based economy, the conventional metrics for things like balance of trade and national savings rate are seriously misleading.

Mike also has a lively blog, and is looking for reactions to the article in the comments.

8:24 AM

Thursday, February 02, 2006  

After 145 years, Western Union has terminated its telegram service. (Telegraphy in the broader sense, though, is still very much alive: the Internet, along with other forms of data communication, represents an evolution of telegraph technology.)

In his post on this subject, Don Sensing observed that "For military members telegrams always had a measure of foreboding." This comment reminded me of an incident that took place during WWII.

At the time of the D-day invasion, Bedford, Virginia had a population of only 3200--but 170 soldiers from that town went ashore in the first assault wave. For whatever reason--congested communications facilities, fog of war--their fate remained unknown for several weeks to those back home.

On the morning of July 17, a 21-year-old telegraph operator named Elizabeth Teass went to work as usual. The telegraph office was located in Green's Drug Store. She switched on her machine, pressed a key that rang a bell in the hub office at Roanoake, and typed a "Good morning" message.

Back came a message from Roanoake, "We have casualties," and then the machine started printing a telegram. A sequence number, a name and address, and then the sinister words THE SECRETARY OF WAR REGRETS TO INFORM YOU.

Elizabeth had received casualty telegrams before. But this time, when the telegram ended, the machine did not stop. Another message header and then again THE SECRETARY OF WAR REGRETS TO INFORM YOU.

As the teleprinter clacked out telegram after telegram, she sat there in increasing horror, taking the narrow strips that emerged from the machine and glueing them to the message forms. Sometimes the machine would fall silent, and she could hope that there would be no more telegrams. But then it would start again.

On that day, Teass received nine casualty telegrams. But there were still more to come. By the end of the summer, it was known that 21 Bedford men had been killed on D-Day.

More on Bedford and D-Day here.

2:32 PM

Wednesday, February 01, 2006  

Daphne Patai, a professor at the University of Massachussetts, tells of an incident she witnessed several years ago. The setting was "a seminar on multiculturalism held at a leading U.S. research center."

All the standard postmodernist cliches debunking the merits of a liberal education were voiced, and when at one point an anthropologist who worked on Southeast Asia expressed a belief in the persistence of some universals underlying human societies, the immediate response was disdainful dismissal. Almost no one in this group of several dozen scholars could see anything other than local or regional interests battling it out, or--the only other alternative--complete cultural and epistemological relativism. Ideas of disinterested knowledge and the honest pursuit of truth were steered at as mystifications long since exploded.

But then something unusual happened: a local philanthopist, also attending the seminar, asked toward the end of the discussion: In view of what you've all been saying, why on earth should anyone support higher education? (emphasis added) Instantly the group reconfigured its allegiances, and to my astonishment, a parade of entirely traditional justifications of the importance of the university as an impartial site for research and teaching not subjected to the political passions of the moment was trotted out, replete with affirmations of commitment to precisely those liberal values that for the preceding day and a half had been roundly denounced.

(The Patai excerpt is from the FIRE quarterly; originally published in The Times of London)

3:07 PM

This page is powered by Blogger.