Politics, culture, business, and technology

I also blog at ChicagoBoyz.


Selected Posts:
Sleeping with the Enemy
Dancing for the Boa Constrictor
Koestler on Nuance
A Look into the Abyss
Hospital Automation
Made in America
Politicians Behaving Badly
Critics and Doers
Foundations of Bigotry?
Bonhoeffer and Iraq
Misvaluing Manufacturing
Journalism's Nuremberg?
No Steak for You!
An Academic Bubble?
Repent Now
Enemies of Civilization
Molly & the Media
Misquantifying Terrorism
Education or Indoctrination?
Dark Satanic Mills
Political Violence Superheated 'steem
PC and Pearl Harbor
Veterans' Day Musings
Arming Airline Pilots
Pups for Peace
Baghdad on the Rhine

Book Reviews:
Forging a Rebel
The Logic of Failure
The Innovator's Solution
They Made America
On the Rails: A Woman's Journey

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Wednesday, February 28, 2007  

Barry Ritholtz has interesting data and analysis.

6:28 AM

Sunday, February 25, 2007  

General Electric has announced the development of a new and highly-efficient incandescent light bulb. The initial production bulbs--slated by be out by 2010--will be about twice as efficient as ordinary incandescents, and GE says that the new lamp technology will eventually reach a 4X efficiency multiple, putting it in the same range as CFLs. (Compact Flourescent Lamps)

GE is also a major supplier of CFLs, and the sale of these lamps through Wal-Mart has been highly publicized. The light quality of CFLs, though, is not to everyone's taste--see this extensive discussion at Asymmetrical Information. The new incandescent, according to GE, will offer good light quality as well as avoiding any start-up delays when turned on. Presumably, it will also--unlike the CFL--be shaped like a normal incandescent bulb.

This strikes me as a pretty big deal. The references in the press release to Thomas Edison--who is a figure of great symbolic importance in GE's history and self-image--seem to me to imply that GE top management thinks this technology will indeed be turned into a practical product, and that this will happen in the reasonably near term.

The decision to announce the HEI(tm) at this particular time is probably a function of politics. Many jurisdictions throughout the world are considering legislation that would ban the incandescent in its traditional form. GE clearly wants to ensure that such legislation is drafted in terms of efficiency standards rather than a specific technology requirement for CFLs versus incandescents.

GE is a big company, and can take care of itself in lobbying battles. I wonder, though--what if the new incandescent technology had been invented by a small startup company? By the time it reached the market, CFL-only edicts might well have been in place in major jurisdictions, and the new incandescent technology could have easily been frozen out. People who don't like CFLs--some think the light is ugly, some even claim it gives them headaches--would have just been out of luck.

Regulation which is not carefully thought out can often have the effect of freezing technologies at sub-optimal stages and also freezing out new enterprises.

GE trademark acknowledged

9:01 AM

Saturday, February 24, 2007  

This post compares two school systems--Oakland, in northern California, and Compton, in southern California. Both have been trying to improve their performance--Compton has tried to reduce class size, boost teachers’ credentials, adopt a tougher curriculum, etc. Oakland has taken an approach based on competition and parental choice:

(In Oakland), kids are not required to attend their neighborhood school, especially if it is failing. Rather, they can pick any regular public or charter school in their district and take their education dollars with them; more students therefore means more revenues for schools. Furthermore, as the name suggests, the revenues are “weighted” based on the difficulty of educating each student, with low-income and special-needs kids commanding more money than smart, well-to-do ones. Schools have to compete for funding, but the upside is that they have total control over it.

Based on the statistics cited in the linked article, it appears that the kids in Oakland are doing better than those in Compton.

As regular readers of this blog know, just about everything reminds me of something else. And this post reminded me of something Peter Drucker wrote many years ago (in The Practice of Management, IIRC.)

Drucker compared two foundries, both of which were components of large manufacturing companies. In company A, the foundry was a purely internal operation--it made castings only for use in the company's own manufacturing operations. In company B, the foundry made castings for internal use, but was also allowed to sell its services on the open market.

Over the years, Drucker observed, the company "A" foundry did a workmanlike job, but nothing spectacular. The same guy ran the place for well over a decade. The company "B" foundry, on the other hand, was continually at the forefront of innovation--and several of the foundry managers had been promoted to other parts of the business.

For both the school systems and the foundries, competition made the difference. When an organization deals only with those who are required to use its services, whether these be students in a school district or users of castings in a corpoation, there will be less dynamism than in an organization that must submit its services to the free choice of outsiders.

6:46 AM

Friday, February 23, 2007  

Here's a high school English teacher who previously worked as a waitress and for an airline. She has some interesting perspectives, and tells about a difficult training class she once took for a new job--an experience which helps her to understand what her own students are going through when they cannot keep up with the material.

(via Joanne Jacobs)

6:46 PM

Sunday, February 18, 2007  

Once upon a time, the shipment of fruits and vegetables from West Coast to East Coast was done almost exclusively by rail. Beginning in the 1950s, though, trucks captured the dominant market share in this segment. Now, a new venture aims to swing a big slice of the perishables traffic back to the rails. Railex has built very large refrigerated distribution centers, one in Wallula, WA and the other in Albany, NY, and linked these facilities together with unit train service operated by Union Pacific and CSX. The distribution centers are so big that they contain 2-mile loop tracks. Trains are 55 cars long and run straight through, with no intermediate switching. The advertised schedule is 5 days, but 3 or 4 days is usually achieved. The cargo--pears, apples, onions, asparagus, broccoli--is offloaded at Albany and shipped by truck to final destinations within a 250-mile radius.

Each train carries the equivalent of about 200 truckloads. The coast-to-coast rail journey consumes 40,000 gallons of diesel fuel. Moving the same cargo by truck would use something like 150,000 gallons. Trains are once per week at present, but Railex hopes to expand the service in the near future.

Related post here.

UPDATE: See also my review of Linda Niemann's book about working for the Southern Pacific in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Niemann got a PhD in English before joining the railroad, and she is an exceptional writer.

8:11 AM

Saturday, February 17, 2007  

Dr Melissa writes about mixing the ingredients...in cooking and in life.

6:49 PM

Thursday, February 15, 2007  

During WWII, the British used electomechanical devices called bombes to break the German Enigma code. The bombe in its earliest form was developed by the Poles, but was considerably enhanced by the British. (The name probably came from an ice cream dessert popular among the Polish mathematicians who did the original work)

Following WWII, strict secrecy was maintained concerning the codebreaking activities, and all of the bombes were eventually destroyed. Now, a group of volunteers has reconstructed a working bombe--it may be seen at Bletchley Park, which was Britain's main codebreaking center during the war.

The original British bombe, named "Victory," was delivered in March 1940. It was followed by a considerably improved model named "Agnus Dei"--Lamb of God, a strange name for what was, after all, basically a weapon. Additional improvements were made throughout the war, and by May 1945 there were more than 200 machines in service.

Codebreaking, though, was by no means a purely mechanical function--it required considerable human insight and intuition. Few professional cryptanalysts were available, and those tasked with the work were mostly academics--there were many mathematicians, including the tragic genius Alan Turing, but also quite a few classicists. Bletchley also employed a large number of young women, most of whom performed operational and maintenance functions but some of whom served as cryptanalists. One of these was Mavis Lever, who was halfway through a degree in German when the war began:

I was concentrating on German romantics and then I realized the German romantics would soon be overhead and I though well, I really ought to do something better for the war effort. I said I'd train as a nurse and their response was: "Oh no you don't. You use your German." So I thought, great. This is going to be an interesting job, Mata Hari, seducing Prussian officers. But I don't think either my legs or my German were good enough because they sent me to GC&CS. (GC & CS = Government Code and Cypher School)

While analyzing one enemy message, Lever noticed that it did not contain a single instance of the letter "L"--significant because, due to a peculiarity of the Enigma machine's design, a letter could never be enciphered to itself. Following this observation, she was able to deduce that the operator must have been sending a test message, and lazily holding down the "L" key to generate a sequence of text. (Enigma advanced its coding wheels with each character, so "LLLLL" might be encoded as "JCXAT".) Using the assumption that the message contained all "L"s, it was possible to identify the wiring and settings of this particular Enigma machine and thence to break other traffic which had been enciphered on it.

Enigma machines were used by the Italians as well as the Germans, and in early 1941 Lever and her associates broke a very long Italian naval message--the battle plan for a night attack on a British convoy. The decoded message allowed Admiral Cunninham to set a trap for the Italians at Cape Matapan, resulting in the sinking of three heavy cruisers and a destroyer, plus damage to the battleship Vittorio Veneto. Three thousand Italian sailors were killed, and the Italian Navy never really recovered from the encounter.

The breaking of Enigma messages also contributed to the destruction of the Bismarck. Years after the war, Mavis Lever took her son to see the movie Sink the Bismarck:

I saw it go down and suddenly I really did feel quite sick. I put my head down and my son said to me after a while: "It's all right Mummy, it's gone down." He didn't know. But I was thinking how awful it was that one's breaking of a message could send so many people to the bottom. But that was war and that was the way we had to play it. If we thought about it too much we should never have been able to cope.

While it would be an overstatment to say that the decoding work won the war, it certainly shortened it considerably and saved many lives.

Each bombe was powered by a 3/4 horsepower electric motor...trivial by comparison with the 8,000 hp of a heavy bomber or the 100,000+ horsepower of a major warship. Yet in their impact on the outcome of the war, the bombes counted as much as large numbers of the more conventional weapons.

The Mavis Lever quotes are from Station X, by Michael Smith.

The reconstructed bombe may be heard at work, here.
And this site has much more information about Enigma, bombes, and Bletchley Park.

1:18 PM

Monday, February 12, 2007  

(originally posted 4/12/06)

Here we have some Iranians, dancing with what purport to be cylinders of uranium hexafluoride.

If it is indeed UF6, then it was made for one purpose. Killing people. Killing them by blast, by crushing, by burning, by radiation. If the Iranian regime is successful in creating nuclear weapons and mounting them in the nosecones of their ballistic missiles, then nuclear nightmares will never be far from the surface in the minds of those who live within the range of those missiles. (more on Iran's missile programs here.)

Many people in the West are attempting to minimize the seriousness of this situation. Their ostrich-like behavior reminds me of a passage in Arthur Koestler's 1950 novel, The Age of Longing. The action of the book takes place in France, where a massive Soviet invasion is clearly impending--but denial of this obvious reality abounds, especially among the intellectuals. Jules Commanche, a Resistance hero and a senior French security officer, explains this phenomenon to a young American woman:

No, Mademoiselle, don't be misled by appearances. France and what else is left of Europe may look like a huge dormitory to you, but I assure you nobody in it is really asleep. Have you ever spent a night in a mental ward? During the Occupation, a doctor who belonged to our group got me into one when the police were after me. It was a ward of more or less hopeless cases, most of whom were marked down for drastic neurosurgical operations. When the male nurse made his round, I thought everybody was asleep. Later I found out that they were only pretending, and that everybody was busy, behind closed eyes, trying to cope after his own fashion with what was coming to him. Some were pursuing their delusions with a happy smile, like our famous Pontieux (a philosopher modelled on Sartre--ed). Others were working on their pathetic plans of escape, naively hoping that with a little dissimulation, or bribery, or self-abasement, they could get around the tough male nurses, the locked doors, the operating table. Others were busy explaining to themselves that it wouldn't hurt, and that to have holes drilled into one's skull and parts of one's brain taken out was the nicest thing that could happen to one. And still, others, the quiet schizos who were the majority, almost succeede in making themselves believe that nothing would happen, that it was all a matter of exaggerated rumours, and that tomorrow would be like yesterday. These looked as if they were really asleep. Only an occasional nervous twitch of their lips or eyes betrayed the strain of disbelieving what they knew to be inevitable...No, Mademoiselle nobody was really asleep.

And today, some tell themselves that Iran's nuclear program is merely for electrical power generation. Others find comfort in the fact that nuclear deterrence did work with the Soviet Union--ignoring the very real differences between the situations, and also ignoring the number of times that superpower deterrence came close to catastrophe. Still others would like to believe that the Iranian regime can be mollified by throwing Israel to the wolves.

The threat of terrorism has already created a great deal of fear and intimidation, especially in Europe but also in the U.S. What we have seen thus far is nothing compared to the fear that will exist if Western Europe is within the range of nuclear-armed Iranian ballistic missiles.

A fear much like the waking nightmares of the patients in Koestler's mental ward.

UPDATE: At this Shrinkwrapped post, the blogger and several commenters report on conversations with friends who are unwilling to face the truth about the nature of the Iranian regime.

12:40 PM


Posting may be infrequent for the next few days...if I have time, I'll put up a rerun or two before I leave.

12:35 PM

Sunday, February 11, 2007  

In late January 1945--about the same point in time at which Auschwitz was liberated--Violette Szabo was shot, in the Ravensbrueck concentration camp. Like Noor Inayat Khan, about whom I have written previously, she was an agent of the shadowy British organization Special Operations Executive. Noor and Violette were very different people; the heroism was the same.

Violette Bushnell was born to a French mother and a British father; she grew up mostly in Britain. As a child, she had something of a reputation as a daredevil and a tomboy; this did not keep her from developing into an extraordinary beauty. She left school at 14, working first as a hairdresser and later as a clerk at a Woolworth's store. In 1940, shortly after the fall of France, she met and married Etienne Szabo, an officer in the French Foreign legion. After Etienne departed for the fighting in North Africa, Violette decided that she wanted to do something on her own to aid in the war effort. more

8:21 AM

Thursday, February 08, 2007  
It Takes Action, Not Just Words

Evolving Excellence writes about the challenges involved in bringing about change in an organization's culture. The discussion reminded me of something I posted back in 2004 as part of my Leadership Vignettes series:

The date, sometime during the late 1800s. The scene, a Westinghouse Electric factory complex in Pittsburgh, with an unpaved yard between buildings. A young laborer--a recent immigrant--is trundling a wheelbarrow, filled with heavy copper ingots, over an iron slab which serves as a track across the yard. The wheelbarrow goes off the track and into the mud. As the laborer struggles to get it back on the track, other workers begin mocking him.

At that moment, a man in formal clothing is crossing the yard. It is George Westinghouse, founder and chief executive of the company. He wades into the mud and helps the man get the wheelbarrow back on the slab.

Not a word was said, but powerful messages were transmitted: when someone is having problems, you don't laugh at him--you help him. When things go wrong, no one is too important to dive in and get his hands dirty.

This is a splendid example of how good organizational cultures are created: through the power of example. Think how much more effective Westinghouse's action was than the mere posting of a "corporate values statement" containing phrases such as "we must respect our fellow employees at all times." Not that such things lack value, but they are meaningless unless backed up by action.

It would have been very easy for Westinghouse to simply ignore the incident and continue on his way. After all, he was heading to a meeting about something--a multi-million-dollar bond issue, say--compared with which a wheelbarrow stuck in the mud would seem to pale in importance. But his instincts were the right ones.

(The story is from Empires of Light, by Jill Jonnes

5:58 PM

Wednesday, February 07, 2007  

I had never heard of Father John Hughes ("Dagger John"), but it sounds like his work among the New York Irish, between 1835 and 1864, had great consequences for the future of American society and specifically for the viability of the "melting pot."

7:18 AM

Monday, February 05, 2007  

I have an excerpt up at ChicagoBoyz.

6:22 PM

Sunday, February 04, 2007  

Civilisation is a precarious balance between barbaric vagueness and trivial order. Barbarism is unified but undifferentiated; triviality is differentiated but lacking in any central unity; the ideal of civilisation is the integration into a complete whole and with the minimum strain, of the maximum number of distinct activities.

--W H Auden (summarizing Whitehead)

Quoted in Reflections on a Ravaged Century, by Robert Conquest

Previous Worth Pondering

3:47 PM

Saturday, February 03, 2007  

Railroad construction vs intimate apparel--see my post at ChicagoBoyz.

8:19 AM

Thursday, February 01, 2007  

Ethanol cannot be shipped by pipeline--at least by the conventional pipelines we have today--and needs to move over long distances by either rail or water transportation. The Wall Street Journal (2/1) reports that ethanol traffic has already reached the point at which it is putting strain on some railroads. Shipments last year totalled 106,000 carloads, each of 30,000 gallons. Burlington Northern Railroad, for example, runs its Ethanol Express, a unit-train service, from the Midwest to California, two or three times a week. CSX offers EthX, which allows ethanol to the hauled by rail from the Midwest and then transferred to barge at Albany for shipment to destinations downriver. (service map here) Many rail lines are already congested from containers, coal, and grain, and the ethanol shipments must be slotted in with this other traffic.

According to another article in the same WSJ issue, at the current corn prices imported ethanol is competitive with the domestically-produced product. With corn at $3.70/bushel, the wholesale price of a gallon of domestic ethanol is about $1.90--while a gallon of sugarcane-based ethanol from Brazil costs only $1.75, including the cost of the long sea journey and the (ridiculous) tariff that is imposed on these imports. For ethanol demand on the east coast, of course, sea transportation of ethanol from Brazil avoids the long rail journey from the U.S. Midwest.

2:37 PM


A truly vile blog post, by an individual who writes for The Washington Post, on an offical Washington Post web site.

Note particularly Arkin's assertion that we ship "obscene amenities" into the war zone for our troops. So if you're living in 110 degree temperatures and exposed to constant danger of death or mutilation, then I guess in the mind of this guy it's "obscene" if you are provided with steak for dinner and ice cream for dessert and regular mail service. I wonder what Arkin would have thought about Gen Marshall's efforts to provide "amenities" for American troops during WWII? Would he have also considered these to be "obscene" amenities?

Michelle Malkin has a lot to say about this. So does John Hinderaker.

And Dan Riehl says The Press Has Gone To War. (And he doesn't mean war against the terrorist enemy.)

8:08 AM

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