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        "Restore(s) a little sanity into current political debate" - Kenneth Minogue, TLS  "Projects a more expansive and optimistic future for Americans than (the analysis of) Huntington" - James R. Kurth, National Interest  "One of (the) most important books I have read in recent years" - Lexington Green
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  • Archive for the 'Book Notes' Category

    Books That I Cannot Wait Not to Read

    Posted by on 4th February 2020 (All posts by )

    posted last week with some musings on the current publishing scene – er, that is what I took to calling the Literary Industrial Complex, back when I first went indy around 2008 – Indy Publishing that is. When people ask me who my publisher is, I look at them loftily, and reply, “I own the publishing company!” Which I do – a nice little small enterprise that I came into as junior partner, and which the original founder sold to me when she regretfully concluded that she could no longer carry on. We do other authors’ books, as well as my own; regional and small-press stuff, nothing which would ever excite the interest of the Literary Industrial Complex or the minions thereof. No point to it at this late date; as o I associated with at the time often repeated – “If readers love-love-love the book, they don’t really care who published it.”
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Blogging, Book Notes, Business, Diversions, Immigration | 12 Comments »

    The fake impeachment is almost over.

    Posted by Michael Kennedy on 1st February 2020 (All posts by )

    The hysteria that began when Donald Trump won the 2016 election has labored and brought forth a mouse that was dealt with today in the Senate. There are still a few blows to administer, as the State of the Union speech Tuesday before a humiliated Democrat Congress, and the final vote to end the farce Wednesday. The Mueller “Investigation” which ended the Russia Hoax, was anticlimax. Then came the Ukraine manufactured crisis.

    The level of corruption by the Biden family, is explored in Peter Schweizer’s book, All the Bidens, not just Hunter the coke addled son, but the brothers and even the sister, are riddled with corruption. The Ukraine matter is just one of the tales in the book.

    The Russia collusion was largely based on a “dossier” paid for by the Clinton campaign and probably the product of Russian disinformation. Thus, the political campaign that colluded with Russia was that of Hillary Clinton, not Trump.

    I had my doubts about Trump in the beginning.

    I am not a Trump supporter but I am intrigued at the steady progress he is making toward success. I have been a fan of Angelo Codevilla’s characterization of America’s Ruling Class.

    The recent collapse of Republican Congressional resistance to the left’s political agenda as noted in the surrender of Paul Ryan to the Democrats in the budget, has aggravated the Republican base and its frustration.

    Ryan went on Bill Bennett’s radio show on Tuesday to tell his side of the story, which involves the fact that he inherited from outgoing Speaker John Boehner an unfavorable budget framework, as well as some of the tradeoffs involved (especially defense spending). He also laid out the argument I’ve heard elsewhere, which is that he needed to “clear the decks” so that a real return to “regular order” budgeting next year will be possible. You may or may not be persuaded, but the contrast with Boehner is fairly plain, I think.

    Ryan, after the election, was a disgrace.

    In spite of Democrat and some Republican hysteria, Trump has moved along, cancelling crippling regulation and negotiating trade reforms with Mexico, Canada and China. Meanwhile the hysteria grew.

    Then Mueller flamed out with no payoff for the millions spent.

    Mueller’s anti-Trump staffers knew they were never going to be able to drive Trump from office by indicting him. The only plausible way to drive him from office was to prioritize, over all else, making the report public. Then, perhaps Congress would use it to impeach. At the very least, the 448 pages of uncharged conduct would wound Trump politically, helping lead to his defeat in 2020 — an enticing thought for someone who had, say, attended the Hillary Clinton “victory” party and expressed adulatory “awe” for acting AG (and fellow Obama holdover) Sally Yates when she insubordinately refused to enforce Trump’s border security order.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Big Government, Book Notes, Elections, Trump | 16 Comments »

    Are Professional Economists Idiots?

    Posted by Kevin Villani on 21st January 2020 (All posts by )

    That’s the view of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Wharton MBA, mathematical finance PhD and author of and .

    Taleb, a libertarian, aims his critique of intellectuals yet idiots (IYI) broadly but particularly at the contemporary economics profession. His targets are those described by :

    “The professional economist is the specialist who is instrumental in designing various measures of government interference with business.”

    The economics profession in the U.S. today is mostly involved in research and education that broadly investigates “market failures” or is directly engaged in public action – regulation, tax, expenditure and off budget guarantees – to manage industries and the macro-economy purportedly in the public interest. This is the opposite of laissez faire economics, political advice to a 17th century French minister to “let it be” later developed into an economic theory by the 18th century philosopher Adam Smith and popularized by 20TH century economist Milton Friedman, a libertarian and cofounder of FFE (and my advisor, twice removed). How and to what end did the economics profession evolve from a philosophy of leaving economic decisions to individuals in the marketplace with few exceptions to public economic management of the United States and global economy?

    From Individual to Collective Economic Decision-making

    Benjamin Franklin, considered the leading intellectual and inventor of the 18th century whose inventions are still in use today, admitted to Harvard at age 12, but instead indentured to his brother’s tannery, advised

    “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn”

    That’s his rendering of a Confucian saying dating back thousands of years. Taleb, a Wall Street trader prior to his writing and academic career, echoes Franklin’s emphasis on direct experience, arguing that capitalism isn’t an ideology or system but a set of mutually agreeable arrangements worked out over the centuries through trial and error by market participants who bear the full consequences of their decisions.

    Exiting the Constitutional Convention, Franklin, a great political theorist, when asked whether the Constitution had created a monarchy or republic replied

    “a republic, if you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 can keep it.”

    Taleb argues that if given the choice Franklin would have more accurately described the Constitution as a federation with powers over economic activity limited to promoting free trade among states. But these limits were lost more than a century later when progressive President Woodrow Wilson first created the Federal Reserve System then used entry into the to “make the world safe for democracy” as the means to create the “modern state” managed on scientific economic principles. A half century later, focusing on the “principal –agent” problem of the modern corporation run by managers who had no “skin in the game” in (1967) argued for public management by an intellectual elite, replacing business experience with academic success.

    From Competitive to Crony Market Capitalism and Rent-Seeking

    Franklin had warned the Convention delegates that

    “We must all hang together or most assuredly we will all hang separately.”

    The libertarian U.S. Constitution never mentioned democracy, and principal-agent conflicts are orders of magnitude worse in the public sector. As theorists have since noted, we neither hang deep state managers nor otherwise hold them accountable. Democracy may depend on the deep state as political theorist argued in a recent Wall Street Journal article (12/20/2019), but it can’t hold it accountable, as argued in a subsequent Journal article. Accountability erodes with each additional layer of government as decisions are elevated from “at risk” individuals in the marketplace to private, local, state, and federal governing bodies and is virtually eliminated at international entities (e.g., the IMF and World Bank). In no case is democracy a substitute for markets because the most intolerant minority with the most to gain or lose inevitably dominates.

    Market capitalism is . Is there a sufficiently good reason for collective economic management? Adam Smith never argued in his (1759) that the invisible hand was perfect: the actual favored nationalism over globalism. In (1776) he did say:

    “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices”


    but in the same paragraph admonished government from any attempt to do anything about it. Britain had long been what we now call a crony capitalist economy that heavily favored the political elite, which in Smith’s view further government intervention would only exacerbate.

    Taleb’s “idiots” are Galbraith’s inexperienced intellectual elite economic managers and advisors who have no skin in the game. Professional economists are generally smart, rational (many ideologically dedicated ”virtue merchants”) exploiting a one sided trade, in economic jargon crony “rent seekers” – redistributing income (rents) from the generally lower income non-politically connected. (I would argue there is a minority in resistance, primarily in business schools and conservative think tanks.) It’s their statistical analysis and reasoning to justify rent seeking opportunities he often finds idiotic, faux science or scientism.

    Public intervention to mitigate downside risk (as do e.g., public pension and retirement systems, housing, school and other entitlements, loan and deposit guarantees and other forms of insurance (e.g., flood) that can supposedly be financed without pain by taxing the idle rich or unlimited debt financed by money printing ( is a religion promising heaven without the threat of hell. Come Judgment Day when the system fails systemically, well insulated politicians and bureaucrats will subsequently label it “an extremely rare and random “Black Swan” event that nobody could have seen coming” and professional economists will join the chorus. The general public gets fleeced and market capitalism gets blamed.

    Name any of sixty economic issues and presidential candidate . The lyrics to the Beatles swan song album of a half century ago concludes “whisper words of wisdom, ”

    Kevin Villani

    —-

    Kevin Villani was chief economist at Freddie Mac from 1982 to 1985. He has held senior government positions, has been affiliated with nine universities, and served as CFO and director of several companies. He recently published on how politicians and bureaucrats with no skin in the game caused the sub-prime lending bubble and systemic financial system failure.

    Posted in Book Notes, Economics & Finance, Public Finance | 25 Comments »

    Book Review: The Good Jobs Strategy, by Zeynep Ton

    Posted by David Foster on 19th January 2020 (All posts by )

    Retail businesses are associated with low pay and high employee turnover–especially in the case of those retailers who offer low prices–and the same is largely true of customer-service call centers. It has been generally assumed that low wages in these operations are a necessary concomitant of low prices for consumers, and that only businesses serving a premium-price customer base can afford to pay high wages.

    Comes now , arguing that the low-wage strategy is not the only one available to retailers and other customer-service businesses that need to offer low prices, and that indeed often–usually–it is not the best strategy. She draws connections between the pay and hiring strategy of a business and the operational basis on which it is managed. To wit:

    Low pay and high turnover implies minimal employee training, because you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 can’t afford extensive training for employees who are going to leave in a matter of months. Minimal training implies less operational flexibility, because employees will not be cross-trained for other functions. An environment of high turnover and not-well-trained employees implies that employee functions must be strictly proceduralized, often to the point of excessive rigidity. And the lack of flexibility driven by minimal training and experience makes it harder to build in appropriate staffing “slack” to handle peak demand situations. The lack of slack and flexibility leads to endless emergency rescheduling of personnel, reducing morale and further increasing turnover. (She provides some vivid examples of what this endless and short-notice rescheduling can mean to the personal lives of employees.)

    On the opposite site, higher pay can contribute to lower turnover, making more-extensive training economically viable. Better-trained employees can more easily perform multiple functions, so that absences or staffing imbalances have a less-harmful effect. Better-trained and more highly-motivated employees don’t need micromanagement, either by human managers or by systems and procedures.

    Ho, hum, you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 say, what’s new?…people, especially consultants and professors, have been writing for years about why employees should be treated well and how it pays off to do so. How is this book different from a million of others?

    is, in my view, something quite different from the typical “just treat ’em right” sort of soft, warm, and cuddly advice often found in books and LinkedIn posts. The author ties the feasibility of the high-pay / high-expectations strategy to effective operational management, with the right systems, procedures, and incentives to enable such operational excellence.

    An interesting example the author mentions is that of 500vip彩票安卓下载官网 Depot. She credits much of the chain’s early success to its high-quality associates–“knowledgeable and helpful and willing to do whatever it took to help you500vip彩票安卓下载官网, even if that meant explaining to you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 that you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 didn’t actually need what you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 came to buy.” The associates tended to be former plumbers, electricians, etc–and they were employed full-time. HD grew very rapidly–“customers were driving two hours to go to its stores and, once they experienced the service and great prices, they kept coming back”

    But, with the growth came problems. There was a lack of discipline in the stores, in how the stores communicated with headquarters, how the company selected its products, and how it communicated with suppliers. “In 2000, bills and invoices were still processed by hand, and headquarters communicated to 1134 stores via fax because there was no companywide email.” In 2008, two senior IT executives (newly hired from Walmart) concluded that 500vip彩票安卓下载官网 Depot’s IT systems were about where Walmart’s had been in 1991. In summary, HD had become “a classic example of a service company that did not fully appreciate the role of operations in making customers and investors happy…Operations are all those factory-like activities that a business has to carry out in order to provide whatever it is that it sells. ..In a retail store, for example, operations involves things like having the right product in the right place, having a fast checkout, and having a clean store.” Zeynep Ton says that internal measurement systems often don’t focus on such matters–at one retailer she worked with, “Twenty percent of the (store manager’s) score had to do with the store’s customer interactions.” In this chain, “mystery shoppers” would score the store on things like how the employees greeted customers and made eye contact. But, she notes, “kindness or friendliness won’t make up for operational incompetence. ..It is hard for you500vip彩票安卓下载官网r dry cleaner to make you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 happy if you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 can’t wear you500vip彩票安卓下载官网r favorite suit to an important interview because they didn’t get it cleaned on time.”

    When Robert Nardelli became HD’s CEO in 2000, the systems and procedures problems were rapidly addressed. Gross margins and net profit margins increased substantially.

    BUT, “the culture of cost-cutting was soon felt at the local level, where store employees, who were once at the center of 500vip彩票安卓下载官网 Depot’s success and at the top of 500vip彩票安卓下载官网 Depot’s inverted pyramid, became a cost to be minimized.” The company started hiring part-timers, in the name of both staffing flexibility and cost…the knowledge level of the typical employee encountered by a customer fell noticeably. By 2005, HD was ranked lower in customer satisfaction than was K-mart. Same-store sales growth fell and even became negative. Nardelli left the company in 2007.

    Zeynep Ton summarizes: Operational designs don’t execute themselves. They depend on having the right people, and having those people motivated to do the right things.

    The book discusses the actual complexity that exists in many seemingly-simple businesses, and the fact that individual employee decisions do make a difference. “If you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 are a supermarket employee shelving a case of toothpaste and all but two of the tubes fit on the shelf, should you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 take the two extras back to storage or would it be better to squeeze them onto the the shelf, even if it doesn’t look so good? If a tomato looks just a little soft, should you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 take it to the back room now or wait until it looks worse? Maybe it will be just fine for a customer who wants to make tomato sauce…it is hard, if not impossible, to make such work so simple and simple and standardized that anyone can do it without exercising judgment. Things happen in real time at retail stores, and employees have to learn to react.”

    (It is incredibly refreshing to see a B-school professor thinking and writing at this level of detail and specificity)

    One interesting company discussed in the book is QuikTrip, a large chain of convenience stores combined with gas stations. The company is very selective in its hiring….the author compares getting hired there with the difficulty of getting into an Ivy League college. In the Atlanta area, 90% of applicants don’t even quality for an interview, and of those who do, only one out of five is selected. Turnover rate among QuikTrip employees is only 13%, far lower than the industry as a whole. The chain emphasizes speed and flexibility…”QuikTrip’s fast checkout is a site to behold. One thing that makes it so fast is that any employee can use any register at any time without making the customer wait. If you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 regularly shop at a supermarket, you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 know it’s no fun waiting for the cashier do a changeover. The other thing that makes QuikTrip so fast is that employees have been trained to ring up three customer per minute.” She says that the employees can even calculate change in their heads!

    Other examples discussed include Costco, Trader Joe’s, In-N-Out Burger, and the Spanish supermarket chain Mercadona.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Business, Customer Service, Human Behavior, Management, Tech | 31 Comments »

    Will America Vote to Drink the Kool Aid, Committing Mass Suicide?

    Posted by Kevin Villani on 11th January 2020 (All posts by )

    Presidential candidates are talking about every issue except the one that matters most for America’s future: “American Exceptionalism.”

    President Obama, a former professor of constitutional law, the notion of American exceptionalism. Conservative writer Jonah Goldberg in (2018) argues that the political abandonment of American Exceptionalism is eroding liberty, society and prosperity. Parenthetically, Taleb, (2018) concludes (pg. 86) ”the west is currently in the process of committing suicide” by tolerating the intolerant. The “mass suicide” metaphor became a reality when religious cult leader told his followers in 1975 “I love socialism, and I’m willing to die to bring it about, but if I did, I’d take a thousand with me” which he did in Jamestown, Guyana three years later. “He wanted the world to think this was some uniform decision, that they willingly killed themselves for socialism to protest the inhumanity of capitalism” but armed guards made sure the reluctant chose the Kool Aid and exited the Johnstown dystopia for the promised socialist utopia in the next life.

    Suicide of the West

    Goldberg’s history of politics and human nature begins with humans first walking upright, concluding in 2017 with U.S. domestic political choices. Ideas promoted by John Locke and bequeathed by the British that the state is the servant of the people, are the core of American exceptionalism as opposed to the opposite ideas of the Frenchman Rousseau that individuals are the servant of the state, the governing principle of authoritarian socialist economies and in practice social democracies as well. What’s exceptional in the U.S. political system bequeathed by the Founders are the strict limits on federal powers in the two written documents, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. This is the cornerstone that allowed the many secular and religious institutions of civil society to deepen as a pre-requisite for and complement to entrepreneurial market capitalism, the source of virtually all .

    In the American version the state guarantees “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” whereas the French national motto is an oxymoron. Individual liberty erodes at each stage as decisions are elevated from the marketplace to private, local, state, federal and ultimately international governing bodies. Competitive market capitalism’s “creative destruction” and entrepreneurial innovation produces relative winners but benefits all, whereas political favoritism comes at the expense of the typically poorer less politically favored.

    The Deep State is Sovereign in a Democracy

    In a recent Wall Street Journal article, political theorist Francis Fukuyama argues that run by professionals protected from politicians. Progressive President Wilson used entry into the as the means to create the “modern” sovereign state” to which Fukuyama refers under the motto to “make the world safe for democracy,” never mentioned in the Founding documents. What took a Revolution to produce was protected only by the willingness to adhere to paper documents that Wilson basically ignored.

    Individual dependence on the modern pater welfare state corrodes the institutions of civil society and inevitably leads to identity politics, tribalism and cronyism. With the state the master, many democracies evolve into to help implement free market reforms that produced a growth miracle, but that proved difficult to sustain as subsequent socialist governments .

    The 2016 Presidential Election

    In 2016 candidate Trump promised to – both direct attacks on the deep state, particularly the military-industrial-congressional complex (Eisenhower’s original censored version) that manages the economy as well as foreign policy and . Reagan promised to roll back the deep state but failed. Clinton declared “the era of big government is over” but it barely paused. The Tea Party, composed of older more conservative voters tired of Republican false promises of limited government, launched a grass roots political campaign to limit government, which also failed. Once the state (or the Party of the state) is sovereign, the process has proven irreversible through political means.

    That leaves the Supreme Court. Candidate Trump committed to conservative Supreme Court Justices who would stay within the original intent of constitutional limits, the primary issue cited by his supporters. The abortion issue is a ruse, a litmus test for progressive precedents to trump constitutional intent.

    The U.S. deep state is immune to accountability. A recent docudrama tells the story of CIA torture after 911. The Agency lied to two Presidents, lied and stonewalled Congress over 8 years, violated the separation of powers and squashed the biggest seven thousand page Congressional oversight investigation in history. Only the stature of Senators Feinstein and McCain eventually got the Report released, but no one was held accountable, sending a clear signal that the deep state was immune. When President Trump alleged (later proven by the Mueller and Inspector General Reports – in spite of ) that the intelligence community was involved in in 2016 and a subsequent coup attempt to remove him from office when that failed, Senator Schumer : “Let me tell you500vip彩票安卓下载官网, you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you500vip彩票安卓下载官网.” is () one way.

    The 2020 Presidential Election

    On domestic policy, progressives arguably fared better under the Trump Administration than they would have from any of the other Republican candidate (e.g., victories on the budget and trade protectionism) and better than conservatives during the Obama Administration. Many conservatives (including Goldberg) join progressives in abhorring Trump’s personality and attacking his character (questionable, as is that of his political antagonists, e.g., Congressman Schiff). His lies and exaggerations may stretch the limits of political discourse, but the main stream media has regressed to . The biggest cause of Trump derangement syndrome – and his source of political support – is likely his politically incorrect speech.

    But Supreme Court appointments remain the existential issue for progressives and conservatives alike (as the demonstrated), although limiting the power of federal government leaves progressives with free reign at the state and local level where they have had substantial success. Even “” in big states like California is by the state, forcing the oppressed to leaving with , which then seek .

    The electorate is divided along generational lines, with democrats appealing to you500vip彩票安卓下载官网nger liberal voters and republicans to older conservative voters. Lowering the voting age to 18 dramatically increased this demographic (why Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi proposed it to 16). Yet current Democratic candidates are divided among the ”electable”“moderate” 78 year old (by inauguration) Joe Biden campaigning as the former VP of a decidedly immoderate administration, authoritarian Michael Bloomberg who is almost a year older that Biden, socialist Bernie Sanders who is more than a year older than Biden, and Progressive Elizabeth Warren who would be 70 by inauguration. The you500vip彩票安卓下载官网ng radical anti-capitalist progressives/socialists will undoubtedly be in control should victory be achieved by any of these elders following Taleb’s thesis (pg 69) that in a democracy the intolerant dominate.

    What explains the strong of 18-29 year old voters? Goldberg (pg. 340) quotes theologian Eugene Peterson: “humans try to find transcendence-apart from God – through the ecstasy of alcohol and drugs, recreational sex, or … crowds (i.e., mobs or cults).” Millenials are than older voters and sex has relative to past generations. Non-college graduates have turned to drugs – .

    Promises of debt forgiveness and free stuff by Socialist Sanders – and Warren – obviously appeal to the typically deeply indebted . But so does their attack on business. Once taboo, socialism is now chic on college campuses as anti-business progressive ideas pervade college professorial ranks, particularly among historians and economists. This goes back to the early days of progressivism as socialist/communist historical myth makers accused business leaders of being vastly over-stating the extent of American cronyism. Economists have generally under-appreciate the fragility and benefits of capitalism focusing instead on “market failures” real or imagined requiring government intervention, to be expected by a started by a German educated progressive to train Americans in the visible hand (fist) of state economic management

    So millenials may be lured to join the cult and drink the Kool Aid: as an aging baby boomer, I’ll and, sex and alcohol (, of course).

    Kevin Villani

    —-

    Kevin Villani was chief economist at Freddie Mac from 1982 to 1985. He has held senior government positions, has been affiliated with nine universities, and served as CFO and director of several companies. He recently published on the political origins of the sub-prime lending bubble and aftermath.

    Posted in Anglosphere, Big Government, Book Notes, Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Conservatism, Current Events, Elections, Libertarianism, Political Philosophy, Politics, Society, Tea Party, Trump, USA | 17 Comments »

    Business Stories

    Posted by David Foster on 8th December 2019 (All posts by )

    We’ve talked before here about the point that most fiction seems to be about people who are lawyers, policemen, criminals, soldiers, spies, students, politicians, and noble but struggling writers. But there are indeed some works of fiction, and some vivid personal memoirs, in which business plays a central role without being portrayed simplistically or as stereotypically evil. Here are some that I like…please add you500vip彩票安卓下载官网r own favorites in the comments. (I posted this at Ricochet, in slightly different form, about a week ago)

    The Current War, a recent movie about the late-1800s power struggle to determine which technology…AC or DC…will dominate America’s electrical distribution system. Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla are the key characters, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, and Nicholas Hoult respectively. My review is here.

    , a 2015 film about the 2007-2008 financial crisis, based on Michael Lewis’s book. A hedge fund manager concludes that the subprime-loan market is not sustainable, and makes a billion-dollar bet against the relevant mortgage-backed securities. Based on real events. I thought it was very well done.

    , R F Delderfield. Following his return to England from the Crimean War, Adam Swann identifies a business opportunity: although railroads are being built throughout the country, there will always be sources and destinations of freight which are not on the tracks. Hence, the potential for a nationwide gap-filling road haulage business based on the systematic use of horse-drawn wagons. (This is the first book of a three-book series called the .) Reviewed here.

    , Alice Tisdale Hobart. This 1933 novel is about a you500vip彩票安卓下载官网ng American working as a sales rep in China, focused on selling oil for his employer (unnamed, but clearly based on Standard Oil) and increasing volumes by promoting the kerosene lamp as a better alternative to traditional lighting methods. The book was the basis for a 1935 movie of the same name…the film has its moments, but overall is not worthy of the book.

    , by Thomas Watson Jr. This is the best business autobiography I’ve read. It’s about Watson Jr (the long-time CEO of IBM), his difficult relationship with his father, the company they built, and the emergence of the computing industry. It is an emotional, reflective, and self-critical book, without the kind of “here’s how brilliant I was” tone that afflicts too many executive autobiographies. I reviewed it here.

    , by Tom Wolfe. The central character of this 1988 novel is Charlie Croker, an Atlanta real-estate developer who has gotten himself into way too much debt. Other characters include Charlie’s current and former wives, the Black mayor of Atlanta, the bankers who must deal with the debt problem, and a warehouse worker at one of the Croker enterprises. The book also casts a not-very-complimentary light on the Atlanta society/arts scene.

    , Stephen Buck. The adventures of a Honeywell field engineer in the early days of process-control computing. The book’s title reflects the point that the industrial processes being controlled frequently involved combustion, sometimes in scary circumstances. Much of the author’s work took place outside the US, in countries ranging from Poland to Brazil.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Arts & Letters, Aviation, Biography, Book Notes, Britain, Business, Economics & Finance, Film, Tech, Transportation, War and Peace | 8 Comments »

    Recommended Reading – The End of the Anti-Library

    Posted by on 4th December 2019 (All posts by )

    For as long as I can remember I have had a pretty decently sized anti-library. Probably not as massive as some who read here, but still enough to be a pain in the butt when moving. I decided a year or two ago not to buy any books until I read what I had. This worked in principle, however relatives piled on with gifts of books, so I had to issue an edict that they please not buy me any more books as well.

    When I finish reading books (yes, real books, the kindle and other electronic formats don’t work well with me) I send them to Carl for his perusal and subsequent disposal in one way or another into the Portland, Oregon ecosystem. He returns the favor, so we are carbon neutral, at least in that aspect.

    I have two left to read, and my anti-library will be no more. I plan on reading those on an upcoming beach vacation. They are:

    Stephan Zweig – – the only novel he wrote, and I am looking forward to is as I don’t read a lot of fiction.

    – this was a gift as it isn’t my typical wheelhouse for history, but I should learn some interesting stuff.

    Here is what I read this year, with a short description of each:
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, History | 16 Comments »

    Anniversary: The End of the Berlin Wall

    Posted by David Foster on 10th November 2019 (All posts by )

    November 9 marked the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

    , who drafted President Reagan’s speech including the line Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!, has some thoughts.

    offers some remembrances and some video clips.

    Bill’s post mentioned Anna Funder’s excellent book Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, which I reviewed here.

    An by a former East German MIG-21 pilot.

    Posted in Aviation, Book Notes, Germany, History, Leftism | 7 Comments »

    Book Review: Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford

    Posted by David Foster on 27th October 2019 (All posts by )

    by Francis Spufford

    —-

    The idea of centralized economic planning is a very seductive one. It just seems to make sense that such planning would lead to more efficiency…less waste…and certainly less unnecessary human suffering than an environment in which millions of decision-makers, many of them in competition with one another, are making their own separate and uncoordinated decisions, resulting in pointless product redundancy, economic cycles driving unemployment, and lots of other bad things.

    Red Plenty…part novel, part nonfiction…is about the Soviet Union’s economic planning efforts as seen from the inside. The characters include factory managers, economic planners, mathematicians, computer scientists, and “fixers.” Published in 2010, Red Plenty is now quite timely in view of the current vogue for socialism in American political discussion.

    Marx drew a nightmare picture of capitalism, when everything was produced only to be exchanged; when true qualities and uses dropped away, and the human power of making and doing itself became only an object to be traded. The alternative? A dance to the music of use, where every step fulfilled some real need, did some tangible good, and no matter how fast the dancers spun, they moved easily, because they moved to a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all.

    How might this actually be accomplished? Stalin mocked the idea that planning an economy required much in the way of intellectual depth or effort. Get the chain of command right, Stalin seemed to be saying, build it on the right ideological principles, and all that was left was a few technical details, a little bit of drudgery to be carried out by the comrades at Gosplan with the adding 500vip彩票安卓下载官网. But it turned out to be a little more complicated than that.

    Maksim Maksimovich Mokhov is one of the lords of the Gosplan file room, in which there are hundreds of folders, each tracking the balances and plans for a particular commodity. A good man, who takes his job seriously, Maksim has risen as high as you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 could go at Gosplan before the posts become purely political appointments..his was the level at which competence was known to reach its ceiling…Not just a mechanical planner, he realizes that the file folders cast only the loosest and most imperfect net over the prodigious output of the economy as the whole, and has worked to understand the stress points, the secret path dependencies of the plan. His specific responsibility is the chemical and rubber sector, and he is particularly concerned, at the time when he enters the story, about problems in the viscose subsector.

    Arkhipov, Kosoy, and Mitrenko run one of the most important plants in the viscose supply chain, and they are three worried men. The plan goals aren’t being met, and they know that the path to career death is separated by only a few percentage points of plan fulfillment from the other one, the upward path, the road to glory and local fame. (A couple of decades earlier, it wouldn’t have been just career death on the table.) This plant makes two viscose-derived products, yarn and tire cord. The yarn line works fine, the tire cord line, not so much…but no problems with the machine can be found. There is no prospect of getting a replacement machine in any relevant timeframe.

    Arkhipov and his associates come up with a plan to solve their problem…read the book to see what it is and how it turns out.

    Nikita Khrushchev, in September 1959, told a crowd that “the dreams cherished for ages, dreams expressed in fairytales which seemed sheer fantasy, are being translated into reality by man’s own hands.” Modern technology, combined with the benefits of a planned economy would make it possible.

    Because the whole system of production and distribution in the USSR was owned by the state, because all Russia was (in Lenin’s words) ‘one office, one factory’, it could be directed, as capitalism could not, to the fastest, most lavish fulfillment, of human needs.

    The American exhibition in Moscow in mid-1959 (site of the “kitchen debate” between Khrushchev and Nixon) was attended by 3 million Soviets (including some of the characters in this book), and although many of them thought that the American claims of broad-based prosperity were exaggerated or worse, the experience surely helped feed the longing for a better life for the Soviet Union’s ordinary people.

    Leonid Vitalevich Kantorovich pioneered the application of mathematics to the optimization of economic activities…these methods surfaced as a possible toolkit for the planning organizations circa 1960. Could these methods help achieve Khrushchev’s stated goal of broad-based prosperity?

    For example, consider several factories, producing a common set of products but with different efficiency characteristics. Which products should be made by which factories in order to optimize overall efficiency? A set of equations can be constructed representing the constraints that must be observed–labor, machine utlization, etc–and the relative weighting of the variables to be optimized. Although these techniques have been used to a considerable degree in capitalist countries, they would seem tailor-made for a starring role in a planned economy. Selling the new methods in the Soviet Union, though, could be tricky: the linear-programming term “shadow prices”, for example, sounded like something that might have politically-dangerous overtones of capitalism!

    One of the first applications involved potatoes, the distribution of same. The BESM (computer) is using Leonid Vitalevich’s shadow prices to do what a market in potatoes would do in a capitalist country–only better. When a market is matching supply with demand, it is the actual movement of the potatoes themselves from place to place, the actual sale of the potatoes at ever-shifting prices, which negotiates a solution, by trial and error. In the computer, the effect of a possible solution can be assessed without the wasteful real-world to-ing and fro-ing, and because the computer works at the speed of flying electrons rather than the speed of a trundling vegetable truck, it can explore the whole of the mathematical space of possible solutions, and be sure to find the very best solution there is, instead of settling for the good-enough sollution that would be all there was time for, in a working day with potatoes to deliver.

    And even in the planned Soviet economy, there is still a market in potatoes, right here in Moscow, the leftover scrap of capitalism represented by the capital’s collective-farm bazaars, where individual kolkhozniks sell the product from their private plots…The market’s clock speed is laughable. It computes a the rate of a babushka in a headscare, laboriously breaking a two-rouble note for change and muttering the numbers under her breath…No wonder that Oscar Lange over in Warsaw gleefully calls the marketplace “a primitive pre-electronic calculator.”

    So put the BESM to work minimizing distance that the potatoes have to travel..a proxy for efficiency and freshness: price is not a consideration, since the state selling price of potatoes has been fixed for many years. But BESM can only work with abstract potatoes: Not, of course, potatoes as they are in themselves, the actual tubers, so often frost-damaged or green with age or warty with sprouting tublices–but potatoes abstracted, potatoes considered as information, travelling into Moscow from 348 delivering units to 215 consuming organizations…The economists recognize the difficulty of getting a computer model to mirror the world truly. They distinguish between working at zadachi, ‘from the problem’, and of fotografii, ‘from the photograph’…This calculation, alas, is from the photograph. It deals with potato delivery as it has been reported to Leonid Vitalevich and his colleagues. There has been no time to visit the cold-stores, interview the managers, ride on the delivery trucks. But the program should still work.

    The author notes that “the idea that the computer had conclusively resolved the socialist calculation debate in socialism’s favour was very much a commonplace of the early sixties.”

    But despite all the planning paperwork, despite the attempts at computerization, people like Chekuskin remain essential to keep the Soviet economy functioning at all. He is a fixer, he works the system to ensure that his customers–factories, for the most part–can get the parts and materials they need in order to keep operating. Before the revolution, he was a salesman: now, the economic problem is not selling, but buying. Chekuskin explains what a real salesman was, back in the day:

    You’re thinking of some fellow who works in a sales administration, sits by his phone all day long like a little king, licks his finger when he feels like it, and says, “You can have a litttle bit”…That’s not a salesman. You see, the world used to be the other way up, and it used to be the buyers who sat around examining their fingernails, hard enough as that is to imagine. A salesman was a poor hungry bastard with a suitcase, trying to shift something that people probably didn’t want, ’cause back in those days, people didn’t just get out the money and buy anything they could get their hands on. They had to be talked into it.”

    But with Communism, the things changed. Back then, people didn’t want to buy. Now, they don’t want to sell. There’s always that resistance to get past. But the trick of it stays the same: make a connection, build a relationship.

    Volodya, is a you500vip彩票安卓下载官网ng propagandist recently assigned to the huge locomotive plant in Novocherkassk, a dismal town that also features a university. Unfortunately, it was classified by the planners as a “college town”, in need of the calorific intake required to lift pencils and wipe blackboards, but there were forty thousand people living and working in the industrial zone out by the tracks now, and between the students and the loco workers, a locust would have been hard put to it to find a spare crumb. White bread was a distant memory, milk was dispensed only at the head of enormous queues. Sausages were as rare a comets. Pea soup and porridge powered the place, usually served on half-washed plates.

    Eventually, people can’t stand it anymore–and decisions by two separate planning organizations have the result that on the very same day, food prices are increased and so are the production quotas at the locomotive factory. There is a raucous mass protest, featuring signs like MEAT, BUTTER, AND PAY and CUT UP KHRUSHCHEV FOR SAUSAGES. The loco plant manager, Korochkin, does not handle the situation well, and the rage grows.

    The ensuing catastrophe is vividly described as it is observed by the horrified Volodya. Troops open fire on the protestors: 26 people are killed an 87 wounded. Death sentences and long prison terms are handed down.

    This was a real event: it happened in 1962. News about the events did not appear in the state-controlled press for thirty years.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Capitalism, Deep Thoughts, Economics & Finance, Leftism, Management, Markets and Trading, Russia, Systems Analysis, Tech | 37 Comments »

    The Cuban Missile Crisis, as Viewed From a Soviet Launch Facility

    Posted by David Foster on 22nd October 2019 (All posts by )

    This month marks the 57th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world dangerously close to thermonuclear war.

    Several years ago, I read , 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 you500vip彩票安卓下载官网”…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

    Chertok, who at this point was apparently viewing the Cuban affair as a flash in the pan that would be resolved short of war, was concerned that moving the Mars rocket would cause them to miss their October 29 launch date, and suggested that the swap of the rockets be delayed for a few hours. Kirillov told him that this was impossible, and that he should go to the “Marshal’s cottage,” where some of his associates wanted to see him. Chertok’s response:

    Yes, sir! You’re in charge! But, Anatoliy Semyonovich! Just between you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 and me do you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 have the courage to give the ‘Launch!’ command, knowing full well that this means not just the death of hundreds of thousands from that specific thermonuclear warhead, but perhaps the beginning of the end for everyone? You commanded a battery at the front, and when you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 shouted ‘Fire!’ that was quite another matter.

    Kirillov:

    There’s no need to torment me. I am a soldier now; I carry out an order just as I did at the front. A missile officer just like me, not a Kirillov, but some Jones or other, is standing at a periscope and waiting for the order to give the ‘Launch’ command against Moscow or our firing range. Therefore, I advise you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 to hurry over to the cottage.

    At the cottage, four men were seated at a table playing cards while a fifth was trying to glean the latest news from a radio and Lena, the housekeeper, was in the kitchen drying wine glasses. It was suggested that since Chertok didn’t like playing cards, he should help Lena fix the drinks. This involved a watermelon and lots of cognac.

    I took the enormous watermelon and two bottles of cognac out of the fridge. When everything was ready, we heard a report that U.N. Secretary General U Thant had sent personal messages to Khrushchev and Kennedy. Once again, Voskresenskiy took the initiative and proposed the first toast: “To the health of U Thant, and may God grant that this not be our last drink!” This time we all drank down our toast in silence and very solemnly, realizing how close we now were to a situation in which this cognac and this watermelon could be our last.

    Still hoping to avoid the cancellation of the Mars mission, Chertok went to another cottage and, with considerable difficulty, made a forbidden call to S P Korolev, overall head of the Soviet rocket program, who was then in Moscow. Korolev told him that things were being taken care of and not to worry.

    It was already dark when I returned to the Marshal’s cottage. On the road, a Gazik came to an abrupt halt. Kirillov jumped out of it, saw me, swept me up in a hug, and practically screamed: “All clear!” We burst into the cottage and demanded that they pour “not our last drink,” but alas! The bottles were empty. While everyone excitedly discussed the historic significance of the “All clear” command, Lena brought out a bottle of “three star” cognac from some secret stash. Once again the Mars rockets were waiting for us at the launch site and in the MIK.

    Reflecting on the crisis many years later, Chertok wrote:

    Few had been aware of the actual threat of a potential nuclear missile war at that time. In any event, one did not see the usual lines for salt, matches, and kerosene that form during the threat of war. Life continued with its usual day-to-day joys, woes, and cares. When the world really was on the verge of a nuclear catastrophe, only a very small number of people in the USSR and the United States realized it. Khrushchev and Kennedy exercised restraint and did not give in to their emotions. Moreover, the military leaders of both sides did not display any independent initiative nor did they deviate at all from the orders of their respective heads of state. Very likely, Khrushchev wasn’t just guided by the pursuit of peace “at any cost.” He knew that the U.S. nuclear arsenal was many times greater than ours. The Cubans did not know this and viewed Moscow’s order to call off missile preparation and dismantle the launch sites as a betrayal of Cuba’s interests. President Kennedy had no doubt as to the United States’ nuclear supremacy. The possibility of a single nuclear warhead striking New York kept him from starting a nuclear war. Indeed, this could have been the warhead on the R-7A missile that they didn’t roll out of the MIK to the pad at Site No. 1.

    (cross-posted at )

    Posted in Book Notes, Cuba, History, Russia, Space, War and Peace | 3 Comments »

    Occupation – A French Village

    Posted by on 12th October 2019 (All posts by )

    On the strong recommendation of e, that seven-season long miniseries which follows five years of German occupation and a bit of the aftermath as it affects the lives of a handful of characters in a small town in eastern France close to the Swiss border – from the day that the German invaders arrive, to the aftermath of the occupation, in a fractured peace, when all was said and done. (It’s available through Amazon Prime.) A good few of the occupants of that village did not really welcome liberation and had damn good reasons – guilty consciences, mostly, for having collaborated with the Germans with varying degrees of enthusiasm. (A benefit is that this series stars actors of whom we have never heard, in French with English subtitles. Given how the establishment American entertainment media has gone all noisily woke, anti-Trump and abusive towards us conservative residents of Flyoverlandia, this is a darned good thing. Seriously, for years and years I used to only personally boycott Jane Fonda and Cat Stevens, now my list of ‘oh, hell NEVER! actors and personalities is well into the scores.)
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Diversions, Europe, France, Germany, History, Media | 28 Comments »

    Not-Really-Summer-Anymore Rerun: Coming Soon, to Places Near You?

    Posted by David Foster on 23rd September 2019 (All posts by )

    (Summer is now officially over, but I thought this story from Rose Wilder Lane, whose work I reviewed and excerpted a couple of days ago, was worthy of a repost)

    In 1926, Rose and her friend Helen Dore Boylston, both then living in Paris, decided to buy a Model T Ford and drive it to Albania. Their adventure is chronicled in the book . (Helen’s nickname was “Troub”, which stood for “trouble.”)

    Acquisition of the car–a “glamorized” 1926 model which was maroon in color rather than the traditional Ford black–went smoothly. Acquisition of the proper government documentation allowing them to actually drive it–not so much:

    Having bought this splendid Ford, my friend and I set out to get permission to drive it, and to drive it out of Paris and out of France. We worked separately, to make double use of time. For six weeks we worked, steadily, every day and every hour the Government offices were open. When they closed, we met to rest in the lovely leisure of a cafe and compared notes and considered ways of pulling wires…

    One requirement was twelve passport pictures of that car…But this was a Ford, naked from the factory; not a detail nor a mark distinguished it from the millions of its kind; yet I had to engage a photographer to take a full-radiator-front picture of it, where it still stood in the salesroom, and to make twelve prints, each certified to be a portrait of that identical car. The proper official pasted these, one by one, in my presence, to twelve identical documents, each of which was filled out in ink, signed and counter-signed, stamped and tax-stamped; and, of course, I paid for them…

    After six hard-working weeks, we had all the car’s papers. Nearly an inch think they were, laid flat. Each was correctly signed and stamped, each had in addition the little stamp stuck on, showing that the tax was paid that must be paid on every legal document; this is the Stamp tax that Americans refused to pay. I believe we had license plates besides; I know we had drivers’ licenses.

    Gaily at last we set out in our car, and in the first block two policemen stopped us…Being stopped by the police was not unusual, of course. The car’s papers were in its pocket, and confidently I handed them over, with our personal papers, as requested.

    The policemen examined each one, found it in order, and noted it in their little black books. Then courteously they arrested us.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Biography, Book Notes, Europe, France, History, Humor, Libertarianism, Political Philosophy | 9 Comments »

    Training Wheels

    Posted by on 18th September 2019 (All posts by )

    This last weekend was the start of the fall book market season; I spent three days in Giddings, Texas, as one of the local authors invited to participate in the yearly Word Wrangler Book Festival – which is sponsored by the local library, and supported by practically every civic institution in Giddings, including the local elementary and high schools. Last Thursday, the first day of Word Wrangler, certain of us authors volunteered to go and visit schools for readings, or to just talk about writing. This year, I visited three middle-school classes, to talk to sixth graders about writing, the stories that they liked, and what they could write about. I like doing this with fifth and sixth grade students, by the way – they are old enough to read pretty well, but not so old as to be jaded by the whole ‘visiting writer/storyteller’ thing. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Blogging, Book Notes, Diversions, Education, Media | 9 Comments »

    Summer Rerun–Author Appreciation: Rose Wilder Lane

    Posted by David Foster on 17th September 2019 (All posts by )

    Rose Wilder Lane, born in 1886 in the Dakota Territory, was the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the “Little House on the Prairie” books. Lane is best known for her writings on political philosophy and has been referred to as a “Founding Mother” of libertarianism; she was also a novelist and the author of several biographies.

    In her article , published in 1936, she describes her political journey, beginning with the words:

    In 1919 I was a communist.

    She was impressed with the idealism of the individual Communists she met, and found their economic logic convincing. But when she visited the Soviet Union in the 1920s, she became disillusioned. And, unlike many visitors to the USSR, she did not conclude that Communism was still a great idea but had just been carried out poorly; rather, she began to grasp the structural flaws with the whole thing.

    In Soviet Georgia, the villager who was her host complained about the growing bureaucracy that was taking more and more men from productive work, and predicted chaos and suffering from the centralizing of economic power in Moscow. At first she saw his attitude as merely “the opposition of the peasant mind to new ideas,” and undertook to convince him of the benefits of central planning. He shook his head sadly.

    It is too big – he said – too big. At the top, it is too small. It will not work. In Moscow there are only men, and man is not God. A man has only a man’s head, and one hundred heads together do not make one great big head. No. Only God can know Russia.”

    This man’s insight prefigures Hayek’s writing about the role of knowledge in society, not to be published until 1944. His comments, her other observations while in the Soviet Union, and her own thinking about the way that economies actually work convinced her that:

    Centralized economic control over multitudes of human beings must therefore be continuous and perhaps superhumanly flexible, and it must be autocratic. It must be government by a swift flow of edicts issued in haste to catch up with events receding into the past before they can be reported, arranged, analyzed and considered, and it will be compelled to use compulsion. In the effort to succeed, it must become such minute and rigorous control of details of individual life as no people will accept without compulsion. It cannot be subject to the intermittent checks, reversals, and removals of men in power which majorities cause in republics.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Civil Society, Europe, History, Leftism, Libertarianism, Political Philosophy, USA | 7 Comments »

    Summer Rerun–Book Review: Little Man, What Now?, by Hans Fallada

    Posted by David Foster on 14th September 2019 (All posts by )

    (edited, with updates)

    I’ve often seen this 1932 book footnoted in histories touching on Weimar Germany; not having previously read it I had been under the vague impression that it was some sort of political screed. Actually it is a novel, and a good one. The political implications are indeed significant, but they’re mostly implicit rather than explicit.

    Johannes and Emma, known to one another as Sonny and Lammchen, are a you500vip彩票安卓下载官网ng couple who marry when Lammchen unexpectedly becomes pregnant. Their world is not the world of Weimar’s avant-garde artists and writers, or of its risque-to-outright-degenerate cabaret scene. It is far from the world of a you500vip彩票安卓下载官网ng middle-class intellectual like Sebastian Haffner, whose invaluable memoir I reviewed here. Theirs is the world of people at the absolute bottom of anything that could be considered as even lower-middle-class, struggling to hold on by their fingernails.

    When we first meet our protagonists, Sonny is working as a bookkeeper–he was previously a reasonably-successful salesman of men’s clothing, working for the kindly Jewish merchant Mr. Bergmann, but a pointless quarrel with Bergmann’s wife, coupled with a job offer from the local grain merchant (Kleinholz) led to a career change. Sonny soon finds that as a condition of continued employment he is expected to marry Kleinholz’s ugly and unpleasant daughter, never an appealing proposition and one which his marriage to Lammchen clearly makes impossible. Lammchen is from a working-class family: her father is a strong union man and Social Democrat who sees himself as superior to lower-tier white-collar men like Sonny.

    When Sonny and Lammchen set up housekeeping, their economic situation continually borders on desperate. Purchasing a stew pot, or indulging in the extravagance of a few bites of salmon for dinner, represents a major financial decision. An impulsive decision on Sonny’s part to please Lammchen by acquiring the dressing table she admires will have long-lasting consequences for their budget.

    The great inflation of Weimar has come and gone; the psychological damage lingers. Sonny and Lammchen’s landlady cannot comprehend what happened to her savings:

    Young people, before the war, we had a comfortable fifty thousand marks. And now that money’s all gone. How can it all be gone?…I sit here reckoning it up. I’ve written it all down. I sit here, reckoning. Here it says: a pound of butter, three thousand marks…can a pound of butter cost three thousand marks?…I now know that my money’s been stolen. Someone who rented here stole it…he falsified my housekeeping book so I wouldn’t notice. He turned three into three thousand without me realizing…how can fifty thousand have all gone?

    Inflation is no longer the problem, unemployment is. There are millions of unemployed, and those who do hold jobs are desperately afraid of losing them and will do anything to keep them.

    Both Sonny and Lammchen are limited and flawed people with many redeeming and even lovable attributes. Sonny, possibly as a result of upbringing by his cold and sleazy mother, is lacking in a sense of worth and in self-confidence–when he returns to the business of selling menswear, the store’s establishment of a quota system (apparently a radical innovation at the time) is so stressful to him as to greatly harm his sales performance. His devotion to Lammchen and to the coming baby (“the Shrimp”) is unshakable and keeps him going. Lammchen herself, despite her generally sweet nature, can on occasion be a irrational, unrealistic, and very unfair to Sonny, although these episodes are of short duration.

    In pursuit of possible employment for Sonny, they move to Berlin, where life definitely does not get any better. Germany’s vaunted social-welfare system does provide a certain amount of help for the couple, but there is a psychic cost. When they apply for the nursing-mother allowance to which Lammchen is clearly entitled when Shrimp is born, they find themselves enmeshed in a bureaucratic paperwork nightmare. They finally do get the money, but Lammchen is so upset by the experience that she resolves to vote Communist in the next election. (Yeah, that’ll help.) Sonny does receive compensation during his periods of unemployment, but this does little to ease his feeling of uselessness and fears for the future. After finally getting hired by Mandel’s Department Store, he passes a group of still-unemployed men:

    Pinneberg had the feeling, despite the fact that he was about to become a wage-earner again, that he was much closer to those non-earners than to people who earned a great deal. He was one of them, any day he could find himself standing here among them, and there was nothing he could do about it. He had no protection. He was one of millions.

    Despite the social safety net, despite a few helpful friends and acquaintances, the dominant feeling of Sonny and Lammchen is that they are utterly alone in the world, like children in a dark wood or like American pioneers on the great plains–but without the hope.

    Neither Sonny nor Lammchen is a very political person, but they have the strong feeling that “the system” is rigged against them. While Lammchen does make an anti-Semitic remark early in the book (“I’m not too keen on Jews”), neither she nor Sonny seems to be among the growing number who blame Germany’s Jews for their economic difficulties–indeed, Sonny is appalled when a Jewish businesswoman tells him of her mistreatment at the hands of Jew-haters. The couple’s (rather vague) political leanings are to the Left, and they attribute the source of their problems to the rich and the powerful generically. They have no faith in the political system or leadership.

    Ministers made speeches to him, enjoined him to tighten his belt, to make sacrifices, to feel German, to put his money in the savings-bank and to vote for the constitutional party. Sometimes he did, sometimes he didn’t, according to the circumstances, but he didn’t believe what they said. Not in the least. His innermost conviction was: they all want something from me, but not for me.

    Of Lammchen’s political views, the author says:

    She had a few simple ideas: that most people are only bad because they have been made bad, that you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 shouldn’t judge anybody because you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 never know what you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 would do you500vip彩票安卓下载官网rself, that the rich and powerful think ordinary people don’t have the same feelings as they do–that’s what Lammchen instinctively believed, though she hadn’t thought it out.

    Sonny is resolved to succeed in his sales job at Mandel’s department store, and is greatly helped by an older salesman, the very dignified Mr. Heilbutt, who possesses both practical sales skills and general life skills that Sonny has not yet developed. For the most part, though, the relationship among store employees is of a dog-eat-dog, knife-in-the-back nature, and some of the customers are very difficult–like the man who comes into the store accompanied by his wife AND his sister AND his mother-in-law, with vociferous opinions about each item from the first two women and a constant repetition of the complaint we-should-have-gone-to-a-different-store from the mother-in-law.

    When Sonny again becomes unemployed, this time for a protracted period, Lammchen is able to bring in a little money by doing sewing for more-affluent families, while Sonny takes on the role of a house-husband. The author implies that this situation has become common in Germany, as Lammchen asks:

    What d’you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 think, Mr Jachmann? D’you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 think it’s going to be like this from now on with the men at 500vip彩票安卓下载官网 doing the housework while the women work? It’s impossible.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Big Government, Book Notes, Civil Liberties, Economics & Finance, Film, Germany, History | 4 Comments »

    Summer Rerun–Are We Living at the Intersection of These Two Stories?

    Posted by David Foster on 12th September 2019 (All posts by )

    The first story is Robert Heinlein’s The Year of the Jackpot. A consulting statistician with the unlikely name of Potiphar Breen observes that many strange social trends are on a strong upswing. One such trend: you500vip彩票安卓下载官网ng women removing all their clothes in public. Potiphar sees one such disrobing in process, shoos away the police, covers the girl with his raincoat, then takes her 500vip彩票安卓下载官网 and asks her why she did it. She doesn’t know.

    Potiphar informs her that nine other girls have done the same thing, in Los Angeles alone, on that very day…and goes on to tell her that this is a small part of the overall pattern of increasing craziness that he is observing. A man has sued an entire state legislature for alienation of his wife’s affections–and the judge is letting the suit be tried. In another state, a bill has been introduced to repeal the laws of atomic energy–not the relevant statutes, but the natural laws concerning nuclear physics. Potiphar shows the girl (her name is Meade) the graphs on which he has plotted the outbreak of bizarre things over time, and notes that many different indicators, all with different cycles, are all converging in this very year. Still, Meade wants to look at her disrobing episode on an individual basis: “I want to know why I did what I did!”

    “I think we’re lemmings, Meade,” Potiphar says. “Ask a lemming why he does it. If you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 could get him to slow up his rush to death, even money says he would rationalize his answer as well as any college graduate. But he does it because he has to–and so do we.” When Meade tries to defend free will–“I know I have it–I can feel it”, Potiphar continues with another analogy: “I imagine every little neutron in an atom bomb feels the same way. He can go spung! or he can sit still, just as he pleases. But statistical mechanics works out anyhow. And the bomb goes off.”

    As Meade and Potiphar become romantically involved, Potiphar’s indices of bizarre behavior and events continue to climb. Transvestism by draft-dodgers has resulted in a mass arrest in Chicago and a gigantic mass trial–but the (male) prosecutor shows up in a pinafore. At the All Souls Community Church of Springfield, the pastor has reinstituted ceremonial nudity. Two weeks later, a hundred and nine other churches have announced the same policy. California is suffering a major water crisis, but people continue watering their lawns as usual. Hardly anyone is interested in the upcoming Republican and Democratic conventions; all the excitement is about the revived Know-Nothing party.

    Foreign affairs, too, are disintegrating into chaos…topped off by a nuclear exchange. Meade and Potiphar manage to survive, and Potiphar’s cycle charts seem to indicate that things will soon get better…(read the story to see how it comes out.)

    The fictional events of Heinlein’s Year of the Jackpot (set in 1952–it was written in 1947) don’t seem any more bizarre than the kind of headline stories that we are seeing every day in real-life:

     

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Book Notes, France, Human Behavior, Leftism, USA | 7 Comments »

    10,000 Hours Did Not Quite Replicate

    Posted by on 10th September 2019 (All posts by )

    I listened to a podcast interviewing David Epstein, author of , that came out earlier this year. He mentioned that the original 1993 study of violinists and pianists excelling on the basis of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice before age 20 . Both the NYTimes and The Guardian overstate his conclusion in their headlines, but listening to him myself, Epstein did state pretty strongly that the 10,000 hours research is not established and should not be considered to be demonstrated. He leans more to genetic causes, which is unsurprising from the author of the bestselling The Sports Gene, and to including “practice variability,” such as playing different sports (or with a different ball or on a different size court), or in other fields, reading outside you500vip彩票安卓下载官网r area of expertise, or interacting with people who aren’t like you500vip彩票安卓下载官网. I saw a similarity to Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s .

     
    I decided decades ago that it was not necessary to be a massive generalist to have you500vip彩票安卓下载官网r brain work properly, but that it is an advantage to have at least one endeavor that is quite different from you500vip彩票安卓下载官网r career or main focus. A mathematician who also has a fascination with Civil War studies is not diluting his mathematical abilities, but enhancing them.  I didn’t have the reasoning behind that quite right, I now think, though the principle does hold.  I thought in terms of activating and developing various parts of one’s brain, which is why I was so intrigued with the .  That may still turn out to be so, but has not been demonstrated.  What does seem to be happening is that the individual has a greater library of analogies and strategies to draw from when a problem grows difficult. I suspect there is a limit to this.  In fact, as a massive generalist myself, I can assure that there is a limit. Yet a full library of analogies can be quite useful.

     

    And notice, the violinists who practiced less still practiced a whole lot.  That’s worth remembering.  One of the best had practiced “only” 4,000 hours before age 20, but that’s still equivalent to working full-time at it for two years. Malcolm Gladwell and others may be wrong that there is something magical about 10,000 hours, and certainly wrong that anyone who practices 10,000 hours would become an expert, but those who excel do seem to have a heckuva lot of deliberate practice.
     
    Unsurprisingly, the people who did the original study do not feel this undermines their work in the least. Intriguingly, one of them believes in a variant of the stress model, that the intensity of practice is a physiological stressor that calls forth the expression of dormant DNA, while the other thought that practice was the most important, but not only factor.  I don’t know how strongly they stated things in 1993, and if Gladwell overstated their conclusions then.

    Posted in Book Notes, Miscellaneous | 11 Comments »

    The Way Things Were and Are

    Posted by on 4th September 2019 (All posts by )

    Separately, the Daughter Unit and I watched a series on Netflix (don’t hate on us, there’s still some good stuff there, and I don’t want to bail out until we’ve milked it dry) about the last – specifically the series which mixed fairly serious commentary about the Russian Revolution with interestingly high-end reenactments of events in the life of the last czar and his family. (Seriously, though – I doubt very much that Nicky and Alix made mad hot whoopee on a fur coat underneath his official czarsorial desk, while the household staff made a heroic effort to ignore the amatory noises coming from behind closed doors. Just my .02. She was a Victorian, for Ghod’s sake. Really; Queen V.’s granddaughter. Who privately thought that Dear Alix wasn’t in the least up to the challenge of being Czarina of all the Russians; Alix may have waxed poetically amatory about her affection and trust in Father Grigory Rasputin, but to do the nasty on the floor, in daylight? Even with you500vip彩票安卓下载官网r wedded husband? Just nope. Nope.)
    I will accept that the orgiastic interludes involving Rasputin were likely and wholly believable. And that Nicky and Alix loved each other, that their four daughters and son with medical issues all loved each other with a passionate devotion that lasts through this world and the next. The last shattering sequences in the Ipatiav House rings true. That was the way it was, and that was how it ended. (I reviewed a book on this,)
    I was meditating on all of this – with a consideration towards royalty; the old-fashioned kind, and the new-mint variety. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Anti-Americanism, Book Notes, Civil Society, Conservatism, Culture, Current Events, Deep Thoughts, History, Leftism, Media, Tea Party | 18 Comments »

    Labor Day Rerun: Attack of the Job-Killing Robots

    Posted by David Foster on 2nd September 2019 (All posts by )

    (This is a 3-part series, link to next post is at the end)

    Here’s a new factory for making automobile frames, specifically designed to minimize the need for human labor. The CEO of the company that built it actually said, “We set out to build automobile frames without people.”

    At the start of the process, rough steel plates are inspected by electronic sensors, automatically pushing aside any that deviate from tolerances. Conveyors take the plates through punching, pressing, assembling, and nailing 500vip彩票安卓下载官网, as well as a machine that can insert 60 rivets simultaneously in each frame. A set of finishing 500vip彩票安卓下载官网 then rinse, dry, spray-paint, and cool the frames. Aside from a few men moving frames between conveyor belts, the floor routine of the plant requires almost no hand labor.

    And today’s robotics and artificial-intelligence advances go far beyond automating routine manufacturing labor and take over the kind of cognitive functions once thought to be exclusive to human beings. Here, for example, is a new AI-based system that displaces much of the thought-work which has been required of the people operating railway switch and signal installations:

    The NX control machine is in effect the “brain” of the system. It automatically selects the best optional route if the preferred route is occupied. It will allow no conflicting routes to be set up. It eliminates individual lever control of each switch and signal.

    Pretty scary from the standpoint of maintaining anything like full employment, don’t you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 think?

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Business, Economics & Finance, Tech | 24 Comments »

    Labor Day Rerun: Technology, Work, and Society

    Posted by David Foster on 1st September 2019 (All posts by )

    Here is 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.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Britain, Capitalism, Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Economics & Finance, History, Society, Tech | 9 Comments »

    The Ideological Turing Test

    Posted by David Foster on 26th August 2019 (All posts by )

    The is a means of assessing whether an automated system is truly intelligent by testing its ability to simulate an actual human being in conversation…the test to be conducted via terminals, over a communications link. Here’s an excerpt from Alan Turing’s own example of a hypothetical conversation:

    Interrogator: In the first line of you500vip彩票安卓下载官网r sonnet which reads “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” would not “a spring day” do as well or better?

    Witness: It wouldn’t scan.

    Interrogator: How about “a winter’s day,” That would scan all right.

    Witness: Yes, but nobody wants to be compared to a winter’s day.

    Interrogator: Would you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 say Mr. Pickwick reminded you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 of Christmas?

    Witness: In a way.

    Interrogator: Yet Christmas is a winter’s day, and I do not think Mr. Pickwick would mind the comparison.

    Witness: I don’t think you500vip彩票安卓下载官网’re serious. By a winter’s day one means a typical winter’s day, rather than a special one like Christmas.

    At a considerably lower literary level, quite a few automated telephony systems today make an attempt to convince their targets that they are dealing with an actual human being, at least for a few seconds.

    The ideological Turing test…the term was invented by , following some comments by Paul Krugman…refers to an individual’s ability to accurately state opposing political and ideological views. Caplan quotes John Stuart Mill: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”

    My observation is that neither side in America’s current political divisions is over-endowed with people capable of passing the ITT. Paul Krugman asserted, unsurprisingly, that liberals do it better:

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Elections, Human Behavior, Marketing, Politics, Tech | 30 Comments »

    Summer Rerun: Jeff Sypeck’s Gargoyle Poems

    Posted by David Foster on 25th August 2019 (All posts by )

    …which were inspired by the gargoyles of the Washington National Cathedral, were published in book form in 2012. I was reminded of these poems by the dreadfully destructive fire at Notre Dame.

    The book includes 53 poems accompanied by black-and-white photos of the gargoyles and grotesques. These poems are really good…one of my favorites is .

    You can get the book via the usual on-line sources, the National Cathedral Store, or directly from , at .

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Book Notes, Christianity, History, Poetry | Comments Off on Summer Rerun: Jeff Sypeck’s Gargoyle Poems

    Summer Rerun: Metaphors, Interfaces, Memes, and Thinking

    Posted by David Foster on 20th August 2019 (All posts by )

    This rerun of an earlier post (slightly reworked) was inspired by a comment by MCS at this post:

    We are now living in the first post-literate society where the masses will be directed by rumor. Memes will take the place of reasoned discussion.

    Neal Stephenson wrote , a strange little book which would probably be classified under the subject heading “computers.” While the book does deal with human interfaces to computer systems, its deeper subject is the impact of media and metaphors on thought processes and on work.

    Stephenson contrasts the explicit word-based interface with the graphical or sensorial interface. The first (which I’ll call the textual interface) can be found in a basic UNIX system or in an old-style PC DOS system or timesharing terminal. The second (the sensorial interface) can be found in Windows and Mac systems and in their respective application programs.

    As a very different example of a sensorial interface, Stephenson uses something he saw at Disney World–a hypothetical stone-by-stone reconstruction of a ruin in the jungles of India. It is supposed to have been built by a local rajah in the sixteenth century, but since fallen into disrepair.

    The place looks more like what I have just described than any actual building you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 might find in India. All the stones in the broken walls are weathered as if monsoon rains had been trickling down them for centuries, the paint on the gorgeous murals is flaked and faded just so, and Bengal tigers loll among stumps of broken columns. Where modern repairs have been made to the ancient structure, they’ve been done, not as Disney’s engineers would do them, but as thrifty Indian janitors would–with hunks of bamboo and rust-spotted hunks of rebar.

    In one place, you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 walk along a stone wall and view some panels of art that tell a story.

    …a broad jagged crack runs across a panel or two, but the story is still readable: first, primordial chaos leads to a flourishing of many animal species. Next, we see the Tree of Life surrounded by diverse animals…an obvious allusion (or, in showbiz lingo, a tie-in) to the gigantic Tree of Life that dominates the center of Disney’s Animal Kingdom…But it’s rendered in historically correct style and could probably fool anyone who didn’t have a PhD in Indian art history.

    The next panel shows a mustachioed H. sapiens chopping down the Tree of Life with a scimitar, and the animals fleeing every which way. The one after that shows the misguided human getting walloped by a tidal wave, part of a latter-day Deluge presumably brought on by his stupidity.

    The final panel, then, portrays the Sapling of Life beginning to grow back, but now man has ditched the edged weapon and joined the other animals in standing around to adore and praise it.

    Clearly, this exhibit communicates a specific worldview, and it strongly implies that this worldview is consistent with traditional Indian religion and culture. Most viewers will assume the connection without doing further research as to its correctness or lack thereof.

    I’d observe that as a general matter, the sensorial interface is less open to challenge than the textual interface. It doesn’t argue–doesn’t present you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 with a chain of facts and logic that let you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 sit back and say, “Hey, wait a minute–I’m not so sure about that.” It just sucks you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 into its own point of view.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Arts & Letters, Blogging, Book Notes, Deep Thoughts, Film, Human Behavior, Internet, Obama, Tech | 9 Comments »

    Summer Rerun — Book Review: Life in a Soviet Factory

    Posted by David Foster on 3rd August 2019 (All posts by )

    by Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov

    A fascinating look at the Soviet economic system in the 1930s, as viewed from the front lines of that system.

    Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov was released from a labor camp in 1935, and was fortunate to find a job as a book-keeper in a sawmill. When the factory manager, Grigory Neposedov (a pseudonym) was assigned to run a larger and more modern factory (also a sawmill), he took Gennady with him.

    Although he had almost no formal education, Neposedov was an excellent plant manager. As Gennady describes him:

    He was unable to move quietly. Skinny and short, he moved around the plant so quickly that he seemed to be running, not walking. Keeping pace with the director, the fat chief mechanic would be steeped in perspiration…He rarely sat in his office, and if he needed to sign some paper or other, you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 had to look for him in the mechanic’s office, in the shops, or in the basement under the shops, where the transmission belts and motors that powered the work stations were located…This enthusiasm of his, this ability to lose himself completely in a genuine creative exertion, to give his all selflessly, was contagious. It was impossible to be around Neposedov without being infected by his energy; he roused everyone, set them on fire. And if he did not succeed in shaking someone up, it could unmistakely be said that such a person was dead or a complete blob.

    With his enthusiasm and dedication to his factory, Neposedov comes across almost as a Soviet version of Hank Reardon (the steel mill owner in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged), with this difference–Nepodesov could throw himself as enthusiastically into bureaucratic manipulation as into his technical and leadership work. All of his skills would be needed to make this factory a success.

    Although the sawmill had modern equipment, it was producing at only a fraction of its design capacity. One of the problems was energy: the plant was powered by a 200HP steam engine, and whoever had built the place had spent almost all of the budget on other equipment, leaving very little for the boiler. The original boiler that came with the plant turned out to be useless, and was replaced with a salvaged boiler..this worked, but was not in good shape and produced only about half the steam needed to run the engine–and the plant–at full power.

    At this point in history, and in this particular corner of the Soviet economy, the amount that was available to be paid to workers was strongly related to the output of a plant. And workers at this sawmill were becoming increasingly desperate, on the point of actual starvation. Neposedov, aided by Gennady, pusued a three-part program of improvement: (1)fix the boiler, (2)improve the workflow (as we would now call it) within the plant, and (3)put in place an incentive system for the workers.

    New “pipes” for the boiler were somehow obtained (I think “pipes” in this context refers to boiler flues) and the workflow was continuously analyzed and improved. The most interesting part of the story, though, deals with the incentive program. The plant manager apparently had discretion to put such programs in place as long as he could pay for them out of increased output. (As the book describes it, there were extensive accounting systems in place throughout the Soviet economy–indeed, Lenin had once gone so far as to say “Socialism is accounting.” The accounting seems a bit similar to what you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 would find in a multidivisional American company with extensive intracompany transactions.) The incentive system that Gennady designed for this sawmill was based on very sharp pay increases for the workers when production exceeded target–so that, for example, you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 could double you500vip彩票安卓下载官网r pay by producing only 25% over target. (Actually, the plan paid collectively by group and by shift, rather than on an individual basis.)

    The incentive plan, together with the repaired steam boiler, resulted in very high production–140%, then 160% of target–and correspondingly high pay for the workers. Gennady had some nervous moments when he feared he had made a mistake in the calculations and the cost of the additional wages would exceed the amount generated by the new production….a mistake like this could easily have landed him back in Siberia, or worse. But it turned out that the new system was indeed sustainable.

    The local Communist Party leadership, while pleased with the increased production, was disturbed that the propaganda buzzwords of the day were not being implemented. “Socialist competition” was hot at the time, and the Party organizer insisted on competition at the individual worker levels, not just the group and shift level.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Big Government, Book Notes, Business, Economics & Finance, Leftism, Management, Russia | 4 Comments »

    More Heinlein Stories

    Posted by David Foster on 28th July 2019 (All posts by )

    I recently posted a brief review of The Man Who Sold the Moon, a 1950 story about the first lunar trip, and thought some reviews of other early Heinlein stories might be of interest as well. (For those who haven’t yet read these stories, I’ve tried to minimize spoilers.)

    Let There be Light (published in 1940). Archie Douglas, a scientist, tries to pick up a very attractive woman who is dining by herself. She politely turns him down, but it soon transpires that she is the very same Doctor M L Martin with whom Douglas has a scientific meeting scheduled. (M L = Mary Lou.) Initially, Archie refuses to believe that a woman so attractive could have such outstanding scientific credentials, but he is soon convinced, and the two begin a research collaboration that quickly develops romantic overtones.

    Their effort initially focuses on the development of electroluminscent light panels, making use of Mary Lou’s earlier research on the firefly–but when Archie’s factory-owner father faces the prospect of being run out of business by discriminatory electric rates imposed by the power cartel, the pair decides to reverse the process and efficiently create electricity from sunlight. They succeed…but the power cartel is not happy about the prospect of cheap distributed generation and will do anything to keep them from bringing their technology to market.

    A fun story, with lots of snappy banter between the pair.

    The Roads Must Roll (published in 1940). Larry Gaines, chief engineer of the Reno–San Diego roadtown, is explaining the rolling-road technology and its social/economic impact to an Australian visitor. These ‘roadtowns’ are huge multistrip conveyor belts: passengers can get on at any point and then, depending on the length of their journey, move from the initial 5mph strip all the way over to the 100mph strip. More conducive to intermediate stops than the Elon Musk approach!

    The fast strip is wide enough to allow shops and restaurants to be located on it…Gaines and his visitor are conversing while having lunch at Jake’s Steak House. (“To dine on the fly makes the miles roll by.”) The Australian (who is Transport Minister of that country) is impressed with what he has seen and what Gaines tells him about its usefulness and social impact–but he demurs politely: “”isn’t it possible that you500vip彩票安卓下载官网 may have put too many eggs in one basket in allowing you500vip彩票安卓下载官网r whole economy to become dependent on the functioning of one type of machinery?”

    Gaines responds that the potentially-serious reliability issue is not with the machinery, but with the men who tend it: “Other industries can go on strike, and only create temporary and partial dislocations…But if the roads stop rolling, everything else must stop; the effect would be the same as a general strike: with this important difference: It takes a majority of the population fired by a real feeling of grievance, to create a general strike, but the men that run the roads, few as they are, can create the same complete paralysis.”

    “We had just one strike on the roads, back in ”sixty-six. It was justified, I think, and it corrected a lot of real abuses–but it mustn’t happen again.”

    Gaines is confident that there will be no such problems in the future, he tells his guest: the engineers who manage the road’s operation are now part of a military-like organization with high esprit de corps: indeed, they are graduates of the United States Academy of Transport, and even have their own song, to the tune of “Those caissons go rolling along.”

    Just then, Gaines’ coffee lands in his lap. The strip has abruptly begun slowing to a stop. He soon discovers that members of his workforce have fallen under the spell of an ideology called Functionalism, which holds that people who do the most critical work in a society should have political power to match. And, what is more, the primary instigator of the rebellion is…Gaines’ own deputy.

    I’m not sure whether the technology would really be workable–with strips running at speeds up to 100mph, it would seem that the resulting winds would create an insoluble problem, even with Heinlein’s proposed solution (partitions to isolate air flow between the different strips) But it’s a good story, and points out a real potential issue with critical infrastructure operated by key, hard-to-replace personnel.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Energy & Power Generation, Society, Space, Tech | 19 Comments »

     

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