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The Victorian Internet

November 1, 2013 Leave a comment

victorianinternet

Almost three years ago, Paul Krugman wrote a post mentioning three books:

As it happens, I’m rereading William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West — yes, on my Kindle, which has made a serious improvement in my life. And everyone with any interest in economics should read his account of the rise of the Chicago Board of Trade. Railroads changed everything. It wasn’t just the fact that stuff could be shipped further, faster, cheaper; the railroad also led to the replacement of concrete with abstract forms of ownership (the farmer owned a receipt for a bushel of grain, not a particular sack), standard-setting, futures markets, and on and on. If you’ve read Marc Levinson’s The Box, about containerization (which you should), it’s startling to see how many of the themes were prefigured by the grain trade, as standard-sized rail cars replaced flatboats, as grain elevators essentially began treating grain as a fluid rather than a solid, as conveyor belts replaced stevedores toting sacks.

Add in the telegraph — the Victorian Internet, as another must-read book puts it — and it was an incredible change.

That spring I read Cronon’s book, and it was extraordinary. (See post here.) I got to The Box a couple of months later. But I never did move on to the third book, Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers.

Earlier this week, Krugman recommended Standage’s newest book, Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years.

I just want to give a shoutout to a book I’m reading, and really enjoying: Tom Standage’s Writing on the Wall: Social Media — The First 2,000 Years. I’ve been a big fan of Standage’s ever since his book The Victorian Internet, about the rise of the telegraph, which shed a lot of light on network technologies while also being great fun. Now he’s done it again.

Standage’s argument is that the essential aspects of social media — exchange of information that runs horizontally, among people who are affiliated in some way, rather than top-down from centralized sources — have been pervasive through history, with the industrial age’s news media only a temporary episode of disruption. As he shows, Cicero didn’t get his news from Rome Today or Rupertus Murdochus — he got it through constant exchanges of letters with people he knew, letters that were often both passed on to multiple readers and copied, much like tweets being retweeted.

My response? I went straight to Amazon and downloaded The Victorian Internet. I’m halfway through and it is indeed great fun.

I’ve just started a chapter discussing the use of telegraphy to cheat to obtain insider information on stocks and horse races, and the parallel use of encryption methods. We’re more or less in the 1870s at this point. But already earlier in the century, when techniques were developed in France, and then Britain, to send visual signals from tower to tower, one telegraph hill to the next (discussed in the early part of the book; a system in Britain used six on or off signals at each tower, essentially converting data to binary form as modern computers do), people were cheating to gain financial advantage on the stock exchange.

I haven’t yet reached the part where the precursor to the NSA was vacuuming up all messages and listening in on Chancellor Bismarck. Maybe next chapter.

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Categories: Books, History, Technology

A Short Bright Flash, 2

October 13, 2013 Leave a comment

shortbrightflash

After reading the first third of Theresa Levitt’s A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse and writing about it two weeks ago, I proceeded to put it aside for over a week. The opening portion about Fresnel’s scientific career and his development of lighthouse technology in early nineteenth-century France was fascinating, but then I got bogged down as Levitt traced Fresnel’s successors and France’s successful effort by mid-century to light its coast.

Eager to get on with other books, I returned to A Short Bright Flash a few days ago, finishing it yesterday morning. After treating France and Britain, Levitt turns to the United States. In a long chapter, she lays out the harm done by Stephen Pleasonton, head of the US Lighthouse Establishment, over decades in refusing to introduce Fresnel’s technology. Finally, in 1847, Congress approved the construction of new lighthouses in five locations, the first to be completed being our very favorite lighthouse, Nantucket’s Sankaty Head. (Though the one we love is not the original.) Things picked up from there, only for the Civil War to bring the systematic destruction of Fresnel lenses across the South’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts, the subject of another chapter.

Sankaty Head, Nantucket

Sankaty Head, Nantucket

[Photo by me, September 2011]

A whirlwind final chapter takes us back to Europe, down to the Suez Canal, and through World Wars I and II, the latter of which brought radar and a halt to the production of first-order seacoast lights. Levitt observes that Fresnel’s “original design remains downright ubiquitous, spurred by the increasingly inexpensive techniques of molding glass and plastic. Fresnel stage lights have become a staple of theaters everywhere. Stoplights, car lights, and overhead projectors all employ the genius of his optical insight. … Even as the U.S. decommissions many of its lighthouses, the lenses become museum centerpieces.”

In this era of anti-government politics in the US, one point that emerges from the book is that the creation of a system of lighthouses in France—and later the US—depended entirely on government investment. Both because of the difficulty of manufacturing precision lenses and the scale of production required, no private company would have taken on such a project by itself. Levitt contrasts France with Britain.

The glass industry was undergoing its own transformation. In many ways, it was emblematic of the French style of industrialization, characterized by much stronger government involvement than what was seen with the English model.

Writing about the Exposition Universelle of 1855, in which a Fresnel lens was on prominent display, Levitt quotes from the exposition guide, which

stressed the lens’s role as France’s gift to humanity. Its manufacture was an “eminently national industry,” which showed France in its best light:

The invention of these devices, due to a French engineer, encouraged and developed by the public administration, brings to a very high degree the imprint of the particular nature of our spirit and general tendencies, for which it was deduced from considerations of a purely scientific order, conceived outside of any private speculation, in view of general interests, and classed immediately in the number of benefits for humanity. …

Two of the features that separated French industrialization from its English counterpart were its strong contingent of scientifally trained state engineers and its lesser dependence on private investment.

Turning to the US of the 1840s and 1850s, Levitt writes that the “government’s investment in rail, steam, and telegraphs was all done with an eye toward improving trade. The Fresnel lens sat perfectly within this constellation, as an exemplar of scientific technology, an enabler of increased trade, and a compelling argument for government investment.”

I suppose I’ve made my point. But let me offer one more quote, from Levitt’s closing assessment of Fresnel’s legacy.

Fresnel’s lens united the major themes of burgeoning modernity: science, industrialization, national ambition. There is a well-known phrase in French that touches on the particular mixture of glory, nationalism, and global ambitions: Faire rayonner la France, or “make France radiant.” This is precisely what the Fresnel lens did, in the most literal of ways. Making their way into the remotest corners of the world, these products of France not only shed light on the seas, but also illuminated the French system of valuing pure science and providing state support for industry.

With this in mind, one might have a look at the letter that Nobel Prize laureate and National Cancer Institute director Harold Varmus wrote two days ago to NCI staff, grantees, and reviewers, the full text of which is embedded in a post by Jim Fallows earlier today. A radical segment of today’s Republican Party is showing, through the shutdown, how little they value pure science. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise, given their propensity for denying scientific evidence.

Categories: Books, History, Science, Technology

A Short Bright Flash

September 29, 2013 Leave a comment

shortbrightflash

I’ve written before that the Wall Street Journal book reviews are one of the reasons I read the paper. From time to time, a book is discussed that falls a bit outside the mainstream, one I might otherwise not know about. For example, this past Monday, Henry Petroski reviewed Theresa Levitt’s A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse, which came out last June but I hadn’t seen mention of anywhere else.*

*It turns out that Levitt’s book was mentioned in the NYT last May in an article on antiques(!). The article was really three separate notes, the first of which was the source of the article’s title, “The Fall of Gnomes: Tasteful to Tacky.” No wonder I missed it.

Here’s the blurb at the publisher’s website:

How a scientific outsider came up with a revolutionary theory of light and saved untold numbers of lives.

Augustin Fresnel (1788–1827) shocked the scientific elite with his unique understanding of the physics of light. The lens he invented was a brilliant feat of engineering that made lighthouses blaze many times brighter, farther, and more efficiently. Battling the establishment, his own poor health, and the limited technology of the time, Fresnel was able to achieve his goal of illuminating the entire French coast. At first, the British sought to outdo the new Fresnel-equipped lighthouses as a matter of national pride. Americans, too, resisted abandoning their primitive lamps, but the superiority of the Fresnel lens could not be denied for long. Soon, from Dunkirk to Saigon, shores were brightened with it. The Fresnel legacy played an important role in geopolitical events, including the American Civil War. No sooner were Fresnel lenses finally installed along U.S. shores than they were drafted: the Union blockaded the Confederate coast; the Confederacy set about thwarting it by dismantling and hiding or destroying the powerful new lights.

Levitt’s scientific and historical account, rich in anecdote and personality, brings to life the fascinating untold story of Augustin Fresnel and his powerful invention.

Petroski, the WSJ reviewer, is a professor of civil engineering at Duke University. He describes Levitt’s book as “captivating,” concluding that she

recounts all this in fine prose, combining matters of biography, science, engineering, technology, art, history, economics and politics seemingly effortlessly and definitely seamlessly. “A Short Bright Flash” is an excellent book and a joy to read.”

Even though I had just started another book, I was unexpectedly taken by the notion of reading lighthouse history. I downloaded the book Monday night and began reading. I’m a little past the one-third point now. Fresnel is rolling out lighthouses with the new lenses the length of the French coast, the primary obstacle being the difficulty of finding glassmakers able to manufacture the lenses to suitable tolerances.

Fresnel lens

Fresnel lens

[From wikipedia]

In the first chapter, I learned about Fresnel’s pioneering work on the wave theory of light. He encountered severe difficulty getting his ideas heard against the background of the prevailing particle (or corpuscular) theory of light, especially given that one of the proponents of the particle theory was the great mathematician and scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace. Levitt explains that Laplace

sought to explain light through a similar [to Newtonian gravity] inverse square force acting on particles of light, and he gave several students … the task of exploring optical phenomena within that framework. The particle theory of light thus underlay his broader vision for a triumphant Newtonian worldview, making Fresnel’s work on diffraction deeply heretical.

It’s a great story, which Levitt tells all too briefly. Of course, we now understand that Laplace and Fresnel were both right, the complementarity principle being a central tenet of quantum mechanics.

Categories: Books, History, Science, Technology

NSA, the Cloud, and Profit

August 29, 2013 Leave a comment

The NSA's Utah Data Center

The NSA’s Utah Data Center


[AP/Rick Bowmer]

This site is great. (Hat tip: Jim Fallows.)

I suggested months ago that the NSA should go into business as the ultimate cloud service.

Isn’t it great to know they’re backing up all our email? And phone conversations too? … Why don’t they offer to charge us a fee for access to old data? … I would pay for this. Wouldn’t you?

(I know, I’m not the only one to think of this. But I’ll accept credit as an independent suggester, having written about it before seeing the idea anywhere else.)

And now, as an offshoot of the NSA’s PRISM program, there’s PRSM, which provides the very service I had in mind. Some highlights:

  • Unlimited Storage: With the world’s largest data center, share endlessly.
  • 320 million strong: You’ll find every person you’ve ever known. Even grandma.
  • Instantly upload trillions of megabytes of data.
  • Really big computers: Our datacenter can store up to 5 zettabytes of information.

And then there’s the list of key partners: Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo!, Microsoft, AOL, and AT&T. I recommend exploring all the service’s features.

Meanwhile, back in the non-parodic world, Craig Timberg and Barton Gellman write in today’s Washington Post:

The National Security Agency is paying hundreds of millions of dollars a year to U.S. companies for clandestine access to their communications networks, filtering vast traffic flows for foreign targets in a process that also sweeps in large volumes of American telephone calls, e-mails and instant messages.

The bulk of the spending, detailed in a multi-volume intelligence budget obtained by The Washington Post, goes to participants in a Corporate Partner Access Project for major U.S. telecommunications providers. The documents open an important window into surveillance operations on U.S. territory that have been the subject of debate since they were revealed by The Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper in June.

New details of the corporate-partner project, which falls under the NSA’s Special Source Operations, confirm that the agency taps into “high volume circuit and packet-switched networks,” according to the spending blueprint for fiscal 2013. The program was expected to cost $278 million in the current fiscal year, down nearly one-third from its peak of $394 million in 2011.

Voluntary cooperation from the “backbone” providers of global communications dates to the 1970s under the cover name BLARNEY, according to documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. These relationships long predate the PRISM program disclosed in June, under which American technology companies hand over customer data after receiving orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

In briefing slides, the NSA described BLARNEY and three other corporate projects — OAKSTAR, FAIRVIEW and STORMBREW — under the heading of “passive” or “upstream” collection. They capture data as they move across fiber-optic cables and the gateways that direct global communications traffic.

The documents offer a rare view of a secret surveillance economy in which government officials set financial terms for programs capable of peering into the lives of almost anyone who uses a phone, computer or other device connected to the Internet.

Although the companies are required to comply with lawful surveillance orders, privacy advocates say the multimillion-dollar payments could create a profit motive to offer more than the required assistance.

787: Outsourcing and Coordination

January 27, 2013 Leave a comment
United’s first Boeing 787 Dreamliner, taking off from Paine Field in Everett, Washington

United’s first Boeing 787 Dreamliner, taking off from Paine Field in Everett, Washington

[Photo from Boeing]

For years, my best insights on (mis)management at Boeing have come during Stan and Judy’s Passover Seders. Stan, a physicist, worked at Boeing for twenty years and was part of the bargaining team for SPEEA (Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace) during the 1999-2000 negotiations that led to a strike. Soon after, he joined SPEEA full-time.

No longer do you need to attend Stan’s seder to find out what’s going on at Boeing. You can read Stan’s column, which appears in the Huffington Post. Stan has omitted his characteristic humor and you-are-there anecdotes, but in their place are deeper truths about business, labor, and management.

For instance, a few days ago, Stan wrote about what went wrong with the development of Boeing’s 787. The context is the FAA’s grounding of all US carrier 787 flights two Wednesdays ago, followed a day later by grounding of 787s around the world. From the NYT coverage:

The decisions are a result of incidents involving a 787 that was parked in Boston on Jan. 7 and another in Japan that had to make an emergency landing Wednesday morning after an alarm warning of smoke in the cockpit.

[snip]

The grounding — an unusual action for a new plane — focuses on one of the more risky design choices made by Boeing, namely to make extensive use of lithium-ion batteries aboard its airplanes for the first time.

Until now, much of the attention on the 787 was focused on its lighter composite materials and more efficient engines, meant to usher in a new era of more fuel-efficient travel, particularly over long distances. The batteries are part of an electrical system that replaces many mechanical and hydraulic ones that are common in previous jets.

The 787’s problems could jeopardize one of its major features, its ability to fly long distances at a lower cost. The plane is certified to fly 180 minutes from an airport. The U.S. government is unlikely to extend that to 330 minutes, as Boeing has promised, until all problems with the plane have been resolved.

For Boeing, “it’s crucial to get it right,” said Richard L. Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at Teal Group in Fairfax, Virginia. “They’ve got a brief and closing window in which they can convince the public and their flying customers that this is not a problem child.”

What went wrong? Some have raised the issue of outsourcing.

From the same article: “Boeing has said that it outsourced too much of the work on the 787 to suppliers who were willing, collectively, to cover billions of dollars of the development costs, and that many parts needed reworking.” See also Brad Plumer in the Washington Post, or Mark Lacter:

Still no word on what caused the battery fires that grounded the next-generation plane – and no indication when it might start flying again. But did you know that more than 30 percent of the components came from overseas suppliers, compared with 5 percent with the Boeing 747?

Stan’s latest piece offers a more thoughtful analysis, beginning with the observation that substantial outsourcing isn’t new to the 787, after which he identifies the key issue: coordination.

True, the 787 is heavily outsourced. However, Boeing’s previous airplane, the 777, was also heavily outsourced.

The lesson I learn starts with the large investment Boeing made on the 777 program to integrate all the key stakeholders into design and manufacturing teams, so we could react promptly when problems came up. In business school, that’s known as a coordination cost.

[snip]

The 777 program leaders built in, from the beginning, the engineering problem-solving culture we used successfully on decades of previous programs. Technical leaders could capitalize on trust built through teamwork to allocate sacrifice to some stakeholders, and focus extra resources elsewhere, optimizing on the program overall. This is best done upstream in the course of a program — assuming you have the decision-making authority, which was intrinsic to the 777 business model.

It’s much harder to solve problems downstream, and harder still, if, like on the 787, you have weak decision-making authority and poor understanding of what other stakeholders are doing.

The 777 was built on schedule and delivered on time; it qualified for long-range operations over water at entry into service; it had great dispatch reliability from the beginning; it is currently making customers happy; and is making money for shareholders.

In contrast, the business culture on the 787 program was structured, from the beginning, to skip all those coordination costs. The 787 business model relies much more on suppliers for design and manufacturing. Coordination and problem-solving are relatively weak. Program leaders seem paralyzed when problems come up, because authority for fixing problems is also diffused into the supply chain.

Have a look at Stan’s article in full. And follow him. He’s worth reading.

Categories: Business, Labor, Technology

The Idea Factory

December 28, 2012 Leave a comment

ideafactory

In writing about George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe last weekend, I mentioned that my earlier resistance to reading it was weakened by Marc Levinson’s WSJ survey of the best business books of 2012. As I explained, I had enjoyed Levinson’s The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger and trusted him as a guide. However, as I also noted, Levinson confused matters by recommending another history of science and technology set in New Jersey:

The laser; the semiconductor; the mobile phone; the very concept of digital communication: these fundaments of our modern world, and many others, were born in the corridors and cafeterias of Bell Telephone Laboratories. Jon Gertner’s “The Idea Factory” is a spellbinding account of the rise and fall of this remarkable research organization. By focusing on the work of individual scientists and tying their discoveries to the resultant improvements in communication, Mr. Gertner makes his story accessible to the nontechnical reader. As he shows, only the decades-long monopoly enjoyed by its parent, American Telephone & Telegraph Co., made Bell Labs possible. Once a 1982 consent decree began to turn telecommunications into a competitive industry, Bell Labs’ glory days were over. This is a must-read for anyone interested in economic history and innovation—and in whether technological advances will continue to power economic growth.

Moreover, Michiko Kakutani included Gertner’s book in her NYT list of ten favorite books of 2012, having reviewed it last March. She wrote then:

In “The Idea Factory,” Mr. Gertner — an editor at Fast Company magazine and a writer for The New York Times Magazine — not only gives us spirited portraits of the scientists behind Bell Labs’ phenomenal success, but he also looks at the reasons that research organization became such a fount of innovation, laying the groundwork for the networked world we now live in.

[snip]

Mr. Gertner’s portraits of … talented scientists who worked at Bell Labs are animated by a journalistic ability to make their discoveries and inventions utterly comprehensible — indeed, thrilling — to the lay reader. And they showcase, too, his novelistic sense of character and intuitive understanding of the odd ways in which clashing or compatible personalities can combine to foster intensely creative collaborations.

I’m just over 200 pages into the book now. It’s an exciting story. I’m especially enjoying the “spirited portraits” of these intellectual giants: Claude Shannon, William Shockley, Walter Brattain, John Bardeen, John Pierce. The wonderful anecdotes make me wish for more.

What I also wish for more of is the science and the math. I realize this isn’t a technical book, but I think there would have been room for Gertner to expand on his treatment of the physics and chemistry of transistors, or the mathematics of information theory, without offending the reader. I’m departing here from Kakutani, who admires his ability “to make their discoveries and inventions utterly comprehensible.” As the daughter of a famous mathematician, she surely has a sense of what mathematical comprehensibility looks like. And Gertner is eminently comprehensible, as far as he goes. I just think he could have pushed on a little further, especially with Shannon. What are error correcting codes? A single example would have made all the difference in revealing what the subject is about.

Well, it’s Gertner’s book to write, not mine. He had to make decisions about its focus and its level, which he did. I’m grateful for the result.

Categories: Books, History, Technology

iPhone 5

October 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Our iPhone 5’s arrived late yesterday. We ordered them four weeks ago, on the first day that Apple accepted orders, and dutifully waited. Not that there was any great urgency. Our two-year-old iPhone4’s work just fine. But we had paid off the AT&T subsidy for them many months ago, and that means part of our monthly payment to AT&T was pure profit for them. I’d rather it pay for the next phone, so we upgraded.

I spent last night setting mine up, then experimenting with it. This morning, my experimentation became more narrowly focused, as I put Siri through her paces. Impressions so far:

1. The iPhone 5 seems noticeably faster than the iPhone 4. That’s at home, on wi-fi, which is to say, the speed increase is due to the processor.

2. It also seems faster when I’m out of range of wi-fi and using AT&T’s 4G LTE data connection, which they made available in Seattle the day before the new iPhones were released. I find that I switch back and forth between LTE and ordinary 4G as I move around. I haven’t tried it out enough to get a sense of the difference in download speed.

3. I know the camera should be a significant upgrade, but again, I haven’t tested it enough yet.

4. Phone calls sound significantly improved in sound quality.

5. I like the feel — thinner and lighter. Yet, the extra height does make for unexpected awkward moments when I’m holding it with just my right hand. If I’m holding it high up, where I can reach the volume buttons with my index finger, then reaching down to the lower buttons with my thumb isn’t comfortable. One benefit of the extra height is that when I view the calendar with the phone rotated to landscape view, I get a five-day view rather than the three-day view of the iPhone 4. I will enjoy that.

6. Siri. I tried lots of requests this morning. Some worked, some didn’t. Like, who won the 1982 World Series? Nope. Doesn’t go back that far. Okay, so then, who won the 2008 World Series? No again. Who won in 2011? Success. And in an attractive way. Not only did Siri tell me that the Cardinals won over the Rangers, but also she brought up on the screen the summary scoring of all seven games, that is, the standard two-line list of runs scored inning by inning.

I asked for the capitals of Washington and North Carolina. She displayed information on each pulled from Wolfram Alpha.

I asked Siri to call “my wife”. One problem with this — in my contact file for myself, I didn’t list Gail as my wife. Siri asked if I wanted to edit my file. This evening, I’ve added wife, son, daughter, father, mother, sister, brother. I won’t have that problem again.

I asked Siri to send an email to Gail. That worked, but I didn’t speak out my punctuation and Siri didn’t offer any. Then I asked Siri to send an email to me, and I spoke “comma”, “period”, and “question mark” at the appropriate places. That worked.

I asked for temperatures in various cities. This worked well, as Siri brought up on the screen the data for the city that one would ordinarily see in the built-in iPhone weather app. Much easier than typing the city in. But just now I tried again, asking for the temperature in Los Angeles, and Siri has told me — twice in succession — that something’s wrong, I should try again. On my third try, just now, I asked for Honolulu. Same problem.

Which gets to the main defect I’ve been discovering: Siri’s unreliability. If she could do some things consistently and others not at all, fine. I can learn what works, what doesn’t, and act accordingly. But I can’t figure her out. She’s way too fickle so far.

Now she’s handling temperatures just fine. It’s 64 in LA, if you’re wondering.

Directions? So far so good. I ask how to get to X, she finds X in my contacts, finds my current position, and tells me what to do. Let me try something. Not so good. If I ask how to drive to my brother’s house, she doesn’t seem to figure out who my brother is, whereas if I ask for directions using his name, she has no trouble.

Texting is great. I just told Siri to send a text to Gail, then I dictated it. Siri offered me a perfect rendering, asked whether to send it, I said yes, and it’s sent. That’s much easier than typing the text.

And I’ll never be lost again. I’ve asked Siri, “Where am I?” She knows.

That’s it for now.

Categories: Technology