Published on 10 Mar 2015
It certainly is no big deal to have a small cruise along the canals or ride a train. But what is essential infrastructure today had to be invented out of necessity in the late 18th and early 19th century. In our new episode Brett tells you everything about canals and railways and how they changed the way we transport things.
March 23, 2015
March 17, 2015
I think I first heard of this rather imposing handgun in L. Neil Smith’s SF novel The Probability Broach (another character in his novels champions the Dardick 1500, also a weird and wonderful handgun). Last week, Robert Farago had a post about a fantastic collection of Luger pistols that also included an example of the MARS:
This rare and monstrous handgun once had bragging rights as “the most powerful handgun in the world.” Considering it was only produced from 1898-1907 and would not lose that title until the 1970s, that’s quite an accomplishment. That small production time, of course, resulted in a very limited run of these guns. Approximately 80 were ever produced in all their proprietary configurations (8.5mm, .36 (9mm), .45 Long, and .45 Short). The example shown above is an extremely early version (c. 1898-1900) and stamped with the serial number 4. It also has the fine blued finish and wonderful checkered walnut grips. It remains in its all-original and unaltered condition.
The pistols were very well-made with all hand-fitted parts, and extremely powerful, but ultimately they were not to be. Why? A few reasons existed and they all had to deal with the gun’s rather complex design. First of all, complex designs historically tend to not render themselves well to life in military service. Complex devices have more parts to foul and are difficult to repair/clean in the field.
Second, this complex device, utilizing a long-action recoil, had such horrendous recoil that it was prone to feeding problems. The recoil was partially due to the powerful cartridges, but also because of the long travel of the moving parts. It also suffered from a heavy trigger pull. All these gripes led to the MARS being passed over for military contracts, the sole hope of its designer, Hugh Gabbet-Fairfax. There were never any issues with its “man-stopping” ability, but its recoil was its ultimate undoing. Fortunately, it left us with some rather entertaining quotes such as, “No one who fired once with the pistol wished to shoot it again,” and “singularly unpleasant and alarming.” Even without military contracts or commercial sales, this rare curio remains a supremely desirable collectible.
March 11, 2015
In Forbes, Tim Worstall looks at last week’s announcement that China is (slightly) lowering their economic growth forecast.
On that larger scale though what people are worrying about is this. Catch up growth is easier than growth from the technological frontier. What is meant by this is that it’s a great deal easier to generate economic growth if you have an example in front of you of how to do things. To take a trivial example, if you can go and buy a mobile phone, take it apart to see how it works, it’s a lot easier to copy that technology than it is to invent it for the first time. And this is true of how you make cement, how you put up buildings, how you farm a field and so on. And at root that’s what economic growth is: becoming more efficient at doing all of these things as well as everything else. Each time you become more efficient at doing one task you free up resources to be doing something else. Thus you get both the original thing plus the new one from the same resources: this is the very definition of economic growth.
However, there’s a limit to such catch up growth. In certain areas China is right at that technological frontier (in some areas ahead of the rest of the world in fact). Which is where things become more difficult: there’s no one to copy. Therefore that invention has to happen domestically. This is obviously more difficult. But also it rather requires a certain set of institutions. The rule of law, property rights and so on. These aren’t things that China notably has (although things are very much better than they were decades ago). It’s those headwinds that need to be beaten. Bringing in these new institutions, embedding them in the society and the economy, without causing so much disruption as to slow down growth while they are done.
The standard jargon for this is “middle income trap”. To be crude about it the general feeling is that it’s pretty easy to go from dirt poor to middling income. The essence is really just to stop doing stupid things that hold economic development back. China’s done that very well even though they did start from a very low level of an immense number of very stupid things that Maoism did to hold economic growth back. The middle income trap is where the transition over to those institutions that promote technological frontier growth don’t appear (or are not imposed). And thus the stunning growth peters out.
February 25, 2015
Published on 23 Feb 2015
“All the logic that we are seeing in the Net Neutrality debate is assuming that nothing has changed; it’s assuming that it’s 1995. What’s actually happened is that people get more and more service, year in and year out,” says Daniel Berninger, a telecom activist who was involved in the early days of internet-phone service of Vonage.
Net Neutrality proponents, including President Obama, argue that internet-service providers (ISPs) need to be regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in order to keep the internet “free and open.”
Berninger heads up VCXC, a nonprofit that is pushing for regulatory and policy changes to speed up the transition to IP-based networks for voice and data sharing. He’s an unsparing critic of FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s plan to implement Net Neutrality by regulating broadband network operators under Title II or “common carrier” provisions of federal law.
Title II has historically applied to telephone companies, which were regulated as public utilities and subject to government scrutiny regarding every aspect of service, including pricing and universal service obligations. Since the mid-1990s, the internet has been classified as an “information service,” which is subject to much less regulation under Title I of the relevant federal law.
“Title II regulation has been around for 80 years,” says Berninger, “and we know exactly what it can accomplish and what it can’t accomplish … in all the things that it touched, it essentially destroyed innovation.” In 1956, he explains, as part of a consent decree involving ATT, phone service was regulated by the FCC under Title II while “information services” were essentially unregulated. “We split communications and computing and treated them entirely different — essentially as a twin experiment. Well, one twin prospered and one twin did not do very well.” Berninger argues that virtually all the problems that proponents of Title II regulation and Net Neutrality worry over — such as the blocking of specific websites and the deliberate slowing of traffic — haven’t occurred precisely because ISPs are subject to market competition and must constantly innovate to keep customers happy. FCC regulation would hamper that.
The FCC will vote on Wheeler’s proposal later this week and is widely expected to endorse it. The FCC has lost two previous attempts to assert regulatory control over the internet.
February 15, 2015
I said: “It irritated me; it must have been worse for you. Then there are saddles,” I went on — I wished to get this lesson home to him. “Can you think of any saddle ever advertised that you have not tried?”
He said: “It has been an idea of mine that the right saddle is to be found.”
I said: “You give up that idea; this is an imperfect world of joy and sorrow mingled. There may be a better land where bicycle saddles are made out of rainbow, stuffed with cloud; in this world the simplest thing is to get used to something hard. There was that saddle you bought in Birmingham; it was divided in the middle, and looked like a pair of kidneys.”
He said: “You mean that one constructed on anatomical principles.”
“Very likely,” I replied. “The box you bought it in had a picture on the cover, representing a sitting skeleton — or rather that part of a skeleton which does sit.”
He said: “It was quite correct; it showed you the true position of the—”
I said: “We will not go into details; the picture always seemed to me indelicate.”
He said: “Medically speaking, it was right.”
“Possibly,” I said, “for a man who rode in nothing but his bones. I only know that I tried it myself, and that to a man who wore flesh it was agony. Every time you went over a stone or a rut it nipped you; it was like riding on an irritable lobster. You rode that for a month.”
“I thought it only right to give it a fair trial,” he answered.
I said: “You gave your family a fair trial also; if you will allow me the use of slang. Your wife told me that never in the whole course of your married life had she known you so bad tempered, so un-Christian like, as you were that month. Then you remember that other saddle, the one with the spring under it.”
He said: “You mean ‘the Spiral.’”
I said: “I mean the one that jerked you up and down like a Jack-in-the-box; sometimes you came down again in the right place, and sometimes you didn’t. I am not referring to these matters merely to recall painful memories, but I want to impress you with the folly of trying experiments at your time of life.”
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1914.
February 13, 2015
Beth McMurtrie talks to the first group of former university students who dropped out to take advantage of the alternative offered by billionaire Peter Thiel:
In the five years since the billionaire investor Peter Thiel announced his eponymous fellowship, the project has assumed outsize social significance, as Mr. Gu discovered. Mr. Thiel’s outspoken nature and his view that the value of college is oversold have earned him both enemies and accolades.
For some, Mr. Thiel is a dangerous man, seeking to undermine a system that has proved the surest path to economic success for millions of Americans. For others, his ideas represent the future of American education, in which brilliant minds are freed from the convention of college and are encouraged to educate themselves on their own terms.
For Mr. Gu and other members of that first class of fellows, their experiences have been neither as dire nor as dramatically successful as observers on both sides predicted. While many fellows say they appreciate what college gave them, they also didn’t feel they needed a credential to pursue their dreams. And while they agree that dropping out isn’t the right choice for many students, they hope they’re proof that there’s not just one path to success.
Indeed, while higher-education experts debate his philosophy, they agree that Mr. Thiel has succeeded in getting more Americans to ask what college provides that the working world cannot.
Jake Schwartz, who heads General Assembly, a company that offers business — and web-development courses as an alternative to formal degree programs, agrees with Mr. Thiel that there is an almost “religious” dedication to higher education.
“I mean religious in a sense in that we don’t necessarily ask why, we just presume it’s important and deserves all the resources we can throw at it,” he says. “It’s probably a healthy thing to ask why and ask which are the benefits to society and which aren’t. That requires alternatives, counterfactuals.”
February 11, 2015
Google this week unveiled the latest iteration of its driverless-car experiment, a prototype vehicle with no steering wheel or brake pedal. Reactions came in three main modes: terror, in the case of traditional automobile manufacturers; gee-whiz enthusiasm among nerds such as yours truly; and, most important, withering criticism from assorted design and automotive critics, who denounced the vehicles’ 1998-iMac-on-wheels aesthetic as too cute by a (driverless) mile, an Edsel as reimagined by Jony Ive. Every wonder that comes (in this case literally) down the pike is met with a measure of scorn by various aficionados and sundry mavens, who are annoying but who also are, regardless of whether they intend or realize it, champions of civilization. The iterative, evolutionary process of product design and refinement is the main engine of progress in material standards of living on this planet, and every condescending, self-righteous snob who pronounces every innovation not quite good enough is making humanity better off.
The Google driverless car may turn out to be the iPod of the automotive world, or it may fail. It may be the case that another firm (though I would not bet on General Motors) will produce a better version; it is more likely that, as with traditional cars, dozens of firms will offer scores of competing products, each serving a different need or taste. It may be the case that the most economically consequential application of the technology is moving cargo rather than people. Or maybe people won’t like them; you never can tell. What is important is that the evolutionary process be allowed to play out with a minimum of political interference.
Kevin D. Williamson, “Race On, for Driverless Cars: On the beauty of putting the consumer in the driver’s seat”, National Review, 2014-06-01.
February 2, 2015
The old burger wars were between McDonald’s and its similar-but-slightly-different competitors like Burger King and Wendy’s. Peter Suderman says the new burger wars won’t follow the same pattern. The new battle will be more like plucky bands of humans hunting down woolly mammoths, as the smaller-but-nimbler chains start to encroach on the big chains’ traditional territories:
Hamburger fans, rejoice: Better burgers are winning the fast-food wars.
On Wednesday, McDonald’s — the biggest and most successful brand in fast food — announced that its current CEO, Don Thompson, would be stepping down. The departure comes on the heels of a lackluster earnings report and a steep drop in overall sales as competition from new entrants has increased.
This morning, shares of Shake Shack, a rapidly growing burger chain that grew out of a hot dog stand in Manhattan, shot up in price during the company’s first day of public trading. The restaurant chain has just 63 locations, but it’s now worth an estimated $1.6 billion.
The problems facing McDonald’s are obvious: Because it is so well known and so dominant, it has a hard time changing in response to market demand. Its success gives it access to tremendous resources, but its all-things-to-everyone approach, and the inevitable bloat that tends to accrue at any successful legacy business, leaves it vulnerable to new players that can do fewer things better — like, for example, Shake Shack.
It’s hard to imagine the fast food market without McDonald’s, but it was a very different world then. Here’s Mark Knopfler’s tribute-of-sorts to Ray Kroc, who turned the McDonald’s brand into one of the world’s most well-known and profitable companies:
i’m going to san bernardino ring-a-ding-ding
milkshake mixers that’s my thing, now
these guys bought a heap of my stuff
and i gotta see a good thing sure enough, now
or my name’s not kroc that’s kroc with a ‘k’
like ‘crocodile’ but not spelled that way, yeah
it’s dog eat dog
rat eat rat
boom, like that
the folks line up all down the street
and i’m seeing this girl devour her meat, now
and then i get it, wham as clear as day
my pulse begins to hammer and i hear a voice say:
these boys have got this down
oughtta be a one of these in every town
these boys have got the touch
it’s clean as a whistle and it don’t cost much
wham, bam you don’t wait long
shake, fries patty, you’re gone
and how about that friendly name?
heck, every little thing oughtta stay the same
or my name’s not kroc that’s kroc with a ‘k’
like ‘crocodile’ but not spelled that way, now
it’s dog eat dog
rat eat rat
boom, like that
you gentlemen ought to expand
you’re going to need a helping hand, now
so, gentlemen well, what about me?
we’ll make a little business history, now
or my name’s not kroc call me ray
like ‘crocodile’ but not spelled that way, now
it’s dog eat dog
rat eat rat
boom, like that
well we build it up and i buy ‘em out
but, man they made me grind it out, now
they open up a new place flipping meat
so i do, too right across the street
i got the name i need the town
they sell up in the end and it all shuts down
sometimes you gotta be an s.o.b.
you wanna make a dream reality
competition? send ‘em south
if they’re gonna drown put a hose in their mouth
do not pass ‘go’ go straight to hell
i smell that meat hook smell
or my name’s not kroc that’s kroc with a ‘k’
like ‘crocodile’ but not spelled that way, now
it’s dog eat dog
rat eat rat
boom, like that
January 29, 2015
Last week, Tam saluted John Moses Browning on the occasion of his birthday, and celebrated the problem he solved:
So, the problem with a self-loading pistol is keeping the action closed until the bullet has left the muzzle and pressure in the chamber has dropped low enough that the brass case will be ejected neatly, as opposed to being transformed into a spray of shrapnel in the shooter’s face.
Early autopistols relied on complex mechanical setups, like the well-known Borchardt/Luger mechanism derived from Maxim’s toggle joint, to provide mechanical disadvantage against which the recoil had to work.
It would not shock me to learn that the two main parts of that toggle required more separate machining steps than an entire modern pistol slide. Further, the entire works were exposed to the great outdoors. Friend Marko once jokingly called it “The perfect handgun for a gunfight in a computer clean room.”
So, what are our choices to hold the breech closed for that crucial fraction of a second? Well, there’s spring pressure, but you can only add so much of that before the action can’t be worked by human hands. You can also add weight to the breechblock.
January 12, 2015
Virginia Postrel on “the power of seemingly trivial inventions to utterly transform our notion of ‘normal’ life”
In The Weekly Standard, Virginia Postrel reviews Packaged Pleasures by Gary S. Cross and Robert N. Proctor:
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a host of often ignored technologies transformed human sensual experience, changing how we eat, drink, see, hear, and feel in ways we still benefit (and suffer) from today. Modern people learned how to capture and intensify sensuality, to preserve it, and to make it portable, durable, and accessible across great reaches of social class and physical space.
Eating canned peaches in the winter, buying a chocolate bar at the corner newsstand, hearing an opera in your living room, and immortalizing baby’s first steps in a snapshot all marked a radical shift in human experience. Replacing scarcity with abundance and capturing the previously ephemeral — these mundane pleasures defied nature as surely as did horseless carriages.
It’s a keen insight and a valuable reminder of the power of seemingly trivial inventions to utterly transform our notion of “normal” life. Cross and Proctor carry their theme through chapters on cigarettes, mass-market sweets (candy, soda, ice cream), recorded sound, photographs and movies, and amusement parks. The somewhat eccentric selection reflects the authors’ scholarly backgrounds. In his previous work, Cross, a historian at Penn State, has focused primarily on childhood and leisure, which presumably explains the amusement parks. Proctor, a historian of science at Stanford, has written extensively on tobacco and cancer, including in his Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition (2012).
The authors are at their best when showing how incremental improvements cumulate to create dramatic technological and cultural changes. They start with the packaging itself. “Industrial containerization,” they write, “made it possible to distribute foods throughout the globe; think only of what it would be like to live in a world without tin cans, cardboard cartons, and bottled drinks.” The “tubularization” represented by cylinders such as cigarettes, tin cans, and soda bottles (not to mention lipsticks and bullet shells) transformed manufacturing and marketing as well as distribution, giving producers easily fillable containers that could be labeled, branded, and advertised.
Historians unduly slight packaging technologies, the authors suggest, because “tubing the natural world” developed so gradually. Although the metal can dates back to 1810, it took nearly a century of refinements in stamping, folding, and soldering to achieve the design that changed the world: the “sanitary can,” which used crimped double seams and no interior solder to create an airtight seal. This was the design, Cross and Proctor write, that “allowed a wide range of tinned food to reach urban populations, especially as rival processors introduced ever-cheaper and more attractive foodstuffs festooned with colorful labels and catchy brand names.”
January 8, 2015
Mike Masnick included a fascinating chart in this story:
What it shows is that while new books are available for sale, they quickly go out of print and are basically not available — until you get down to 1923, at which point the works are in the public domain. Think of all those works that are no longer available to buy in that major gap in the middle. Heald has since updated that research to show how serious a problem this is — and demonstrating how the arguments against letting these works into the public domain make no sense. He demolishes the arguments made by some that a public domain will be either “under” or “over” exploited (yes, both arguments are made), as neither makes much sense.
It appears that copyright is doing similar damage in Europe. At the latest Chaos Communications Congress in Germany, Julia Reda, the European Parliament member from the Pirate Party gave a talk on the state of copyright law today (you can see the video here and included a similar graphic concerning books available in Europe:
January 4, 2015
The Oatmeal got a chance to ride in one of Google’s self-driving cars, and learned six things from his experience:
2. Google self-driving cars are timid.
The car we rode in did not strike me as dangerous. It struck me as cautious. It drove slowly and deliberately, and I got the impression that it’s more likely to annoy other drivers than to harm them. Google can adjust the level of aggression in the software, and the self-driving prototypes currently tooling around Mountain View are throttled to act like nervous student drivers.
In the early versions they tested on closed courses, the vehicles were programmed to be highly aggressive. Apparently during these aggression tests, which involved obstacle courses full of traffic cones and inflatable crash-test objects, there were a lot of screeching brakes and roaring engines and terrified interns. Although impractical on the open road, part of me wishes I could have experienced that version as well.
December 30, 2014
It’s very easy to let your eye skip over the humble pallet, yet it represents a huge improvement in how products get from the factory to you:
The magic of these pallets is the magic of abstraction. Take any object you like, pile it onto a pallet, and it becomes, simply, a “unit load” — standardized, cubical, and ideally suited to being scooped up by the tines of a forklift. This allows your Cheerios and your oysters to be whisked through the supply chain with great efficiency; the gains are so impressive, in fact, that many experts consider the pallet to be the most important materials-handling innovation of the twentieth century. Studies have estimated that pallets consume 12 to 15 percent of all lumber produced in the US, more than any other industry except home construction.
Some pallets also carry an aesthetic charge. It’s mostly about geometry: parallel lines and negative space, slats and air. There is also the appeal of the raw, unpainted wood, the cheapest stuff you can buy from a lumber mill — “bark and better,” it’s called. These facts have not escaped the notice of artists, architects, designers, or DIY enthusiasts. In 2003, the conceptual artist Stuart Keeler presented stacks of pallets in a gallery show, calling them “the elegant serving-platters of industry”; more recently, Thomas Hirschhorn featured a giant pallet construction as part of his Gramsci Monument. Etsy currently features dozens of items made from pallets, from window planters and chaise lounges to more idiosyncratic artifacts, such as a decorative teal crucifix mounted on a pallet. If shipping containers had their cultural moment a decade ago, pallets are having theirs now.
Since World War II, most of America’s pallet needs have been met by several thousand small and mid-sized businesses. These form the nucleus of not just an industry, but a sprawling, anarchic ecosystem — a world, really, complete with its own customs, language, and legends, with a political class, with its own media. This world is known as “whitewood.” There are approximately forty thousand citizens of whitewood, ranging from pallet pickers (who salvage pallets from the trash) to pallet recyclers (who repair broken pallets and make them whole) to pallet manufacturers, pallet consultants, pallet academics, pallet thieves, and pallet association presidents. Whitewood includes people who crisscross the country selling pallet repair machinery, preaching the gospel of tools such as the Rogers Un-Nailer.
Not all pallets belong to the world of whitewood. The most important other category — and whitewood’s chief antagonist — is the blue pallet. These blues are not just a different color; they are also built differently, and play by different rules, and for the past twenty-five years, the conflict between blue and white has been the central theme in the political economy of American pallets. The person most identified with this conflict is a soft-spoken, middle-aged man from Kansas named Bob Moore. Currently embroiled in a legal battle over a pallet deal gone bad, Moore is a singular figure in the industry and a magnet for controversy. When not in federal court, he can sometimes be found piloting a Mooney Acclaim Type S airplane, which he prefers, when possible, to flying commercial. The Mooney is a good place to concentrate, one imagines. And it is important to concentrate when plotting the future of pallets.
December 20, 2014
Ridcully poked at his pipe with a pipe cleaner and said, “Ye-es, that is a conundrum. Surely the steam engine cannot happen before it’s steam-engine time? If you saw a pig, you would, I think, say to yourself, well, here’s a pig, so it must be time for pigs. You wouldn’t question its right to be there would you?”
“Certainly not,” said Lu-Tze. “In any case, pork gives me the wind something dreadful. What we know is that the universe is never-ending story that, happily, writes itself continuously. The trouble with my brethren in Oi Dong is that they are fixated on the belief that the universe can be totally understood, in every particular jot and tittle.”
Ridcully burst out laughing. “Oh, my word! You know, my wonderful associate Mister Ponder Stibbins appears to have fallen into the same misapprehension. It seems that even the very wise have neglected to take notice of one rather important goddess … Pippina, the lady with the Apple of Discord. She knows that the universe, while it requires rules and stability, also needs just a tincture of chaos, the unexpected, the surprising. Otherwise it would be a mechanism — a wonderful mechanism, ticking away the centuries, but with nothing different happening. And so we may assume that the loss of balance will be allowed this time and the beneficent lady will decree that this mechanism might yield wonderful things, given a chance.”
“For my part, I would like to give it a chance,” said Lu-Tze. “Serendipity is no stranger to me. I know the monks have been carefully shepherding the world, but I rather think they don’t realize that the sheep sometimes have better ideas. Uncertainty is always uncertain, but the difficulty with people who rely on systems is that they begin to believe that nearly everything is in some way a system and therefore, sooner or later, they become bureaucrats.”
Terry Pratchett, Raising Steam, 2013.
December 16, 2014
In the first post at his new blog, Anton Howes lays out one of the biggest questions about the 19th century:
What caused the Industrial Revolution?
By the term “Industrial Revolution”, the broadly accepted meaning is of (1) innovation-led, (2) sustained and (3) replicable economic growth.
Each of those adjectives are the source of some of the other important questions in the social sciences. Here are some brief summaries of the issues at hand, which I’ll maybe expand upon separately.
Innovation-led growth distinguishes itself hugely from what we might call ‘Ricardian’ or ‘Malthusian’ economic growth (it’s usually called ‘Smithian’, but that’s a topic for another time). Capital accumulation, population growth, conquest, and education, can all result in initial surges of economic growth. But this is soon brought to a standstill by the brutal reality of diminishing marginal returns, depreciation, and food shortages.
Innovation existed before the Industrial Revolution. Of course it did – you need look no further than the invention of agriculture, writing, bronze, crop rotations, horse collars, windmills, gunpowder, printing presses, paper, and bills of exchange to know that innovations have occurred throughout history before the IR.
The difference is that these were few and far between. Some of them, often grouped together, resulted in Golden Ages, or “Efflorescences” as Jack Goldstone likes to call them. The 1st Century early Roman Empire; the 8th Century Arab World; 12th Century Sung Dynasty China; the 15th Century northern Italian city-states; and 17th Century Dutch Republic are all good examples.
Perhaps most importantly, this miracle quickly spread. First to Belgium, across the Atlantic to the new-born USA, and then to the Dutch Republic still winding down from its own Golden Age, France, Northern Italy, and the multitude of German principalities.
In the last Century it spread to Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Vietnam and Eastern European countries escaping the shadow of Communism.
In this Century it appears to finally be taking root in various African countries. Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda in particular seem to be leading the way.
The more recent recipients of the IR are experiencing an unprecedented rate of growth, which in itself provides a further miracle in economic history. Britain’s sustained growth only initially manifested itself at less than 1% per year. It took about 100 years for Britain’s first doubling in GDP to occur.
More recent recipients can expect to grow at 7-10% every year, and sometimes even higher. To put that in perspective, growth at 7% per year would result in a doubling of the size of the economy in only 10 years. 10% a year in only 7 years.