A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for October 2011

[PHOTO] Sometime you just find chairs lying around on the street

77570016

This chair was so incongruous, for its presence and for its neat alignment parallel the wall, that I had to memorialize it.

Written by Randy McDonald

October 6, 2011 at 6:37 am

Posted in Assorted

Tagged with ,

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On how the world isn’t off because your preferred future didn’t happen

Just now an annoying essay by noteworthy science fiction author Neal Stephenson, “Innovation Starvation”, has been circulating my corner of the Internet. The title of James Nicoll’s brief commentary, “The pain of an affluent, middle-aged white American denied his boyhood fantasies”, isn’t unfair.

My lifespan encompasses the era when the United States of America was capable of launching human beings into space. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on a braided rug before a hulking black-and-white television, watching the early Gemini missions. This summer, at the age of 51—not even old—I watched on a flatscreen as the last Space Shuttle lifted off the pad. I have followed the dwindling of the space program with sadness, even bitterness. Where’s my donut-shaped space station? Where’s my ticket to Mars? Until recently, though, I have kept my feelings to myself. Space exploration has always had its detractors. To complain about its demise is to expose oneself to attack from those who have no sympathy that an affluent, middle-aged white American has not lived to see his boyhood fantasies fulfilled.

Still, I worry that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done. My parents and grandparents witnessed the creation of the airplane, the automobile, nuclear energy, and the computer to name only a few. Scientists and engineers who came of age during the first half of the 20th century could look forward to building things that would solve age-old problems, transform the landscape, build the economy, and provide jobs for the burgeoning middle class that was the basis for our stable democracy.

In brief, Stephenson argues that society has become less risk-averse as a rule, hence less innovative, China’s growth is not innovative because it is just copying the West, the Internet allows for the sort of rapid fact-checking that discourages innovation (I know), etc.

My comments? They’re slightly modified and expanded from my comments over at the post.

***

I have to admit to a lack of understanding as to how the transformation of China–and so much of the rest of the world–into a reasonably postmodern state in the relatively short time that it has is symptomatic of a world society that can’t get big things done, is symptomatic of a lack of innovation. It’s certainly radical innovation in the Chinese context, and this innovation certainly has wrought huge unprecedented impacts on the rest of the world.

I’m also pretty confused as to why the current American and human presence in space, with dozens of space probes scattering across the solar system to chart the major and minor worlds in detail, is supposed to be less innovative than a half-dozen brief sample-retrieval missions that rank among the least malign uses of the Cold War’s ICBM technologies. If manned space travel hasn’t taken off as contemporaries might have hoped, then maybe it’s because it proved to be less useful–more expensive, at the very least–than people imagined and more conditioned on Cold War rivalries. Less emotionally satisfying, sure, but why was manned space travel supposed to be so cheap in the first place? Futurologists frequently get things very wrong, after all. Me, I’m pleased by detailed surveys of the surface of Vesta and mp3s of the wind on the surface of Saturn and Kepler’s culling of Earth-like worlds.

I agree with commenter David that my generation’s radically innovative technological project is the increasingly dense global skein of interactive, individual computer-mediated networks that has managed to transform the entire planet. I’d happily argue it’s been more radically transformative than inexpensive space travel would have been in its place. The entire world is getting online, and using the online world to do things with other people and places. Only a very few people, in comparison, could have gotten to space. (Don’t forget the magic biotechnology that we’re developing, too. That makes two radical innovations that have changed human lives, though, so I won’t overly complicate things with a second disproof.)

I have to disagree with the commenters here who blames the failure of manned spaceflight on people preferring to spend their money on different things or on corrupt democratic societies which just! do not! get! Things! Done! or on overly diverse and non-conservative and–thus–unimpressive national cultures. I’d suggest that the failure has much more to do with the lack of any obvious and attractive reason for people to live in space apart from the sheer coolness of it, combined with the high costs–high absolutely, but especially high relative to the smaller national economies of a generation ago. It’s no coincidence that it’s the Soviet Union, with a command economy notoriously unresponsive to individual demands and needs, that arguably had a more prolific manned space program than the United States. As time progresses, and economies expand while technologies become less expensive, the barriers to developing space will fall done worldwide. Hopefully by then we’ll come up with reasons to move there that don’t necessarily involve tourism.

Islands, it should be noted, are microcosms which foster diversity within themselves, but are also microcosms which are insanely vulnerable to outside interventions. Isolated islands, because of their compact and accessible topographies and their relative shortages of resources, are vulnerable to all kinds of catastrophic shocks–ecological, economic, military, demographic–in ways that larger landmasses are not. The Galapagos themselves, brought into the orbit of humanity less than two centuries ago, would have seen their biological diversity disappear if not for sustained efforts to (so far) prevent the otherwise inevitable. Islands provide niches; continents give the space necessary for vast things to thrive.

Written by Randy McDonald

October 6, 2011 at 3:57 am

[LINK] Gladwell on Jobs’ innovation style

The New Yorker on Facebook just posted a Malcolm Gladwell article taking a look at Steve jobs’ role as an innovator in computers, specifically concentrating on the things he borrowed from the Xerox company’s PARC research complex–the graphical user interface, the mouse. Was he stealing? No, Gladwell argues, he was implementing in the real world technologies developed in an ideal world. He expands on this by making an analogy to the Revolution in Military Affairs, the theories which hope to explain how technology changes war.

The difference between direct and indirect manipulation—between three buttons and one button, three hundred dollars and fifteen dollars, and a roller ball supported by ball bearings and a free-rolling ball—is not trivial. It is the difference between something intended for experts, which is what Xerox PARC had in mind, and something that’s appropriate for a mass audience, which is what Apple had in mind. PARC was building a personal computer. Apple wanted to build a popular computer.

In a recent study, “The Culture of Military Innovation,” the military scholar Dima Adamsky makes a similar argument about the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs. R.M.A. refers to the way armies have transformed themselves with the tools of the digital age—such as precision-guided missiles, surveillance drones, and real-time command, control, and communications technologies—and Adamsky begins with the simple observation that it is impossible to determine who invented R.M.A. The first people to imagine how digital technology would transform warfare were a cadre of senior military intellectuals in the Soviet Union, during the nineteen-seventies. The first country to come up with these high-tech systems was the United States. And the first country to use them was Israel, in its 1982 clash with the Syrian Air Force in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, a battle commonly referred to as “the Bekaa Valley turkey shoot.” Israel coördinated all the major innovations of R.M.A. in a manner so devastating that it destroyed nineteen surface-to-air batteries and eighty-seven Syrian aircraft while losing only a handful of its own planes.

That’s three revolutions, not one, and Adamsky’s point is that each of these strands is necessarily distinct, drawing on separate skills and circumstances. The Soviets had a strong, centralized military bureaucracy, with a long tradition of theoretical analysis. It made sense that they were the first to understand the military implications of new information systems. But they didn’t do anything with it, because centralized military bureaucracies with strong intellectual traditions aren’t very good at connecting word and deed.

The United States, by contrast, has a decentralized, bottom-up entrepreneurial culture, which has historically had a strong orientation toward technological solutions. The military’s close ties to the country’ high-tech community made it unsurprising that the U.S. would be the first to invent precision-guidance and next-generation command-and-control communications. But those assets also meant that Soviet-style systemic analysis wasn’t going to be a priority. As for the Israelis, their military culture grew out of a background of resource constraint and constant threat. In response, they became brilliantly improvisational and creative. But, as Adamsky points out, a military built around urgent, short-term “fire extinguishing” is not going to be distinguished by reflective theory. No one stole the revolution. Each party viewed the problem from a different perspective, and carved off a different piece of the puzzle.

In the history of the mouse, Engelbart was the Soviet Union. He was the visionary, who saw the mouse before anyone else did. But visionaries are limited by their visions. “Engelbart’s self-defined mission was not to produce a product, or even a prototype; it was an open-ended search for knowledge,” Matthew Hiltzik writes, in “Dealers of Lightning” (1999), his wonderful history of Xerox PARC. “Consequently, no project in his lab ever seemed to come to an end.” Xerox PARC was the United States: it was a place where things got made. “Xerox created this perfect environment,” recalled Bob Metcalfe, who worked there through much of the nineteen-seventies, before leaving to found the networking company 3Com. “There wasn’t any hierarchy. We built out our own tools. When we needed to publish papers, we built a printer. When we needed to edit the papers, we built a computer. When we needed to connect computers, we figured out how to connect them. We had big budgets. Unlike many of our brethren, we didn’t have to teach. We could just research. It was heaven.”

But heaven is not a good place to commercialize a product. “We built a computer and it was a beautiful thing,” Metcalfe went on. “We developed our computer language, our own display, our own language. It was a gold-plated product. But it cost sixteen thousand dollars, and it needed to cost three thousand dollars.” For an actual product, you need threat and constraint—and the improvisation and creativity necessary to turn a gold-plated three-hundred-dollar mouse into something that works on Formica and costs fifteen dollars. Apple was Israel.

Xerox couldn’t have been I.B.M. and Microsoft combined, in other words. “You can be one of the most successful makers of enterprise technology products the world has ever known, but that doesn’t mean your instincts will carry over to the consumer market,” the tech writer Harry McCracken recently wrote. “They’re really different, and few companies have ever been successful in both.” He was talking about the decision by the networking giant Cisco System, this spring, to shut down its Flip camera business, at a cost of many hundreds of millions of dollars. But he could just as easily have been talking about the Xerox of forty years ago, which was one of the most successful makers of enterprise technology the world has ever known. The fair question is whether Xerox, through its research arm in Palo Alto, found a better way to be Xerox—and the answer is that it did, although that story doesn’t get told nearly as often.

Although the story of Apple, and Jobs, deserves to be told, too. (This can be done implicitly, mind. Would I be able to tell you any of this if not for the informatics wrought by Apple?)

Written by Randy McDonald

October 6, 2011 at 3:14 am

[URBAN NOTE] On persistent housing shortages

Extraordinary Observations’ Rob Pitingolo has an interesting essay examining the dynamics of American housing markets. Why are there shortages even if supply grows? It’s the demand side of the equation.

I [argued] that we can’t really talk about the “housing market” because housing isn’t homogeneous. People are willing to pay more for high-quality housing than they are for low-quality housing. So if you change the type and quality of housing in a neighborhood, you alter the underlying structure of the market itself, and the price at which people are willing to pay to live there, all else equal.

But let’s set that aside for a moment and assume, for argument’s sake, that housing is a commodity. From a theoretical perspective, we can draw the housing market as a series of simple charts, similar to what you might remember from an intro to microeconomics course.

In a neighborhood housing market, the demand curve is downward sloping. There’s nothing notable about this; and in the short-run, the supply curve is a vertical line. This is consistent with the reality that in most neighborhoods you can’t start construction whenever you want to. In fact, it’s often a huge hassle to construct new units, for a variety of reasons, NIMBYism being one of them. So in the short-run, the supply is fixed.

The theory continues that in order to meet the high or pent-up demand, as well as make housing more affordable, we ought to increase the supply of housing. […] If all goes well, the resulting equilibrium will be a lower price and higher quantity of housing.

But it doesn’t end there, because we haven’t accounted for the demand curve, which very well may shift. This could be because new amenities have popped up in the neighborhood; but also because the neighborhood is getting safer, cleaner and generally becoming a more desirable place to live. It could even be for a completely exogenous reason. Whatever the case, let’s imagine that the end result is a rightward shift in the demand curve.

If the shift in the demand curve is great enough, it can completely overwhelm the shift in the supply curve, leading to an equilibrium with higher prices.

Now, I’m not using this as an argument to say we shouldn’t work to increase density in cities or metro areas. But I do want to show that the simplistic “increase supply to make housing affordable” argument doesn’t always hold, for theoretical reasons, especially at the neighborhood-level, and in urban areas that are already relatively dense and desirable.

Pitingolo goes into more detail in his post, and provides cool graphics, too!

Written by Randy McDonald

October 6, 2011 at 3:03 am

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On how the world isn’t off because your preferred future didn’t happen

Just now an annoying essay by noteworthy science fiction author Neal Stephenson, “Innovation Starvation”, has been circulating my corner of the Internet. The title of James Nicoll’s brief commentary, “The pain of an affluent, middle-aged white American denied his boyhood fantasies”, isn’t unfair.

My lifespan encompasses the era when the United States of America was capable of launching human beings into space. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on a braided rug before a hulking black-and-white television, watching the early Gemini missions. This summer, at the age of 51—not even old—I watched on a flatscreen as the last Space Shuttle lifted off the pad. I have followed the dwindling of the space program with sadness, even bitterness. Where’s my donut-shaped space station? Where’s my ticket to Mars? Until recently, though, I have kept my feelings to myself. Space exploration has always had its detractors. To complain about its demise is to expose oneself to attack from those who have no sympathy that an affluent, middle-aged white American has not lived to see his boyhood fantasies fulfilled.

Still, I worry that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done. My parents and grandparents witnessed the creation of the airplane, the automobile, nuclear energy, and the computer to name only a few. Scientists and engineers who came of age during the first half of the 20th century could look forward to building things that would solve age-old problems, transform the landscape, build the economy, and provide jobs for the burgeoning middle class that was the basis for our stable democracy.

In brief, Stephenson argues that society has become less risk-averse as a rule, hence less innovative, China’s growth is not innovative because it is just copying the West, the Internet allows for the sort of rapid fact-checking that discourages innovation (I know), etc.

My comments? They’re slightly modified and expanded from my comments over at the post.

***

I have to admit to a lack of understanding as to how the transformation of China–and so much of the rest of the world–into a reasonably postmodern state in the relatively short time that it has is symptomatic of a world society that can’t get big things done, is symptomatic of a lack of innovation. It’s certainly radical innovation in the Chinese context, and this innovation certainly has wrought huge unprecedented impacts on the rest of the world.

I’m also pretty confused as to why the current American and human presence in space, with dozens of space probes scattering across the solar system to chart the major and minor worlds in detail, is supposed to be less innovative than a half-dozen brief sample-retrieval missions that rank among the least malign uses of the Cold War’s ICBM technologies. If manned space travel hasn’t taken off as contemporaries might have hoped, then maybe it’s because it proved to be less useful–more expensive, at the very least–than people imagined and more conditioned on Cold War rivalries. Less emotionally satisfying, sure, but why was manned space travel supposed to be so cheap in the first place? Futurologists frequently get things very wrong, after all. Me, I’m pleased by detailed surveys of the surface of Vesta and mp3s of the wind on the surface of Saturn and Kepler’s culling of Earth-like worlds.

I agree with commenter David that my generation’s radically innovative technological project is the increasingly dense global skein of interactive, individual computer-mediated networks that has managed to transform the entire planet. I’d happily argue it’s been more radically transformative than inexpensive space travel would have been in its place. The entire world is getting online, and using the online world to do things with other people and places. Only a very few people, in comparison, could have gotten to space. (Don’t forget the magic biotechnology that we’re developing, too. That makes two radical innovations that have changed human lives, though, so I won’t overly complicate things with a second disproof.)

I have to disagree with the commenters here who blames the failure of manned spaceflight on people preferring to spend their money on different things or on corrupt democratic societies which just! do not! get! Things! Done! or on overly diverse and non-conservative and–thus–unimpressive national cultures. I’d suggest that the failure has much more to do with the lack of any obvious and attractive reason for people to live in space apart from the sheer coolness of it, combined with the high costs–high absolutely, but especially high relative to the smaller national economies of a generation ago. It’s no coincidence that it’s the Soviet Union, with a command economy notoriously unresponsive to individual demands and needs, that arguably had a more prolific manned space program than the United States. As time progresses, and economies expand while technologies become less expensive, the barriers to developing space will fall done worldwide. Hopefully by then we’ll come up with reasons to move there that don’t necessarily involve tourism.

Islands, it should be noted, are microcosms which foster diversity within themselves, but are also microcosms which are insanely vulnerable to outside interventions. Isolated islands, because of their compact and accessible topographies and their relative shortages of resources, are vulnerable to all kinds of catastrophic shocks–ecological, economic, military, demographic–in ways that larger landmasses are not. The Galapagos themselves, brought into the orbit of humanity less than two centuries ago, would have seen their biological diversity disappear if not for sustained efforts to (so far) prevent the otherwise inevitable. Islands provide niches; continents give the space necessary for vast things to thrive.

Written by Randy McDonald

October 6, 2011 at 12:01 am

[LINK] Gladwell on Jobs’ innovation style

The New Yorker on Facebook just posted a Malcolm Gladwell article taking a look at Steve jobs’ role as an innovator in computers, specifically concentrating on the things he borrowed from the Xerox company’s PARC research complex–the graphical user interface, the mouse. Was he stealing? No, Gladwell argues, he was implementing in the real world technologies developed in an ideal world. He expands on this by making an analogy to the Revolution in Military Affairs, the theories which hope to explain how technology changes war.

The difference between direct and indirect manipulation—between three buttons and one button, three hundred dollars and fifteen dollars, and a roller ball supported by ball bearings and a free-rolling ball—is not trivial. It is the difference between something intended for experts, which is what Xerox PARC had in mind, and something that’s appropriate for a mass audience, which is what Apple had in mind. PARC was building a personal computer. Apple wanted to build a popular computer.

In a recent study, “The Culture of Military Innovation,” the military scholar Dima Adamsky makes a similar argument about the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs. R.M.A. refers to the way armies have transformed themselves with the tools of the digital age—such as precision-guided missiles, surveillance drones, and real-time command, control, and communications technologies—and Adamsky begins with the simple observation that it is impossible to determine who invented R.M.A. The first people to imagine how digital technology would transform warfare were a cadre of senior military intellectuals in the Soviet Union, during the nineteen-seventies. The first country to come up with these high-tech systems was the United States. And the first country to use them was Israel, in its 1982 clash with the Syrian Air Force in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, a battle commonly referred to as “the Bekaa Valley turkey shoot.” Israel coördinated all the major innovations of R.M.A. in a manner so devastating that it destroyed nineteen surface-to-air batteries and eighty-seven Syrian aircraft while losing only a handful of its own planes.

That’s three revolutions, not one, and Adamsky’s point is that each of these strands is necessarily distinct, drawing on separate skills and circumstances. The Soviets had a strong, centralized military bureaucracy, with a long tradition of theoretical analysis. It made sense that they were the first to understand the military implications of new information systems. But they didn’t do anything with it, because centralized military bureaucracies with strong intellectual traditions aren’t very good at connecting word and deed.

The United States, by contrast, has a decentralized, bottom-up entrepreneurial culture, which has historically had a strong orientation toward technological solutions. The military’s close ties to the country’ high-tech community made it unsurprising that the U.S. would be the first to invent precision-guidance and next-generation command-and-control communications. But those assets also meant that Soviet-style systemic analysis wasn’t going to be a priority. As for the Israelis, their military culture grew out of a background of resource constraint and constant threat. In response, they became brilliantly improvisational and creative. But, as Adamsky points out, a military built around urgent, short-term “fire extinguishing” is not going to be distinguished by reflective theory. No one stole the revolution. Each party viewed the problem from a different perspective, and carved off a different piece of the puzzle.

In the history of the mouse, Engelbart was the Soviet Union. He was the visionary, who saw the mouse before anyone else did. But visionaries are limited by their visions. “Engelbart’s self-defined mission was not to produce a product, or even a prototype; it was an open-ended search for knowledge,” Matthew Hiltzik writes, in “Dealers of Lightning” (1999), his wonderful history of Xerox PARC. “Consequently, no project in his lab ever seemed to come to an end.” Xerox PARC was the United States: it was a place where things got made. “Xerox created this perfect environment,” recalled Bob Metcalfe, who worked there through much of the nineteen-seventies, before leaving to found the networking company 3Com. “There wasn’t any hierarchy. We built out our own tools. When we needed to publish papers, we built a printer. When we needed to edit the papers, we built a computer. When we needed to connect computers, we figured out how to connect them. We had big budgets. Unlike many of our brethren, we didn’t have to teach. We could just research. It was heaven.”

But heaven is not a good place to commercialize a product. “We built a computer and it was a beautiful thing,” Metcalfe went on. “We developed our computer language, our own display, our own language. It was a gold-plated product. But it cost sixteen thousand dollars, and it needed to cost three thousand dollars.” For an actual product, you need threat and constraint—and the improvisation and creativity necessary to turn a gold-plated three-hundred-dollar mouse into something that works on Formica and costs fifteen dollars. Apple was Israel.

Xerox couldn’t have been I.B.M. and Microsoft combined, in other words. “You can be one of the most successful makers of enterprise technology products the world has ever known, but that doesn’t mean your instincts will carry over to the consumer market,” the tech writer Harry McCracken recently wrote. “They’re really different, and few companies have ever been successful in both.” He was talking about the decision by the networking giant Cisco System, this spring, to shut down its Flip camera business, at a cost of many hundreds of millions of dollars. But he could just as easily have been talking about the Xerox of forty years ago, which was one of the most successful makers of enterprise technology the world has ever known. The fair question is whether Xerox, through its research arm in Palo Alto, found a better way to be Xerox—and the answer is that it did, although that story doesn’t get told nearly as often.

Although the story of Apple, and Jobs, deserves to be told, too. (This can be done implicitly, mind. Would I be able to tell you any of this if not for the informatics wrought by Apple?)

Written by Randy McDonald

October 5, 2011 at 11:13 pm

[URBAN NOTE] On persistent housing shortages

Extraordinary Observations’ Rob Pitingolo has an interesting essay examining the dynamics of American housing markets. Why are there shortages even if supply grows? It’s the demand side of the equation.

I [argued] that we can’t really talk about the “housing market” because housing isn’t homogeneous. People are willing to pay more for high-quality housing than they are for low-quality housing. So if you change the type and quality of housing in a neighborhood, you alter the underlying structure of the market itself, and the price at which people are willing to pay to live there, all else equal.

But let’s set that aside for a moment and assume, for argument’s sake, that housing is a commodity. From a theoretical perspective, we can draw the housing market as a series of simple charts, similar to what you might remember from an intro to microeconomics course.

In a neighborhood housing market, the demand curve is downward sloping. There’s nothing notable about this; and in the short-run, the supply curve is a vertical line. This is consistent with the reality that in most neighborhoods you can’t start construction whenever you want to. In fact, it’s often a huge hassle to construct new units, for a variety of reasons, NIMBYism being one of them. So in the short-run, the supply is fixed.

The theory continues that in order to meet the high or pent-up demand, as well as make housing more affordable, we ought to increase the supply of housing. […] If all goes well, the resulting equilibrium will be a lower price and higher quantity of housing.

But it doesn’t end there, because we haven’t accounted for the demand curve, which very well may shift. This could be because new amenities have popped up in the neighborhood; but also because the neighborhood is getting safer, cleaner and generally becoming a more desirable place to live. It could even be for a completely exogenous reason. Whatever the case, let’s imagine that the end result is a rightward shift in the demand curve.

If the shift in the demand curve is great enough, it can completely overwhelm the shift in the supply curve, leading to an equilibrium with higher prices.

Now, I’m not using this as an argument to say we shouldn’t work to increase density in cities or metro areas. But I do want to show that the simplistic “increase supply to make housing affordable” argument doesn’t always hold, for theoretical reasons, especially at the neighborhood-level, and in urban areas that are already relatively dense and desirable.

Pitingolo goes into more detail in his post, and provides cool graphics, too!

Written by Randy McDonald

October 5, 2011 at 11:02 pm

Posted in Assorted

Tagged with ,