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For Once, I Said It Simpler

July 29, 2014
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A caught this opinion by Adam Hachschild on WWI… you’ll see a lot of articles on this for the next couple years.  He does a great job of explaining why the Great War was so deadly.  But I have to admit, I say it a lot more simply when I teach my strategy classes.

The reason that WWI was so deadly is that lethal technology advanced significantly, while battle strategy did not.

This could be the first time in a long time that I said something more simply than someone else.

You could argue that the Civil War in the US was similar, but not really.  There were huge advances in that time: the Minie ball, the cartridge, the cannon… but they were still nascent.  It was only when battle tactics of the mid 1800’s met the trench, barbed wire, and the machine gun that things got really catastrophic.

But Will It Involve Explosions?

July 29, 2014

It’s been a while since I’ve read any Phillip K. Dick.  I do remember The Man in the High Castle from my late teens, but I’m somewhat fuzzy on the story, other than the main plot and a couple details that seemed odd to me as a teen reader.  But from a general perspective, his books are easy to make into movies because of the vividness of the stories.

Now with that said, if they decide to make a story about Nazis running the US after they conquered it during the war, would it just look like a fantasy about what happens with a heavily right-leaning government in place?  And how much would that miss the point of the actual story?

Let’s put aside that Fascism as an ideology leans left, since it abandons corporations for government control.  Go read Jonah Goldberg for that.  But beyond that, how many people actually study history enough to understand the effect that Fascism had on the societies in which it thrived?  This would turn more into a story about how shadowy characters rule the world in a rigid police state.  While that’s true to the book, the subtleties of the resistance and the spies in it would probably become more of an anti-hero plot, if it didn’t get changed at all.

My point is not that you can’t make the movie.  It’s more that making the movie in today’s society would probably just miss the point of the book from what I remember of it.  That’s not a bad thing (says the English Minor), since stories take a life of their own based on the perspective of the times they’re made.  If you want a great example of that, go read John Carpenter’s Who Goes There? and then watch both versions of The Thing.  So I’d be interested in what the movie would look like.

It just wouldn’t look much like the story, I’d bet.

Politics? Not really.

July 28, 2014

So I see that Sarah Palin is launching her own TV channel.

Controversial conservative Sarah Palin has launched her own subscription-based online network in order to ‘stay in contact’ with her supporters.

And it only costs them $99.95 a year.

The Sarah Palin Channel, which went live on Sunday, bills itself as a ‘direct connection’ for the former Alaska governor and GOP vice presidential candidate with her supporters, bypassing ‘media filters’.

Color me not shocked.  Ms. Palin has proved to be very savvy about her prospects in media since her initial rise to fame, and this is probably a near-term winner.  Even for a hundred bucks, there will be plenty of people on both sides of the spectrum who will log on to either try to trap her or to enthusiastically nod with her.  What’s going to be really funny is watching the left rail all about what she said on the channel, meaning someone is funding her ability to produce the content that they hate.

Allahpundit at Hot Air comments:

…Palin’s channel and TheBlaze are high-motivation purchases: They’re pitched not at the general public but at core fans of two political personalities with “an intense following.” Why wouldn’t people like that pay more than the average Joe pays for Netflix? Some Palin and Beck fans would hand over quite a bit more than 10 bucks a month, I’m sure.

For plenty of people, this is entertainment that sticks.  They get to hear something that either enthuses or infuriates them, and it’s all the price of a couple of lattes a month.  Me?  I have no interest, but then again I’m cheap.  And I can get rhetoric from either side for free.  But I’m not the target, obviously.

There are plenty of people who have looked at the Rush Limbaugh media enterprise and tried to find ways to update that and monetize the result.  I would expect that you’ll see more of this over time, mostly because people value themselves pretty highly once they realize how much disposable income is really out there in the world.  This is a reflection of the Internet boom from the turn of the century where everyone was trying to monetize the weirdest stuff… this one just has better target demographics.

And I’m all for it.  Anyone who hangs here enough knows that I’m an unabashed capitalist.  As much as people sneer at this type of thing, it’s getting a ton of press, and there will be people who will join just to see.  It’s up to Ms. Palin and team to have the creativity to keep them interested, and that’s business.  Go for it, ma’am.  I wish you luck.

What would be more interesting is to see what happens when the Left side of the world tries to do this.  Liberal talk radio has not had the momentum that the Right side does, and I’ll be interested to see if they can generate new media for profit, or if it has to be given away via things like Vox.  Stay tuned, it’s a brave new world.

Violence is Less Violent…

July 21, 2014

Steve Chapman at Real Clear Politics has a post today about the violence in Chicago.  It’s been getting a lot of play these days, since there have been several publicized shootings in the last couple months.  But does the reality actually prove the rhetoric?

Right now, the city is getting national as well as local attention for outbreaks of bloodshed, which reinforce its reputation as the murder capital of America. In terms of total homicides, it may be. But that figure fails to account for population.

In the overall rate of violent crime, Chicago ranks 19th — slightly worse than Minneapolis and better than Kansas City, Indianapolis and Nashville. It has half as much violent crime, per capita, as Detroit or Oakland, Calif.

Even when it comes to homicide, Chicago is enjoying, relatively speaking, a golden age. In 1992, it had 943 murders — 2.6 per day. Last year, it had 415 — 1.1 per day. Two decades ago, such progress was the stuff of dreams.

In general, overall violence rates have been falling in the US in the last decade.  Even the worst neighborhoods are getting less dangerous.  So why is there so much news on violence, especially violence  related to guns?  Well, maybe the answer is that the media sees gun violence of any kinds as news that attracts attention, so it’s being reported more.  Frankly, I’ve always been surprised at how little inner-city violence gets reported, and maybe paying more attention to it will make people more aware of it so it can be lessened even more.

What seems to be more  prevalent, though, is how this violence correlates with other things that are going on, and that’s where I wander off the talking points.  Those on the right would probably point out that Chicago is still highly violent, and that’s only because of its strict gun policies.  But the data show that violence is decreasing.  Ah, so that must be because overall gun ownership is going up in the nation… Um, probably not.  Meanwhile, those on the left would say that increased violence in Chicago means we need to further restrict guns… except violence is actually going down…

And herein lies the difference between correlation and causation.  As we look at all the data around gun ownership, violence, and the like, we often take data and tie it together to prove a point, not realizing that it doesn’t come close to proving a point.  Just because two or three vectors are going in a direction one likes does not mean that one causes the other two, or that they’re even totally related.  This is the problem with data science.  You can state facts and then try to find the links, but not all facts are inextricably linked.  I’m sure that there’s some type of link between gun ownership, violence per capita, and the like, but stating one doesn’t mean you’ve stated the right one.

So I’m still leery of a bunch of facts followed by a, “so there!” statement.  Hopefully we continue to see a decrease in violence and (at least for me) an increase in gun ownership, but don’t assume one causes the other.

When’s Congress Going to Pay a Fine?

July 14, 2014

I see that Citigroup just settled with the DOJ on its role in the sub-prime mortgage debacle from the middle of the last decade.

In the deal announced Monday, Citigroup will make a $4 billion civil monetary payment to the Justice Department, and another $500 million in compensatory payments to state attorney’s general and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

The bank will provide $2.5 billion in consumer relief, which will include financing for construction and preservation of affordable housing, as well as principal reduction and forbearance for residential loans.

‘The comprehensive settlement announced today with the U.S. Department of Justice, state attorneys general, and the FDIC resolves all pending civil investigations related to our legacy RMBS and CDO underwriting, structuring and issuance activities,’ said CEO Michael Corbat. ‘We also have now resolved substantially all of our legacy RMBS and CDO litigation.’

JP Morgan has previously settled for $13B, and Bank of America is still under pressure.  All of this stems from the companies being pushed to provide more loans for homeowners.  So they began to offer the sub-prime mortgages to those who couldn’t qualify for a regular mortgage.  The resulting dip in home prices caused a collapse in the market that is still ringing through the markets.

Wait, they were pushed?  Yep.  Most people forget that pressure was put on the banks by Congress, who passed legislation to make home buying easier.  The administration then pushed the banks again via Fannie and Freddie (which essentially totally collapsed in the down-swing).  So, when is Congress going to pay a fine?  When does the administration admit culpability for sucking down billions of our tax dollars in this mess?

Oh, right, they won’t.  I hope we feel better as taxpayers knowing that.

Super-size My Mall

July 8, 2014

One for the geeks here: Occasionally, I’ll be flipping through the channels in the backwaters of the TV scene, hoping I can find a commercial where they’re firing a cannon at a poor boat (you’ll know it when you see it, folks), and I’ll hit on one of those construction shows that describes how to make a truck the size of  house, or a massive jumbo jet.  I work on some of the world’s smallest technologies, so it’s really cool to see big stuff.  If I’m really lucky, I can find a show where Dubai is building a whole new set of islands for rich people.  Well, how about an entire city that’s air conditioned?  Thanks to The Register for finding this one for me.

Project to develop the world’s largest mall, largest indoor park, cultural theatres and wellness resorts with a capacity to host over 180 million visitors annually

Project highlights:

Mall of the World, a project developed by Dubai Holding, will have the following connected features:

  • World’s largest mall occupying 8 million sq. ft. connected to 100 hotels and serviced apartments buildings with 20,000 hotel rooms
  • Temperature-controlled covered retail street network spreading over 7 km
  • Largest indoor family theme park in the world
  • Wellness district catering to medical tourists in a 3 million sq. ft. area
  • Cultural district comprising theatres built around New York’s Broadway, The Celebration Walk, similar to the Ramblas Street in Barcelona and shopping streets based on London’s Oxford Street
  • Dubai’s largest celebration centre accommodating 15,000 revellers

This, like I said above, is no big deal to Dubai.  A decade ago, they put a ski slope in a shopping mall.  The scale of their civil engineering projects is amazing, and getting moreso as they plan the next ones.  International business in the country — or at least the open city part of the country — is legendary, and it funds the rest of the country along with the oil reserves that flow in the desert.

This country, though, seems to be the best in terms of being totally extravagant about its wealth.  I’ve never figured out how it doesn’t have the massive unrest that the rest of the region has… and don’t talk to me about Saudi Arabia, which mostly exports terrorists to destabilize the rest of the area.  But somehow, things stay relatively calm, and that makes for a very decadent experience for visitors.

So as long is it remains a great place to be a civil engineer, Dubai will continue to amaze with some interesting stuff.  I’m sure it’d be nice to visit, though I’ll probably let others do that.  I’ll stick with my outside activities, even if I have to handle the heat.

Overconfident in Your Overconfidence

July 7, 2014

This one hits close to home, and at the same time makes me laugh out loud at the culture of technology companies.  In a blog post that’s being picked up by some news agencies, Avery Pennarun, a Google employee, laments the fact that some companies can hire too many good people.

Many people might not believe the premise: that Google only hires the best and brightest.  That’s something that doesn’t surprise me.  I work for a large tech company, and I’ve been involved in hiring for over two decades.  And good companies do an excellent job of screening out people that don’t fit the culture.  So when a company like Google screens potential employees, it likely is very good at finding only the types of people that already make the company successful.  Mr. Pennarun calls this particular set, “smart people,” which is probably true in a simplistic way.  I’m sure they’re all pretty darn smart… they have to be to make it to the level where Google would want to hire them.

But I’d probably rather focus on the limitations he notes.

We all make decisions for emotional or intuitive reasons instead of rational ones. Some of us admit that. Some of us think using our emotions is better than being rational all the time. Some of us don’t.

Smart people, computer types anyway, tend to come down on the side of people who don’t like emotions. Programmers, who do logic for a living.

Here’s the problem. Logic is a pretty powerful tool, but it only works if you give it good input. As the famous computer science maxim says, “garbage in, garbage out.” If you know all the constraints and weights – with perfect precision – then you can use logic to find the perfect answer. But when you don’t, which is always, there’s a pretty good chance your logic will lead you very, very far astray.

His take continues that people need to make mistakes to learn how to fail, and that Google culture doesn’t necessarily let people make mistakes.  I doubt that’s true.  What the culture doesn’t let happen is for those mistakes to have consequences.  The project might be total dud in the market, but the company will continue to keep the group working on it, and keep promoting the activity.  Mr. Pennarun believes this is detrimental to the company, and it probably is.

If you look at Nokia in the early days, they had a motto: “Fail early.”  That is, recognize that you’re making a mistake and fix it before the project it doomed.  I’ve seen this culture in many other large companies as well.  The take on Google encompassed here is that it doesn’t encourage failure.  It encourages constant forward movement.  That’s a fine plan as long as the money keeps coming in, but what happens when times are tight?  At this point, Google doesn’t have to worry about that, but in the future…?

As his blog notes, knowing how to fail is an important component in success.  Being confident that a company can’t fail is surely a problem, but a little dose of humility makes smart people smarter. Let’s see how this works out as Google hits a few rocks.  I’m fairly confident — but not overconfident — that the culture can adapt.

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