Posted tagged ‘Innovation’

When You Hit Bottom, Stop Digging…or McArdle’s Kitchen Chronicles redux.

February 28, 2011

Fair warning:  This is way too long and fundamentally way too trivial to bother with.  Given all the urgent stuff going on in the world, Megan McArdle hardly deserves anyone’s attention.  I’m just posting this to clear my hard drive and brain of a bit of unfinished business. Plus I think I promised several times to post on Megan McArdle’s response to my post on the serial factual errors in her writing on the history of innovation as seen in the American kitchen.

So by all means, walk on by if you’ve had enough McArdle (I have, and won’t be going to that well again for a while) — but if you want some smack talking and the odd bit of fact, jump the jump and join me.

First, just to catch up with the action:   I’ve had prior occasion to think of this list of officers’ fitness reports in the context of the writer in question.  The title of this post refers to the twelfth item on that tally, but many others apply, I think. Pick your favorites in the comment thread.

In her response, McArdle was particularly stung, I believe (because of her link to it), by a Wall Street Journal blog’s summary of the Krugman-Cowen-McArdle-Levenson sequence.

Thus provoked, she was then moved  to produce an 2,300 word justification of her claims, on which mastication I will now comment.  (That noun chosen because being attacked by McArdle always reminds me of Denis Healey’s marvelous description of being attacked in debate by the Tory politician Sir Geoffrey Howe: it is “like being savaged by a dead sheep.”)

I’ve got to say I am a bit resentful here.  I’m the one supposed to stupify my antagonists with posts rivaling War and Peace for length if in no other aesthetic category, and here she comes stealing onto my patch.*

Ah well.

McArdle begins well, at least for the case I’m trying to argue, setting out on her journey of redemption with perhaps the most revealing and humiliating sentence I’ve read on any blog:

“It’s certainly possible that I got something wrong in that post; I am of course not a historian of kitchens.”

There’s a perhaps even more self-diminishing line that follows: “But neither is Mr. Levenson, and I can’t plead guilty to the offenses I am charged of based on his evidence.”

I like to think that I’ve left seventh grade far behind me, and so see no need for comment here — beyond that we are dealing with someone who really needs to think some more about the argument from authority.

Once she gets past that reflex of pique, she answers my criticisms with three basic types of deflection.

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First, she tries to shift between categories of existence, availability and penetration to suggest that whatever actually occurred, the specific appliances she cites weren’t really part of the 50s landscape. This is nonsense, as I’ll detail a bit below.

Second, she tries a bit of indirection suggesting that some of my examples of her errors aren’t really that significant, because, in essence she knows better.

Third she uses what is perhaps her most powerful (and often used) trick when cornered.  She declares that she was talking about something else that whatever it was she clearly got wrong — and when seen in light of that other issue, everything she said becomes both correct and humiliatingly more insightful than whatever her critics might have argued — or, as she wrote, it surprised her that “someone who teaches science writing at MIT is so unfamiliar with the containerization revolution that he can mistake “container” for “refrigerated.”  It was ever thus:  when cornered, she resorts to the ad hominem, hoping that the insult will distract from the failed argument behind it.

On tactic number one: McArdle had originally claimed that  50s kitchens did not contain, “electric drip coffee brewers, stand mixers, blenders, food processors, or crock pots.” I countered by documenting the history of stand mixers (sold to the public in 1918, widely disseminated in cheaper models through the 20s and 30s); blenders (invented in the twenties, sold in mass quantities in the 30s) and of electric coffee makers, common since the thirties.

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In response to this impressive record of error, McArdle complains I should have understood that what she meant was not that the 50s kitchen lacked this or that, but that it did not possess versions of these inventions that would have been acceptable to one Megan McArdle:

I thought it was obvious why I was specifying drip coffeemakers:  at least for people from my generation, percolated coffee tastes horrible. I do not think of percolators as drip coffee equivalents, I think of them as something close to crime against humanity.

Note at least three things:  first and least, she’s simply trying to baffle with bullsh*t, replying to a claim unmade.  As it happened, as examples of pre-1950 electric coffee makers, I offered not percolaters, but the vacuum coffee maker, a very different technology that the steampunk caffeinistas among us rate highly.  These were indeed generally available in the thirties and are still prized.

Second, and really all in all, recall that the theme of all this is innovation.  The question she herself raised was whether or not there were in the fifties the means to automate a common kitchen task, brewing up a cup of coffee?

Well, yes, there were, as she in fact admits.  Which is what she hopes to keep you from noticing when she decides to wrangle over whether she would actually drink such brew.

Which leads me to this:  it did give me pleasure to read the sentence above, because in a sense it captures all you ever need to know about McArdle.  She decides the facts worth knowing by a simple criterion: do they meet her exquisite standards.

Percolators? Get me The Hague on line one!

Moving on: for an example of the next of McArdle’s favorite tricks to hide her failings, check out this attempt to persuade the reader that she may have been wrong … but not really:

As for the rest, my understanding is that the stand mixer was not widely dispersed in American households until the early 1960s; the stand mixer invented in 1919 was commercial grade; the home versions appeared in the 1930s and sold well, but were somewhat derailed by the dearth of consumer production during World War II.   Of course, if anyone has data better than I was able to find, I am open to correction.

Again, errors, minor, but still there:  according to the Kitchenaid company the commercial stand mixer was first produced (not invented) in 1915, and the first home models were sold in 1919. Perhaps McArdle may asssert that by “commercial grade” she means “home,” but I think a reasonable person would find that disengenuous at best.

She admits, though that mixers sold well — Sunbeam, makers of cheaper models than Kitchenaid, topped 1 million sold before World War II.  But, argues McArdle, she’s still right, despite all this, writing that “some of this, however, may simply be an argument about what constitutes ‘common.'”

I didn’t think she loved Bill Clinton so much that she’d expropriate his “defintion of ‘is'” defense so readily.

She goes through a similar exercise for the blender, and then concludes that after all, maybe she and I were both right:   “I lean towards requiring some amount of broad diffusion, [of appliances] but I can see the argument for the other side–indeed, that’s what I was getting at in the post, that the definition of a “1950s kitchen” is tricky.

Well, I guess.

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Just to be as blunt as possible:  by “common” or “broad diffusion” she seems to mean whatever number is just a little bit higher than those actually use in the 1950s.  That’s a child’s bob and weave, not an argument from anyone who wishes to be taken seriously.

Oy.  This will never end, will it — which is, of course, McArdle’s true genius.  She throws up such an endless spray of word salad that actually pulling apart each and every one of her distortions, errors, and outright lies takes much longer than anyone wants to either write or read.  So I’ll just give the slightest of glosses on the third attempt McArdle makes to defend herself, in her discussion of the emergence of container shipping.

As noted above, she does so in a way that emphasizes her mock horror that a professor at MIT should mistake refrigeration for containerization– which would indeed have been a simpleton’s error had it been made.

But the problem is that the discussion was, in McArdle’s own framing, about whether or not people in the 50s had access to fresh produce:

I don’t believe that they have gone without fresh produce for six to eight months at a time, as my mother did in her childhood–and was told to be grateful for the frozen vegetables which hadn’t been available when her mother was young….

Is the shift to flash frozen produce greater, or less great, than the shift from flash frozen to the fresh produce made possible by falling trade barriers, rising air travel, and the advent of container shipping?

McArdle’s gaming the question here of course, asserting her assumptions as the answer:  fresh produce in her telling could only arrive on American tables through her triad of trade (which, I guess, could only have happened post 1960, to the great surprise of the United Fruit Company and Dole), air travel (fresh fish was delivered by air to Moscow in 1945!) and containers, a genuinely post 1960 innovation, (one that I actually witnessed transforming my home town; I was a child when San Francisco’s docks died and the upstart Port of Oakland’s container terminal came to dominate freight traffic to the Bay Area).

But if you were to make the mistake of taking McArdle’s question more seriously than she herself does, then what we want to know is what innovations were most important in delivering fresh food to distant markets.  And there, the answer you find again and again in histories of food was rolling refrigeration, which, as I gabbled on at length last time, is a development that has a history in the US dating to before the Civil War.  Last time, I talked of meat — but just in case you were wondering, the first American shipment of fresh produce — strawberries –rode the rails of the Illinois Central in 1867, which is a factoid that makes this quote from McArdle at once pathetic and telling:

When my mother was growing up, it was  theoretically possible to buy fresh strawberries or asparagus in December, shipped in a refrigerated boxcar from a hothouse or maybe California.  But I doubt the grocers in her small town would have stocked them, and if they did, my grandparents, who were solidly middle class but whose memories of the Great Depression died hard, would never have dreamed of buying them…

Yup.  We’re back to that again. This or that is unpossible because I or mine can’t imagine it.

And so on and on.   There’s more, but I’m done.  There isn’t time in the day to fisk out every last bit of nonsense showering forth from McArdle’s keyboard.

So I’ll just leave you with one last thought.

As in my earlier post, let me explicitly call out The Atlantic. For all that there are good people doing good work over there — for one example, have you seen the folks posting at Fallow’s blog lately?  They’re going great guns — the bottom line is this:

A major media operation resembles an old fashioned World War II convoy, at least in one respect:  just as those gaggles of vessels traversing the North Atlantic couldn’t travel faster than the slowest ship, over time, publications can’t be seen as more reliable than their least trustworthy writer.

Just sayin.

*Perhaps it’s because the indictment hit just a little too close to home, and she has opted for one of the traditional tactics of those in peril with the truth: “When the law is against you, argue the facts. When the facts are against you, argue the law.  When both are against you, attack the plaintiff.”

Images:  Georg Flegel, Pantry by Candlelight, c. 1630-1635.

Ivana Kobilca, Coffee Drinker 1888.

Willem Frederik van Royen, The Carrot, 1699.

Must Read From David Leonhardt: Why Health Care Reform Matters, or How the GOP/Lieberman hate America Edition.

December 16, 2009

In today’s NYT, Leonhardt — one of the few really good economics reporters out there right now — writes about the “innovation gap” induced by the catastrophic failure that is the American health care “system” as it stands.  In doing so, he documents, once again, how the modern Republican party is, in essence, a traitor to the American dream.

In essence, Leonhardt is reporting about the largely unmentioned elephant in the room:  absent comprehensive reform of health care, the terror of losing or of failing to secure adequate insurance makes the US labor market increasingly rigid.  As Leonhardt reports:

It is impossible to know how much economic damage these distortions are causing, but they clearly aren’t good. Economic research suggests that more than 1.5 million workers who would otherwise have switched jobs fail to do so every year because of fears about health insurance. Some of them would have moved to companies where they could have contributed more, and others would have started their own businesses.

…Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, told me, “There clearly are people who choose to stay in their jobs due to the fact that they don’t have insurance portability.” Just consider the economic research showing that people married to someone with health insurance are more likely to work at small companies than people who aren’t so lucky.

Leonhardt does a good job of mapping in cartoon fashion what we could aim for at this point in the health care debate, quoting my MIT colleague John Gruber saying “Take the Senate on cost control and the House on affordability …and you’ve the best possible bill.”

Certainly, the central moral and social rationale for health care reform is the fact that too many Americans sicken, go bankrupt, and die for lack of access to care.

But what makes this article at once so obvious and so necessary is the light it shed on this fact:  the reason we need to get going on the health care bill now, and then defy the “once every twenty years” meme for improving what we get, is that the wealth and hence power of the America our children will inhabit depends on real, ultimately transformative changes in how Americans get covered and cared for.

So the next time you read statements like this, ask yourself why the Republicans in Congress (and too many outside it) hate America so.

In any event. read the article.  It’s worth your time.

Image:  “A Proper Family Re-Union.” This immediate post-Civil War cartoon shows Satan welcoming Benedict Arnold and Jefferson Davis to Hell. Artist unknown, 1865.

Seth Lloyd, Quantum Entanglement, and Why it Matters Whether the President (and VP) Care About Science

September 16, 2008

One of the absolute best things about having a good gig at a place like MIT is that you get the quick word on things like this.

Short form: MIT’s resident quantum engineer Seth Lloyd, best known for his work on developing a functional quantum computer (you can see his mathematics/mechanical engineering course website here, an accessible interview here) has just published a paper in Science that describes a novel and extremely powerful design for detectors and imaging systems that make use of the quantum phenomenon dubbed entanglement.*

What makes Lloyd’s finding more exciting than the usual theoretical description of a hypothetical quantum machine is that Lloyd’s lab has already begun preliminary experiments to develop some of the apparatus needed to buile a quantum entanglement-based analogue to radar, and Lloyd himself is predicting laboratory-based proof of principle experiments within a year.

If the idea works, Lloyd suggests that it should be possible to increase the efficiency of radar systems by as much as a million-fold by using what he has dubbed quantum illumination.

Now partly this is just another very tasty technological idea that may never make it out of the “that sounds cool” file.

But looked at in a larger frame this story takes on a different meaning.

Choosing to fund fundamental research is political decision. It has not been the priority recently: see this post for the details.

To support such research requires a leap of the imagination — the ability to grasp the the fact that while it may not be possible to envision the consequences of answering any given abstract question, you can’t pick the winners in advance of following a line of inquiry through each required step. No one could have anticipated that the mysteries of the hydrogen spectrum could lead over time to the ideas that would ultimately make possible such brave new machines as the one on which I write this.

So to the point I’ve been telegraphing for a while: that in this context, it would help — more, it is vital — that we have a President and an administration that is more than just comfortable with science. We need an administration that actively gets the idea that it matters to the American economy, to its security, and to its culture to support open ended inquiry.

I had intended here to go into a lengthy argument about why John McCain and his people do not get it.  But I find that in the couple of days it has taken me to get going on this post that I can outsource most of what I would have said to Devilstower over at Daily Kos.

There, DT takes a swipe at McCain’s self-described science credentials in the candidates’ reply to Science Debate 2008’s 14 questions.  The post doesn’t do a complete fisking of that profoundly cynical and vapid document, but it gets to the essence of McCain’s completely instrumental view of science by teeing off on the Senator’s claim that

I am uniquely qualified to lead our nation during this technological revolution. While in the Navy, I depended upon the technologies and information provided by our nation’s scientists and engineers with during each mission.

As Devilstower points out, the fact that someone used technology forty years ago hardly counts, either way, as a qualification for leadership in the advance of technology.  More on point, someone who sees the role of science as simply producing the next widget misses what really goes into the development of ideas that yield major technological advance.  Who knew that an oddity in the behavior of paired photons might yield, — and soon — the kind of advance that could save the life of an American flyer, sailor or soldier?

Much has been made — and I’ve helped a little — of McCain’s email incapacity, of his bare “awareness” (his campaign’s word) of the internet.  But poking fun at a chisel and slate old guy misses the real issue here.  It’s not that McCain doesn’t use the latest technology; it is that he and his incurious advisors do not know what it took to make the possibility of email, of our whole modern, enwebbed world possible.**  And that’s no good in a President in 2008.

*Here’s a cartoon description of entanglement, glossed out of this Wikipedia entry on the subject: Any one particle in an entangled pair (or larger system) cannot be fully described without accounting for the other member or members of the system, even if the other particles are widely separated. Thus, a local observation of one particle can reveal information about certain physical characteristics of phenomena out of sight (or detection) of the observed part of the system.

**Please note that we get to this point in the argument without even mentioning the active anti-science strand in McCain’s campaign:*** you can’t avoid the fact that he choose a running mate who denied human involvement in climate change (before backing down a day or two ago, with a level of sincerity I beg leave to doubt) and who does not credit evolution as the explanation for biological origins and development.

***Not to mention the problem that McCain’s budget priorities leave essentially no room for any non-defense discretionary spending, rendering all the promises made in the Science Debate 2008 replies for increases in research funding essentially unfulfillable unless he is lying about his tax and defense priorities.