Archive for the ‘ideology’ Category
This LA Times story about the Boeing 787 Dreamliner (so called because it’s still a dream – let’s get the last drop from that joke before it goes into service) and the role of outsourcing is fascinating. It is partly built on a paper by a senior Boeing engineer which makes among other things, this point:
Among the least profitable jobs in aircraft manufacturing, he pointed out, is final assembly — the job Boeing proposed to retain. But its subcontractors would benefit from free technical assistance from Boeing if they ran into problems, and would hang on to the highly profitable business of producing spare parts over the decades-long life of the aircraft. Their work would be almost risk-free, Hart-Smith observed, because if they ran into really insuperable problems they would simply be bought out by Boeing.
Even in its own financial terms, the whole thing didn’t make sense, because the job of welding together the subassemblies and hooking up the wires doesn’t account for much of the profit involved. Further, the supposedly high-margin intellectual-property element of the business – the research, development, and design of the plane – is only a profit centre after it’s been built. Until they’re done, it requires enormous amounts of investment to get right. The outsourcers were expecting the lowest-margin element of the company, assembly, to carry the costs of developing new products. Whether they were funded with equity or with debt, this implies that the systems integrator model, for aircraft at least, fundamentally restricts innovation.
This is one of the points I’d like to bring out here. Hart-Smith’s paper – you can read it here – is much stronger on this than the LA Times was willing to be. It’s a fascinating document in other ways, too. For a start, the depth of outsourcing Boeing tried to achieve with the 787 is incompatible with many of the best practices used in other industries. Because the technical interfaces invariably become organisational and economic ones, it’s hard to guarantee that modules from company X will fit with the ones from Y, and if they don’t, the adjustment mechanism is a lawsuit at the financial level, but at the technical level, it’s rework. The dodgy superblock has to be re-worked to get it right, and this tends to land up with the manufacturer. Not only does this defeat the point of outsourcing in the first place, it obviates the huge importance of avoiding expensive rework.
Further, when anything goes wrong, the cost migrates remorselessly to the centre. The whole idea of systems integration and outsourcing is that the original manufacturer is just a collection of contracts, the only location where all the contracts overlap. Theoretically, as near to everything as possible has been defined contractually and outsourced, except for a final slice of the job that belongs to the original manufacturer. This represents, by definition, all the stuff that couldn’t be identified clearly enough to write a contract for it, or that was thought too risky/too profitable (depends on which end you look at it) for anyone to take the contract on. If this was finance, rather than industry, it would be the equity tranche. One of the main reasons why you can’t contract for something, of course, is that you don’t know it’s going to happen. So the integrator essentially ends up holding all the uncertainty, in so far as they can’t push it off onto the customer or the taxpayer.
This also reminded me a little of Red Plenty – one of the problems is precisely that it’s impossible to ensure that all the participants’ constraints are mutually compatible. There are serious Pareto issues. There may be something like an economic law that implies that, given that there are some irreducible uncertainties in each contractual relationship, which can be likened to unallocated costs, they flow downhill towards the party with the least clearly defined role. You could call it Harrowell’s U-Bend. (Of course, in the macroeconomy, the party with the least well defined role is government – who you gonna call?)
Anyway, Hart-Smith’s piece deserves a place in the canon of what could be termed Sarcastic Economics.
I suspect that the problems he identifies have wider consequences in the economy. Given that it’s always easier to produce more or less of a given good than it is to produce something different, the degree to which it’s possible to reallocate capital has a big impact on how quickly it’s possible to recover from a negative shock, and how bad the transition process is. I would go so far as to argue that it’s most difficult to react to an economic shock by changing products, it’s next most difficult to react by producing more (you could be at a local maximum and need to invest more capital, for example), and it’s easiest to react by producing less, and that therefore there’s a structural bias towards deflationary adjustment.
Hart-Smith’s critique holds that the whole project of retaining product development, R&D, and commercial functions like sales in the company core, and contracting everything else out actually weakens precisely those functions. Rather than being able to develop new products quickly by calling on outside resources, the outside resources suck up the available capital needed to develop new products. And the U-bend effect drags the costs of inevitable friction towards them. Does this actually reduce the economy’s ability to reallocate capital at the macrolevel? Does it strengthen the deflationary forces in capitalism?
Interestingly, there’s also a presentation from Airbus knocking about which gives their views on the Dreamliner fiasco. Tellingly, they seem to think that it was Boeing’s wish to deskill its workforce as far as possible that underlies a lot of it. Which is ironic, coming from an enormous aerospace company. There’s also a fascinating diagram showing that no major assembly in the 787 touches one made by the same company or even the same Boeing division – exactly what current theories of the firm would predict, but then, if it worked we wouldn’t be reading this.
Assembly work was found to be completed incorrectly only after assemblies reached the FAL. Root causes are: Oversight not adequate for the high level of outsourcing in assembly and integration, Qualification of low-wage, trained-on-the-job workers that had no previous aerospace experience
I wonder what the accident rate was like. A question to the reader: 1) How would you apply this framework to the cost overruns on UK defence projects? 2) Does any of this remind you of rail privatisation?
Now here’s a worthwhile Canadian initiative for you, from here. And he names the guilty men.
Adam Elkus has a piece out entitled The Hezbollah Myth and Asymmetric Warfare, in which he criticises what he sees as a tendency to over-rate the power of guerrillas in the light of the 2006 war. Having read it, I think the real question here is about expectations and goals. Hezbollah didn’t defeat the Israelis and hold a victory parade in Tel Aviv, but then nobody least of all them expected or aimed for that. The outcome of 2006 can only be understood in the light of a realistic assessment of the conflict parties’ capabilities, interests, and priorities. A score draw is a much better result for Stoke City against Manchester United than it is for Manchester United against Barcelona.
For Hezbollah, the first and overriding goal was surely survival – as it is for everyone, it’s even the title of the IISS Journal – followed closely by survival as a force in Lebanese politics, survival of their capability to maintain their self-declared insecurity zone in northern Israel, and finally, inflicting casualties and costs on the Israelis in order to create a deterrent effect. In that light, the result of 2006 was surely just as good from their point of view as they made out – they came away still in the field, still firing rockets, and with their status in Lebanese politics enhanced.
For Israel, well, perhaps one day they’ll work out what their strategic aims were.
Elkus argues that the tactical situation at the point when the UN ceasefire went into effect was favourable for Israel, and that had the war gone on they might have done better. This is possible. However, it’s also very common for wars to end like this. The Israelis’ campaign in 1967 was designed, once they got the upper hand, to get to the Canal and onto the Golan before the UN blew the whistle – one of Ariel Sharon’s frequent blind-eye manoeuvres in 1973 was also intended to complete the encirclement of the Egyptian 3rd Army before the UN ceasefire went into effect. The Indian plan for the 1971 war was explicitly intended to take Dhaka before a ceasefire was imposed. More recently, the Russian operation in Georgia was subject to a similar deadline. International intervention is part of the environment, and only fools wouldn’t take it into account as a planning assumption.
An interesting sidelight on this, also from Elkus, came up in a parallel blog debate about “network-centric warfare” – he pointed to this gung-ho but good piece about the action in northern Iraq in which John Simpson was blown up. What struck me about it, however, was more that it was an example of this kind of thing – which should certainly make you think about 2006, especially in the light of this.
Tangentially, Sean Lawson’s essay on the history of “network centric warfare” is well worth reading, especially for the way so many US officials in 2001-2006 seem to have been competing to see who could validate all the most extreme stereotypes of themselves the fastest, and more broadly on the way a basically sensible idea can become a sort of gateway drug to really insane strategic fantasies.
Cebrowski talked of a “booming export market for…security” and warned those who would resist, “If you are fighting globalization, if you reject the rules, if you reject connectivity, you are probably going to be of interest to the United States Department of Defense” (Cebrowski, 2003c).
Measured against the sort of capabilities the NCW thinkers knew they had, and the kind of goals they dreamed on the basis of them, what possible results wouldn’t look like failure? Compared with the enormous arrogance of this vision – they really did want everyone who thinks the CIA wants them dead, dead – what resistance wouldn’t look like success?
OK, so we took the piss out of the Policy Exchange crowd for seeing reds under the seats on the bendy buses. The group rights agenda. But the interesting thing about the Borisbus is that in a sense, it bears Dean Godson and Andy Gilligan out – design and architecture are, of course, deeply political activities. We shape the things we build, and thereafter they shape us, as Winston Churchill said to RIBA (twice – he believed in making aphorisms earn their corn).
Essentially, the new bus – pics here and here– is a bog standard Wrightbus double decker with some fibreglass styling features, meant to evoke the look of the Routemaster; there’s a funny asymmetric front end, a staircase, and an open platform that isn’t actually open, because it is behind a door which will be locked while the bus is in motion. This stuff is pure ornament – it is utterly without function. Neither is there actually going to be a conductor; the existing revenue protection patrols will occasionally be on board, and that’s it.
Now, the thing about adding a lot of nonfunctional stuff for the sake of style is that it has costs. The Postmodernist architects were fascinated by the way Las Vegas casinos and the like were basically huge industrial sheds, covered with playful flourishes of style, plush carpets, neon signs; but the reason why they could get away with this is that a huge clear-span shed is a pretty efficient solution for housing a business process of some kind, whether it’s a semiconductor fabrication line, a giant distribution warehouse, a brewery, or a giant exercise in legalised fraud controlled by Lucky Luciano. The huge plaster likeness of Nefertiti draped in purple neon canted over the entrance at 27 degrees from the vertical isn’t getting in the way of anything.
But this doesn’t work in a setting of engineering rather than architecture. Changing the internal layout of a bus affects its primary function directly; one of the key limiting factors in the capacity of a bus route is how long it takes to load and unload the bus, which determines how long it waits at each stop and therefore how fast it travels. Making people climb the stairs to get in and out has real performance consequences. As pointed out here, when the rear door is shut, anyone trying to get off the bus will have to push past people getting on to use the middle door.
Also, carrying around a platform and a staircase takes up space that could otherwise be used for…well, that could otherwise be used rather than pissed away on content-free curlicues. As pointed out here, the new bus has fewer seats downstairs than a Routemaster despite being 3 metres longer. I thought we were trying to take up less space on the street and improve the turning circle?
Of course, the reason why giant motorway-side warehouses and casinos can be like they are is that they are usually built in places where land is cheap and there is lots of space…like central London, right?
So what does this tell us about the design politics involved? The first, and obvious, point is that design has consequences. As a result of the whole daft crusade, for years to come, bus users will be putting up with a worse quality of service. Frequencies will be lower, because dwell times will be higher. Alternatively, London will just have to buy more buses to maintain frequency, and fares will go up. Using the buses will be a more exasperating and unpleasant experience than it is now (and that’s saying something). Further, people who for whatever reason find the stairs difficult are going to be punished.
Second, it’s the victory of form over content. It’s not a Routemaster; it certainly hasn’t had the years of kaizen that went into the original design and specifically into the hard engineering of it, the engine and drivetrain and running gear. It doesn’t even look much like one, but the key stylistic tropes are there in order to pretend it does. I’m surprised they didn’t stitch a Lacoste croc on it. And, of course, the costs of this shameless fuckery will endure.
Third, the past must have been better. There is really no reason at all to try to make a modern bus look vaguely Routemasteresque other than kitsch and nostalgia, and it’s no better for being Gill Sans/Keep Calm and Carry On kitsch rather than the Laura Ashley version. You bet there’s going to be a lot of this crap in the next few years. (Fortunately, it also looks like the official aesthetic of David Cameron is going to be achingly unfashionable, like an official aesthetic damn well should be.) But if there is any reason to be nostalgic for Routemasters, it should surely be for the unrivalled engineering record of high reliability; being nostalgic for slower boarding times is like being nostalgic for the good old days of rickets. Come to think of it, Tories do that as well.
In conclusion, this is modern conservatism, implemented in hardware, with your taxes. The obsession with PR, spin, and guff in general? Check. The heel-grinding contempt for the poor? Check. The pride in technical and scientific ignorance? Doublecheck. The low, ugly, spiteful obsession with getting one over on political enemies? (It’s of a piece with behaviour like this.) Check.
(via Boriswatch): “Never underestimate our masters’ obsession with outward form, as opposed to function and content.” That’s Gilligan, of course.
There’s a point where his risible little village idiot act crosses over into a demonstration of overt contempt for the public, and this is it. I propose to refer to him as Shower Jobby from now on, and I would like to see this elsewhere.
One outcome of all the MySociety work for this election was the survey administered by DemocracyClub volunteers to all candidates. The results by party are graphed here, with standard deviations and error bars.
Some immediate conclusions: Surprising egalitarianism. Look at question 1, which asks if the budget deficit should be reduced by taxing the rich. Only the very edge of the error bar for the Conservatives touches the 50% mark; the only parties who have any candidates who don’t agree are the BNP and UKIP. Also, question 4 (“It would be a big problem if Britain became more economically unequal over the next 5 years” – agree/disagree) shows that there is a remarkable degree of consensus here. The three main parties of the Left – the Greens, Lib Dems, and Labour – overlap perfectly, and even the lower bound on the Tory percentage is over 50%. Only the ‘kippers and the fash even skim the 50% mark at the bottom end of their distributions. This may actually not be a statement about far-right thinking, because of…
Extremist internal chaos. On every question except the one about immigration for the BNP and the one about the EU for UKIP, these two parties have huge error bars for every question. As soon as they get off that particular topic, the error bars gap out like the bid-offer spread in a crashing market. Clearly, they agree about very little other than their own particular hate-kink. So the result in my first point could just be because they always have the widest standard error and deviation.
Immigration, or a field guide to identifying British politics. If you’re a Liberal, Labour, or a Green, you’ve got no problem with immigrants. Even the upper bounds only just stroke the 50% line. All the parties of the Right, however, overlap around the 80% line. Need to identify someone’s partisan affiliation quickly? Wave an immigrant at them. The other culture-wars question about marriage is similar, although the gap is smaller and the error bars bigger.
The consensus on civil liberties. Everyone, but everyone, thinks there are far too many CCTV cameras about. All parties overlap at between 68-78%…except for Labour. Labour is the only party that supports CCTV and it supports it strongly. There is just the faintest touch of overlap between the top (i.e. least supportive) end of the Labour error range and the bottom (i.e. most supportive) of the Tories’.
Trust and honesty. Liberals, Labour, and Conservatives all think politicians are honest. No doubt this is because the respondents are themselves politicians. Interestingly, the exceptions are the BNP and UKIP. Very interestingly, the BNP is united in cynicism, whereas the UKIP error range gaps-out dramatically on this question. The Greens’ error range converges dramatically on exactly 46% agreement – they are almost perfectly in agreement that they don’t agree.
Art and culture; only ‘kippers, BNPers, and a very few extreme Tories don’t support state funding of the arts.
Britain is a European country and is committed to the European Union. You can’t argue with the data; the Tories and Greens average between 20-30% support for withdrawal, zero for the Liberals and Labour, and even the upper bound for the Tories is well under the 50% line. Obviously, the BNP and UKIP want out, which is obvious and after the election result, arguably trivial.
Pacifist fascists; bellicose conservatives; divided lefties and ‘kippers. OK, so which parties are least keen on military action against Iran, even if they are caught red-handed building a nuke? The Greens are unsurprisingly 86% against with minimal error – perhaps the only occasion they would turn up a chance to oppose nuclear power! The other is the BNP – 82% against. Who knew we would find a scenario in which the BNP would turn up a chance to kill brown people? Labour, the Liberals, and UKIP would split down the middle – they overlap perfectly around the 50% mark. The Tories, however, are the war party – 39% against, with the lower bound well clear of the other parties. The UKIP result is strange – you’d expect them to be basically like Tories or like the BNP, but they are most like Labour on this issue, although they have a tail of happy warriors. The BNP is also the party most opposed to continuing British involvement in Afghanistan – even more than the Greens. Labour, the Liberals, the Tories, and UKIP overlap heavily around being narrowly in favour, although UKIP as usual gaps out when it’s not discussing how much it hates the EU.
Even the Toriest Tories say they support UK Aid. This one’s fairly clear – even the upper bound for the Tories is well below 50% and everyone else serious is much lower. UKIP and the BNP are strongly against, but their error bars are quite wide – clearly, they’re not sure whether they hate foreigners enough that paying them not to be immigrants is a good idea.
Summary: We’re a broadly social democratic European nation, with a few nutters for comic relief. And Chris Lightfoot’s Political Survey results (the primary axis in British politics is liberty-vs-authority, strongly correlated with internationalism-vs-isolationism, and the secondary axis is egalitarianism-vs-libertarianism, but there is surprisingly little variance along it) from 2005 appear to be confirmed.
The Institute for Public Policy Research has issued a report on the correlates of BNP membership and support (pdf).
Fascinatingly, they reckon that there is very little or no correlation between BNP support and key socio-economic indicators like GVA per capita, growth, unemployment, immigration, etc. It’s as if a typical BNP supporter was, well, a case of free-floating extremism. (A dedicated swallower of fascism; an accident waiting to happen.)
Oddly enough, this replicates an earlier result.
The Nottingham University Politics blog has a more nuanced response, but I’m quite impressed by the fact that two analyses based on two different metrics of BNP support – votes in the IPPR study, membership in mine – converged on the same result.
Jamie Kenny mentions Thailand’s “black clads”. Who they?
Reuters has an excellent article that gets into this question.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE MEN IN BLACK?
Witnesses and grainy video footage revealed armed men with assault rifles and M-79 grenade launchers appeared under cover of darkness on April 10 during a heated standoff between red shirts and troops trying to break up a protest in Bangkok’s old quarter.
The government says the rebels, who wore black and covered their faces with hoods and balaclavas, appeared in the crowds of protesters and opened fire on troops, triggering chaos and prompting panicked soldiers to fire back in self-defence.
Government officials and the army believe the men in black are politically aligned with the red shirt movement and sought to cause bloodshed severe enough to force Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to call a new election.
Red shirt leaders say the “black clads” are protecting them, but they don’t know who they are.
They’re protecting us…but we don’t know who they are. This strikes me as being very much of the times, a sort of inverted version of the Iraq war’s icon, the fake policeman.
The Reuters piece also digs into the back story some distance. A possible explanation is that the men in black – surely a better translation – are former members of an army unit created in the 1970s to fight insurgents, as part of the broader cold war counter-insurgency strategy. The force in question is the Rangers – the name is important, as US advisors created the same force in several countries, apparently unaware that the term’s cultural associations aren’t particularly resonant outside the US. How do you even translate it?
They were eventually disbanded 10 years ago, which suggests that there may well be people plying for hire or else just on the political market generally who served in them. Interestingly, quintessential modern thinker Thaksin Shinawatra was politically close to the army officer responsible for their creation.