Leapfrogged Technologies, with a Few Traits Some Value, Often Persist in Small Numbers

(p. A1) Magnus Jern was sitting around with some programmers at Google headquarters when he remembered he needed to answer an email. But when he pulled out his phone and started tapping, the room grew silent.

“What is that?” one woman asked.

The reaction was no surprise to Mr. Jern, part of a die-hard band devoted to a device that was once a status symbol, then was ubiquitous, and now is almost an endangered species: the BlackBerry. Continue reading “Leapfrogged Technologies, with a Few Traits Some Value, Often Persist in Small Numbers”

Amish Embrace Smartphones and Internet, at Least for Entrepreneurship

(p. 6) A young woman, wearing a traditional full-length Amish dress and white bonnet, stepped away from a farmer’s market, opened her palm and revealed a smartphone. She began to scroll through screens, seemingly oblivious to the activity around her.

Not far away, a man in his late 60s with a silvery beard, wide-brimmed straw hat and suspenders adjusted the settings on a computer-driven crosscut saw. He was soon cutting pieces for gazebos that are sold online and delivered around the country.

The Amish have not given up on horse-drawn buggies. Their rigid abstinence from many kinds of technology has left parts of their lifestyle frozen since the 19th century: no cars, TVs or connections to electric utilities, for example.

But computers and cellphones are making their way into some Amish communities, pushing them — sometimes willingly, often not — into the 21st century.

New technology has created fresh opportunities for prosperity among the Amish, just as it has for people in the rest of the world. A contractor can call a customer from a job site. A store owner’s software can make quick work of payroll and inventory tasks. A bakery can take credit cards.

But for people bound by a separation from much of the outside world, new tech devices have brought fears about the consequence of internet access. There are worries about pornography; about whether social networks will lead sons and daughters to date non-Amish friends; and about connecting to a world of seemingly limitless possibilities.

“Amish life is about recognizing the value of agreed-upon limits,” said Erik Wesner, an author who runs a blog, Amish America, “and the spirit of the internet cuts against the idea of limits.”

. . .

Referring to technology, Mr. Smucker said, “You have to do what you have to do to stay in business. People are starting to understand that.”

There are probably 2,000 successful Amish businesses in the Lancaster area, many of them multimillion-dollar enterprises, said Donald B. Kraybill, a retired professor at Elizabethtown’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies.

This “very entrepreneurial, very capitalistic” tendency, he said, was all the more remarkable because it was channeled through a “culture of restraint.”

Many Amish people draw a bright line between what is allowed at work — smartphones, internet access — and what remains forbidden at home.

For the full story, see:

Kevin Granville and Ashley Gilbertson. “In Amish Country, the Future Is Calling.” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017): 6-7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 15, 2017, and has the same title as the print version.)

Bill Gates Spending $400 Million to Develop Expensive High-Tech Toilets for Poor Countries

(p. B1) BEIJING — Bill Gates believes the world needs better toilets.

Specifically, toilets that improve hygiene, don’t have to connect to sewage systems at all and can break down human waste into fertilizer.

So on Tuesday in Beijing, Mr. Gates held the Reinvented Toilet Expo, a chance for companies to showcase their takes on the simple bathroom fixture. Companies showed toilets that could separate urine from other waste for more efficient treatment, that recycled water for hand washing and that sported solar roofs.

It’s no laughing matter. About 4.5 billion people — more than half the world’s population — live without access to safe sanitation. Globally, Mr. Gates told attendees, unsafe sanitation costs an estimated $223 billion a year in the form of higher health costs and lost productivity and wages.

The reinvented toilets on display are a culmination of seven years of research and $200 million given by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which the former software tycoon runs with his wife, since 2011. On Tuesday [Nov. 6, 2018], Mr. Gates pledged to give $200 million more in an effort get companies to see human waste as a big business.

. . .

(p. B5) . . . China’s toilet revolution has led to excesses — a problem that critics say could plague the Gates effort as well.

To win favor with Beijing, local officials have tried to outgun one another with newfangled latrines, many equipped with flat-screen televisions, Wi-Fi and facial-recognition toilet paper dispensers. (Thieves have been known to make off with entire rolls.) There were even refrigerators, microwave ovens and couches, prompting China’s tourism chief at the time to instruct officials in January to rein in their “five-star toilets” and avoid kitsch and luxury.

Though the products on display on Tuesday were nowhere as flashy, Mr. Gates has drawn criticism for giving thousands of dollars to universities in developed countries to create high-tech toilets that will take years to pay off — if they ever do.

“Sometimes doubling down is necessary, but you’ve got to be reflective,” said Jason Kass, the founder of Toilets for People, a Vermont-based social business that provides off-grid toilets. “Has any of the approaches done in the last five years created any sustainable lasting, positive impact vis-à-vis sanitation? And the answer, as far as I can see, is no.”

. . .

Mr. Gates acknowledged that some reinvented toilets, in small volumes, could cost as much as $10,000, but added, “That will pretty quickly come down.”

“The hard part will be getting it from $2,000 to $500,” he said. “I’d say we are more confident today that it was a good bet than where we started, but we are still not there.”

For the full story, see:

Sui-Lee Wee. “Bill Gates Wants to Build A Better Toilet.” The New York Times (Friday, Nov. 9, 2018): B1 & B5.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 6, 2018, and has the title “In China, Bill Gates Encourages the World to Build a Better Toilet.”)

Astros Got Scouting and Analytics to Work Together

(p. A15) Mr. Reiter . . . has written a full account of the remarkable story of how one of the greatest turnarounds in modern baseball history was engineered. As he tells us in “Astroball: The New Way to Win It All,” Houston had looked at the processes that Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane had used early in the 21st century. That team’s methods—sophisticated statistical analyses and attention to “undervalued” measuring sticks (like on-base percentage)—were detailed in Michael Lewis’s “Moneyball” (2003), and they changed the way baseball front offices operated. But Mr. Lewis’s book also portrayed a somewhat fraught internal organization, with old-fashioned scouts in one corner and the analytic nerds in the other, often disagreeing about players and prospects and resenting one another as well.

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow wanted to figure out how to get scouting and analytics to work together and eventually produce an internal metric that would render a decision on a player as simple as the one in blackjack: hit or stay, keep or trade, play or bench.

. . .

Under Mr. Luhnow, scouts not only made subjective judgments about a prospect’s talent but also collected unique data that they fed to the folks in the Nerd Cave. And the nerds began listening to the scouts. All of this was easier said than done, but it was done, and the team made a series of sound, even brilliant, choices as it drafted, traded and signed players.

For the full review, see:

Paul Dickson. “BOOKSHELF; Lone Star Turnaround; How the Houston Astros used a combination of data-driven analytics and team-building to go from last place to World Series champions.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, July 17, 2018): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 16, 2018, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Astroball’ Review: Lone Star Turnaround
How the Houston Astros used a combination of data-driven analytics and team-building to go from last place to World Series champions.”)

The book under review is:

Reiter, Ben. Astroball: The New Way to Win It All. New York: Crown Archetype, 2018.

Apart from R&D, Scientists and Engineers May Improve Firm Processes

(p. B5) Companies with a higher proportion of scientists and engineers are more productive than their peers, even when those workers aren’t directly involved in the research-and-development tasks that drive the most obvious forms of innovation, a new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests.

. . .

Some 80% of industrial scientists and engineers work in roles outside of formal R&D, such as information technology and operations. Their knowledge and training is critical to firms’ ability to improve processes, fix broken systems and implement new technologies, says Richard Freeman, a Harvard University economist and co-author of the paper.

For the full story, see:

Lauren Weber. “Scientists Are Useful Beyond R&D Work.” The New York Times (Wednesday, June 28, 2017): B5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 27, 2017, and has the title “For a More Productive Workforce, Scientific Know-How Helps.”)

The published version of the Freeman co-authored paper mentioned above, is:

Barth, Erling, James C. Davis, Richard B. Freeman, and Andrew J. Wang. “The Effects of Scientists and Engineers on Productivity and Earnings at the Establishment Where They Work.” In U.S. Engineering in a Global Economy, edited by Richard B. Freeman and Hal Salzman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018, pp. 167 – 91.

At 70, James Dyson Embarks on Audacious Electric Car Project

(p. B5) James Dyson, best known for innovative vacuum cleaners, said recently that he was preparing to introduce a new electric car and had 400 people working on the project.

. . .

But breaking into the car business is far more complex than it might appear at first glance. A new carmaker must design the vehicle and figure out how to manufacture it — and that is only the beginning. Success requires a number of to-dos: effective marketing, a dealer network and, perhaps, arranging buyer financing.

“There is a huge list,” said Peter Wells, a professor at Cardiff Business School in Wales. “That has been one of the reasons why the barriers to entry in the automotive industry have been relatively high.”

Still, Mr. Wells said that the car industry is “at a very important pivot point in its history now, where a combination of factors are radically altering what is possible.” And Mr. Dyson, 70, . . . , could be in a position to take advantage.

. . .

Mr. Dyson has proved himself a dogged inventor, designing high-end vacuum cleaners and other products like hair dryers. His technological savvy gives him a chance of scoring a hit in the much more complex and costly global car industry, analysts said. In 2015, he bought Sakti3, an American start-up that is working with solid state batteries. Mr. Dyson said he could be on track to commercializing a so-called solid state battery, which analysts say might be more powerful and safer than the lithium ion devices now used in electric cars and cellphones. He said both the start-up and his own team were working on the project. Continue reading “At 70, James Dyson Embarks on Audacious Electric Car Project”

Gig Jobs Benefit Workers by “Cutting Out Corporate Bosses and Rent-Seeking Middlemen”

(p. C4) An astounding 94 percent of American jobs created between 2005 and 2015 were for “alternative work.” Slow and steady growth used to be a cardinal virtue for the big American corporation. Now leanness and flexibility are prized, and nobody is spared. “In the end,” Hyman writes, “even white men were not protected from this new reality.”

Hyman, a labor historian at Cornell, argues that the common explanation for what happened — mainly, that our current dispensation was foisted on us by technological and economic change — is self-serving and inadequate. He says that human choice, including a palpable shift in values, played an essential role. “Temp” traces how, for corporations and government policymakers alike, “the risk-taking entrepreneur supplanted the risk-averse, but loyal, company man as the capitalist ideal.”

. . .

His ending, about the gig economy, is weirdly upbeat. He believes that it’s still possible for work to be rewarding — maybe even more possible, now that apps and online platforms offer the promise of (leaving in place a few rent-seeking technocapitalist billionaires, of course). Individuals can sell their labor directly to one another.

For the full review, see:

Jennifer Szalai. “BOOKS OF THE TIMES; Gig Jobs Replace Gray Flannel Suits.” The New York Times (Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018): C4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Aug. 22, 2018, and has the title “BOOKS OF THE TIMES; How the ‘Temp’ Economy Became the New Normal.”)

The book under review, is:

Hyman, Louis. Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary. New York: Viking, 2018.