October 27, 2013

Education: World University Rankings, 2013: US at the top

After the American Century                                                                                                                                                         

 
The 2013 world university rankings from The Times resemble the list for years past, with some slight movement  up and down. The same universities are in the top ten as two years ago, though in a slightly different order. and there are no major changes in the top twenty, except that Duke has moved up from 22 to 17, while University College, London, has fallen from 17 to 21. The top 20 are, with the single exception of the technical university in Zurich, exclusively in Britain and North America. According to The Times, twenty-two of the top thirty universities and thirty of the top fifty, are in the United States. Britain is also strongly represented in the top fifty, with the rest of Europe dominant in the rankings between fifty and one hundred.

The highest ranking universities in Asia are Tokyo (23) and Singapore (26). The highest ranked in the EU outside Britain are the Karolinska Institute in Sweden (36) and the University of Munich (55).  The only African University ranked in the top 200 is the University of Cape Town (126). No university in all of Latin America is in the top 200, and only three are in the top 400.



University                   score              ranking, 2011-12

  1. Cal Tech               94.9                1
  2. Harvard                93.9                2
  3. Oxford                  93.9                4
  4. Stanford                93.8                3
  5. MIT                      93.0                7
  6. Princeton              92.7                5
  7. Cambridge            92.3                6
  8. Berkeley               89.9               10
  9. Chicago                87.8                 9
  10. Imperial College  87.5                 8
  11. Yale                      87.4                11
  12. UCLA                  86.3                13
  13. Columbia              85.2               12
  14. ETH Zurich          84.5               15
  15. Johns Hopkins      83.7               14
  16. Pennsylvania        81.0               16
  17. Duke                     79.3               22
  18. Michigan              79.2               18
  19. Cornell                  79.1               20
  20. Toronto                 78.3               19


The point spread between the top ten universities is only 7.4. Evidently, these ten are all on a very high plane. The fall in the next ten is larger, 9.1, and for the following ten it is 7.2.  After that, however, the differences between universities are smaller, and if graphed would show a flattening line. Between ranking 30 and 50 the fall is only 6.6, and from 50 to 100 it is but a little more than 10. 

Aside from looking at location, one can say that there are about 20 universities in a class by themselves, and about 30 more are quite strong and conceivably could move up, followed by 50 strong universities. After the first hundred it levels off. The scores of universities ranked between 100 and 200 drop less than the difference between numbers 1 and 10. 

The Times also ranks universities from 200 to 400, but does not issue scores, presumably because they are clustered so tightly together. Instead, groups of 25 are listed together.  To see the complete list and other information, click here.


October 25, 2013

Technology: Instability of the (supposedly secure) Danish e-boks Document and Message System

After the American Century                                                                                                                                                          

In the United States the current IT fiasco story is about the Obama-Care website that is not working to expectations, to say the least. In Denmark, a comprehensive system of vital information that has been up and (sort-of) running for several years has also run into serious problems this week.

In theory, the electronic exchange of information is making the whole world more efficient, allowing people to save time in their everyday transactions. However. I have spent the last hour trying to get into my official electronic mail box, or "e-boks." This is not the usual e-mail system, but a more secure one set up with support from the Danish state. Getting in requires not just an identity number and one code, but two codes. The mail there is about taxes, refunds, fees, fines, car inspection, insurance premiums, salaries, bank accounts, and the like. All residents and citizens must use the system, and we must use it for an increasing number of things.

There is just one problem. At the moment it does not work. I am unable even to view the log-in page, which, after quite a long wait trying to load it, displays the following message:


Reloading the page does not change a thing. Try it several times, and all of my three browsers freeze up entirely.  (Several days after publishing this post, on November 2 such problems were acknowledged and discussed in the leading Danish paper, Politiken.)

The magnificent security system that is on this inaccessible page is called "NEM-ID" which roughly translates as "Easy ID." Of course it is not easy. This system has given me continual problems from the start, several years ago. It was not designed with Apple computers in mind, and the original instructions for its use contained errors. If one followed these instructions literally. an Apple user could not log in. In the last year or so improvements have been made, however, and I was able to use it. Until this week.

I now get two sorts of messages about this dysfunctional system. The first comes from the newspapers and radio. They inform me that the software is outdated and insecure. It apparently has a number of holes that can be (i.e. they are being) used by hackers to steal information. They are  almost certainly stealing money too, since the system is linked to all the Danish banks. Apparently this is not a problem that can be solved centrally. Rather, users are supposed to upgrade their own software. However, precisely what software? How to avoid downloading something that makes the problem worse, or even aids hackers? Indeed, how to avoid inadvertently turning to a false "help" website that was set up by hackers? From what I can see from reading other web pages, the new java script that must be installed requires that I buy a new operating system, which in turn demands a 64-bit processor. In short, I suddenly need to buy a new computer. The one I have is only two years old and works quite well. Alternately, I can try to do all these financial transactions using my Iphone, which is less an a year old. But this involves downloading many documents, transferring them to my computer, and only then reading them. Opening an envelop was much easier.

The second set of messages arrives in my ordinary email almost every day. They tell me that another important piece of information has arrived in my e-box, which I can only see using my "NEM-ID." I am told that each document is important, and that I need to read it soon. This week my bank, employer, and one insurance company have sent documents.

In theory, help is available when the system breaks down. However, one cannot even open the home page to find out where to write or call. Meanwhile, electronic thieves apparently can get in and out of the system in seconds.

This breakdown is making life less secure and less efficient, wasting time, and driving up electricity bills. The sudden, desperately needed upgrade of the official web page apparently means that I will be denied access until I purchase a new computer. Meanwhile, the criminals are clearly becoming more efficient, and they save time in their pilfering. This was not exactly the intended result of installing, and requiring everyone in Denmark to use, e-boks and Nem-ID.

Where is the frictionless high-speed communication of the supposed future? It's enough to make me long for ancient times, about a decade ago, when information came by letter and telephone calls reached a knowledge person, rather than a robotic system.

None of this surprises me as a historian of technology. The utopian expectations attached to new machines and processes have continually been undercut by actual results. There were people, including the Wright Brothers, who thought airplanes made war so potentially devastating that it would be unthinkable. Weapons expected to abolish war and usher in permanent peace include the submarine, the torpedo, land mines, poison gas, missiles, and laser guns. In the 1950s automated production was expected to reduce the work week to less than 30 hours and allow people to retire much earlier.

Over and over, politicians have believed exaggerated claims for new technological systems and put them into operation, only to discover that they have unintended consequences. The Danish government has imposed on its citizens a permanent new expense (rapid upgrades of computers, printers, and software) and forced them to use a system that is unstable and insecure. There seems to be no Plan B, or backup system when it fails. I cannot obtain the digital documents sent to me in any other way. The new system is also strongly favored by the banks, which have closed many branches in recent years, while imposing large fees for face-to-face services.

The new system is convenient and it saves money for the government, corporations, and banks, but it imposes new problems and expenses on the population as a whole. If it were secure and worked as well as the water or electrical distribution system, then the trade-off would be worthwhile. But it does not work that consistently and it must be tinkered with continually.

It is likely that one day this electronic system full of financial information will crash or suffer a cyber attack. Massive electrical blackouts have occurred, and most technological systems do fail once in a while. (I wrote a history of electrical failures called When the Lights Went Out.) There is no reason to believe that the Danish e-boks and Nem-ID will be immune.



October 19, 2013

Are the Republicans a Broken Party?

After the American Century                                                                                                          



In the wake of the default, consider the divisions in the Republican Party, which does not seem to understand that holding a majority in the House of Representatives entails real responsibilities. 

The Republicans of 2013 appear incoherent. The Tea Party wing is fervent, but manifestly ignorant about finance or international diplomacy. It is also deeply undemocratic, in that they do not accept the idea that in a democracy the majority rules. They may have a good idea or two, but I have not yet heard them, nor anything like a coherent economic plan or foreign policy. They know much more what they are against than what they are for. They seem driven by emotion, with a weak knowledge of US history, especially Constitutional history. The true-believers in this wing of the party are often from south of the Mason-Dixon line, especially from rural areas and small towns. They appear to be descendants of the Dixiecrats who used to divide the Democrats over some of the same issues.

There are other Republicans who cling to the values of their party from an earlier era, and these moderates prevented the nation from defaulting on its debt. Such Republican leaders as Nixon, Rockefeller, Ford, and the elder Bush would not have contemplated shutting down the government. But the moderates of today are not strong numerically. They do not seem united or forceful as a group. They worry about getting re-elected in primary elections where the Tea Party tends to turn out the vote. These moderate Republicans are primarily found in urban areas, especially in the North and Midwest. 

Many demographic trends are against the Republicans. Compared to the Democrats, their supporters are fewer, older, and white. They attract only about 30% of the Hispanic vote and little more than 40% of the female vote. They receive only 10-15% of the Black vote, if that. To get elected, they must win decisively among white voters, who are a declining percentage of the total population.

No political analysis of the Republicans is complete without noting that they receive contributions from many in the oil business, from the medical and pharmaceutical industries, and from financiers. Republican money does not support alternative energies, consumer protection, bank regulation, pollution controls, or welfare programs. (Democrats have somewhat more support from scientists and the IT industries, and they tend to support all of the above.)

If the Republicans were to win the White House in 2016 (it seems unlikely now, but three years is a long time in politics), then their internal divisions would likely be even more manifest. With power comes the need to agree on policies and to act, something the Republican House has not been good at. On the other hand, if they lose the presidency in 2016, then internal divisions will continue to fester, driving away many voters. 

What the Republicans desperately need, as they know themselves, is someone like Ronald Reagan, who can unify the party and appeal to the broader electorate. There may be no such figure at the moment, except, perhaps, the popular retiring Mayor of New York. The Tea Party might not like Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but he is a dark horse who could attract centrist voters. In 2016 he will be 74 years old, perhaps too old to run. If he does run, he will be too moderate for the Tea Party faction which has shown little pragmatism in backing primary candidates. In the absence of such a messiah, the Republicans seem doomed to internal battles and increasing incoherence.

October 14, 2013

Why the Assembly line emerged in 1913 in the US

After the American Century

The American Assembly line is one hundred years old. Exactly when to mark its birthday is a little in doubt, as the experiments that led to the assembly line began at the Ford Motor Company in April 1913 and the managers had no name for the emerging system until after it emerged. That spring and summer automobile parts were assembled on some short, experimental lines. In September Ford prepared to do final car assembly. The new form of production had become a conscious goal. Workmen were strung out in a line, on an October day, with the cars moving past each work station, and it turned out to be far more efficient than previous methods.



The assembly line seems in retrospect to be an obvious technology. Why didn’t the manufacturing technique of subdividing the tasks of production and lining them up in the order of assembly emerge much sooner? There are many interconnected factors that explain why the assembly line emerged when it did and not before, but three were particularly important.

First, parts much be absolutely interchangeable, or else they do not fit together. Machine tools that made parts had to be extremely accurate before this was possible. Eli Whitney envisioned the advantages and convinced Thomas Jefferson to support his efforts to make identical parts for muskets. However, American armories and other manufacturers such as those making sewing machines struggles for most of the nineteenth century to achieve the precision necessary for an assembly line. 


  1. Second, in order to arrange machines and processes in an assembly line order the source of power must be extremely flexible. This was not the case in steam-driven factories, where power came steam pipes and from from overhead line shafts, belts and gears. The further steam was from its source, the less powerful it became. As a drive shaft and gear system grew longer, more and more energy was needed just to keep it turning at all. The power train in such a factory was not flexible, 



The American Assembly line is one hundred years old. Exactly when to mark its birthday is a little in doubt, as the experiments that led to the assembly line began at the Ford Motor Company in April 1913 and the managers had no name for the emerging system until after it emerged. That spring and summer automobile parts were assembled on some short, experimental lines. In September Ford prepared to do final car assembly. The new form of production had become a conscious goal. Workmen strung out in a line, with the cars moving past each work station, turned out to be far more efficient than previous methods

The assembly line seems in retrospect to be an obvious technology. Why didn’t the manufacturing technique of subdividing the tasks of production and lining them up in the order of assembly emerge much sooner? There are many interconnected factors that explain why the assembly line emerged when it did and not before, but three were particularly important.

First, parts much be absolutely interchangeable, or else they do not fit together. Machine tools that made parts had to be extremely accurate before this was possible. Eli Whitney envisioned the advantages and convinced Thomas Jefferson to support his efforts to make identical parts for muskets. However, American armories and other manufacturers such as those making sewing machines struggles for most of the nineteenth century to achieve the precision necessary for an assembly line.

Second, in order to arrange machines and processes in an assembly line order the source of power must be extremely flexible. This was not the case in steam-driven factories, where power came steam pipes and from from overhead line shafts, belts and gears. The further steam was from its source, the less powerful it became. As a drive shaft and gear system grew longer, more and more energy was needed just to keep it turning at all. The power train in such a factory was not flexible, and therefore steam power was not well suited to experiments in manufacturing design. In contrast, electric motors, furnaces, and lights could be placed anywhere, and machines in an electrified factory could be placed in any order desired.


Third, an assembly line is expensive to set up, and it makes no economic sense to invest so much capital in one unless a large market exists, a market willing to purchase a single product.  The United States developed such a mass market, in contrast to Europe, where trade barriers balkanized the market. In France, Britain and Germany, there was a “class market” that demanded differentiated products that appealed to different segments of a smaller pool of consumers.  After 1914 European manufacturers visited Detroit to study the assembly line, but few industries could build comparable factories because Europe was not yet a mass market.

Aside from these three factories, an assembly line required sub-division of the labor into tasks of equal length, which deskilled much of the work force. It demanded that workers repeat a few actions, and annual Ford employee turnover rose to over 300 percent in 1913. In response, the company introduced the $5 Day, doubling the average wage. Not only did the higher wages keep people on the job, but workers with higher wages could afford to buy the products of mass production.

By the early 1920s half of all the automobiles in the world were Fords, Henry Ford was a billionaire, and his factory workers were among the highest paid in the world. Thus emerged a system of production that almost miraculously was able to increase production, raise profits, and pay higher wages, all at the same time. Henry Ford’s ghostwritten My Life and Work became an international bestseller. It briefly seemed that the assembly line would lift humanity to a new level of leisure and prosperity. The Boston department store owner, Edward Filine declared.

Mass production is not simply large-scale production. It is large-scale production based upon a clear understanding that increased production demands increased buying, and that the greatest total profits can be obtained only if the masses can and do enjoy a higher and ever higher standard of living. For selfish business reasons, therefore, genuine mass production industries must make prices lower and lower and wages higher and higher, while constantly shortening the workday and bringing to the masses not only more money but more time. . . .
Edward Filene, Successful Living in This Machine Age, 1931

The story of the assembly line in subsequent decades was not quite what Filene imagined, for it was also an efficient method for producing tanks and bombers. Moreover, as the assembly line was adopted worldwide it often drove down wages rather that raising them. In the Cold War, the assembly line became a symbol of American prosperity, yet at the same time many feared technological unemployment. Meanwhile, Japanese corporations reinvented the assembly line as lean production, which was then re-exported to the United States.

The assembly line is still evolving as a system of production, today largely monitored and controlled by computers and “manned” by robots. It has become inseparable from central political and social issues such as automation, unemployment, American competitiveness, resource depletion and global warming. At its centennial, the assembly line is being reconceived as a green technology based on recycling and alternative energies.

These and other topics are further explored in America’s Assembly Line.