While the many robots in auto factories typically perform only one function, in the new Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif., a robot might do up to four: welding, riveting, bonding and installing a component.
DRACHTEN, the Netherlands — At the Philips Electronics factory on the coast of China, hundreds of workers use their hands and specialized tools to assemble electric shavers. That is the old way.
At a sister factory here in the Dutch countryside, 128 robot arms do the same work with yoga-like flexibility. Video cameras guide them through feats well beyond the capability of the most dexterous human.
One robot arm endlessly forms three perfect bends in two connector wires and slips them into holes almost too small for the eye to see. The arms work so fast that they must be enclosed in glass cages to prevent the people supervising them from being injured. And they do it all without a coffee break — three shifts a day, 365 days a year.
All told, the factory here has several dozen workers per shift, about a tenth as many as the plant in the Chinese city of Zhuhai.
This is the future. A new wave of robots, far more adept than those now commonly used by automakers and other heavy manufacturers, are replacing workers around the world in both manufacturing and distribution. Factories like the one here in the Netherlands are a striking counterpoint to those used byand other consumer electronics giants, which employ hundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers.
“With these machines, we can make any consumer device in the world,” said Binne Visser, an electrical engineer who manages the Philips assembly line in Drachten.
Many industry executives and technology experts say Philips’s approach is gaining ground on Apple’s. Even as Foxconn, Apple’smanufacturer, continues to build new plants and hire thousands of additional workers to make smartphones, it plans to install more than a million robots within a few years to supplement its work force in China.
Foxconn has not disclosed how many workers will be displaced or when. But its chairman, Terry Gou, has publicly endorsed a growing use of robots. Speaking of his more than one million employees worldwide, he said in January, according to the official Xinhua news agency: “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.”
The falling costs and growing sophistication of robots have touched off a renewed debate among economists and technologists over how quickly jobs will be lost. This year, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, made the case for a rapid transformation. “The pace and scale of this encroachment into human skills is relatively recent and has profound economic implications,” they wrote in their book, “Race Against the Machine.”
In their minds, the advent of low-cost automation foretells changes on the scale of the revolution in agricultural technology over the last century, when farming employment in the United States fell from 40 percent of the work force to about 2 percent today. The analogy is not only to the industrialization of agriculture but also to the electrification of manufacturing in the past century, Mr. McAfee argues.
“At what point does the chain saw replace Paul Bunyan?” asked Mike Dennison, an executive at Flextronics, a manufacturer of consumer electronics products that is based in Silicon Valley and is increasingly automating assembly work. “There’s always a price point, and we’re very close to that point.”
From the NYT; full story HERE.
From the NYT; full story HERE. Link to Holiday World on the Logo at the bottom of the post.
SANTA CLAUS, Ind. — The first drop is a doozy. From the summit of the wooden roller coaster called the Voyage, 163 feet above the Holiday World theme park in the rolling woodlands of southern Indiana, the track drops 154 feet at a 66-degree angle. The cars quickly reach a top speed of nearly 70 miles an hour.
Those gasp-inducing numbers help explain why more than a million people a year visit Holiday World, which is a ways off the beaten track, and why the Voyage, one of three large wooden coasters at the park, earns high marks from connoisseurs.
But for Chad Miller, one of the ride’s designers, the most important feature of that first hill is the curve at the top.
“The secret of the first drop is shaping up that parabola and getting it exactly right,” said Mr. Miller, 38, an owner of the Gravity Group, one of about a dozen coaster design firms in the world. “It gives you just the right amount of air time, especially in the back seat.”
“Air time” is coaster vernacular for negative G-forces that lift the rider out of the seat, and results from changes in the car’s speed. Along its 1.2 miles of track — it’s the second-longest wooden coaster in the world — the Voyage has plenty of steep drops and tight curves that affect speed, making for 24 seconds of air time, an unofficial record.
But shaping parabolas is just one of many tasks facing engineers like Mr. Miller. Designing roller coasters is a Jekyll-and-Hyde job: The first priority is to make riders safe; the second is to make them scream.
Mr. Miller and his three partners, who work in a small suite of offices on the outskirts of Cincinnati decorated with coaster posters and odd leftovers from various projects, crunch the numbers carefully, using their own programs (with names like Splinal Tap) that can turn the squiggly lines of a rough initial design into a more polished one. At regular intervals along the route, the software calculates G-forces — up and down, side to side and forward and back — on riders in the front, middle or back of the car.
The designers stay well within G-force limits for amusement rides established by the standards organization ASTM International (which regulatory agencies in most states follow, too). But their goal is to shake riders up — beginning, on the Voyage, with that first hill, which is immediately followed by two others with drops of more than 100 feet.
After that the hills are less severe, but the track twists and turns (one section is affectionately called the spaghetti bowl), banks up to 90 degrees, weaves in and out of the supporting structure and dips through tunnels and under perfectly safe, but threatening, beams (“head choppers,” another bit of coaster vernacular).
“It’s 6,400 feet of track,” Mr. Miller said. “We had so much track to work with, we said, ‘Let’s do some really cool stuff.’ ”
The Gravity Group works on wooden coasters, which have rails made from laminated pressure-treated pine, laid on wooden boards called ledgers, with only thin ribbons of steel where the car wheels make contact. There are purists who say the supporting structure must be of wood, too, but the Voyage is one of many wooden coasters — the Cyclone at Coney Island is another — with steel supports.
New wooden coasters are relatively rare these days, as park owners opt for steel-rail designs that are generally faster and higher (and less expensive to maintain) and have more queasiness-producing features like barrel rolls and corkscrew loops. But the Gravity Group is churning out designs. A small coaster opened last year, to positive reviews, at Quassy Amusement Park in Connecticut, and the group has undertaken several projects in China, where the growing middle class has fallen head over heels for amusement parks.
The Voyage, built in 2006 at a cost of $9.5 million, remains the company’s signature ride, consistently ranked among the top wooden coasters in the world by what are politely called coaster enthusiasts.
This is a review of the best pocket camera ever made.
But first, a history lesson.
For years camera makers worried about competition from only one source: other camera makers. But in the end, the most dangerous predator came from an unexpected direction: cellphones.
Today, more photos are taken with phones than with point-and-shoot cameras. On photo sites like Flickr, the iPhone is the source of more photos than any real camera. No wonder sales of inexpensive pocket cameras are going down each year.
Cameras in phones are a delightful development for the masses. If you have your camera with you, you’re more likely to take photos and more likely to capture amazing images.
But in a sense they are also great for camera makers, which are being forced to double down in areas where smartphones are useless: Zoom lenses. High resolution. Better photo quality. Flexibility and advanced features. That’s why, even if sales of pocket cameras are down, sales of high-end cameras are up.
Now you know why the time is ripe for the new Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100. It’s a tiny, pants-pocketable camera that will be available in late July for the nosebleed price of $650.
Or, rather, won’t be available. It will be sold out everywhere. I’ll skip to the punch line: No photos this good have ever come from a camera this small.
The first reason is easy to grasp. The Sony RX100 has a huge one-inch sensor — the biggest ever stuffed into a pocketable zoom camera. That’s not as big as the sensors in S.L.R.’s and other lens-swappable cameras. But it’s two and a half times the area of the Olympus XZ-1 and nearly three times the area of the previous pocket-camera photo-quality champ, the Canon PowerShot S100. (The RX100’s shiny black metal body looks exactly like them.)
A big sensor means big pixels, which gives you less grain in low light, better color depth and great dynamic range — the spectrum from darkest to lightest pixels.
A big sensor is also a prerequisite for that professional blurry background look. The RX100 easily achieves those soft backgrounds, a rarity in compact cameras.
The other star factor in the Sony is its Carl Zeiss lens, whose maximum aperture (lens opening) is f/1.8. That’s the widest aperture you can buy on a pocket camera. That, too, helps explain its ability to blur the background, and its spectacular results in low light.
(As on any camera, that aperture shrinks as you zoom in. When you’re fully zoomed on this camera, you’re down to f/4.9. That’s still better than the Canon’s fully zoomed aperture — f/5.9.)
But you know what? All of that is just shutterbug-speak for, “This camera takes amazing photos.” If you want to know what “huge sensor” and “big aperture” mean in the real world, stop reading and savor my annotated slide show of sample photos. There’s a small sampling at nytimes.com/personaltech, and a larger one at http://j.mp/LdUu4h.
There you’ll see what makes the RX100 such a revelation: insane amounts of detail and vivid, true colors. Hand-held twilight photos. A burst mode that can fire 10 frames a second. And macro shots — supercloseup — that will curl whatever’s left of your hair. A typical S.L.R. can’t get any closer than 10 inches from the subject with its included lens; the RX100 can nail focus only 2 inches away.
Read the full NYT story HERE.
Postmortem on American Idol from the NYT; full story HERE.
As Fox’s “American Idol” wraps its 11th season this week with a sing-off between Phillip Phillips and Jessica Sanchez, those involved with the show are asking what went wrong, a rare dose of soul-searching for a show that has been the runaway hit of this century.
“Idol” lost nearly a quarter of its audience this season (it is still huge), dipping below 20 million viewers for the first time since 2003, when a ratings surge made it the No. 1 entertainment program on American television. The drop-off was even more steep among viewers ages 18 to 49, the demographic mostly highly sought by the networks.
As a result, there is no longer bluster in the voices of the “Idol” judges and Fox executives who had confidently predicted that they would fend off “The Voice,” NBC’s one-year-old competitor, this season. Though some at Fox were initially dismissive of “The Voice,” they now think it was among the reasons for the double-digit decline.
Kevin Reilly, the president of entertainment for Fox, said last week that there would be some “creative reinvigoration” of the “Idol” franchise for next season.
But first there’s another winner to crown, which will take place live on Fox on Wednesday night. The choice is stark this season, between Mr. Phillips, 21, who would become the fifth consecutive white male guitarist to win the competition, and Ms. Sanchez, 16, who would become the youngest “Idol” winner. She would also be the first Latina to win, visibly representing change for a program that some TV critics have labeled boring.
Given that the series has been on TV since 2002, Ms. Sanchez “probably can’t remember a world without ‘American Idol,’ ” said Jeff Alexander, who dutifully recaps the show each week as M. Giant for the Web site Television Without Pity. “She’s trained to be on the show since she was 5, and it’s like watching somebody who was grown in a vat for this purpose.”
Some might say the same about Mr. Phillips, a Dave Matthews sound-alike who follows in the footsteps of the past four winners, Scotty McCreery, Lee DeWyze, Kris Allen and David Cook. Online odds-makers say Mr. Phillips is favored to win, but some social-media analysis companies say Ms. Sanchez, a powerhouse singer who idolizes Beyoncé, is more popular among online commenters. Fox has been paying close attention to the social-media chatter this season, and it says the millions of comments affirm that “Idol” remains the most culturally relevant show on television.
But the ultimate judge remains the Nielsen ratings. Last year, when “Idol” rebounded slightly from lows that were a record in 2010, a typical episode garnered 24.7 million viewers, excluding the finale week. Of those viewers, 10.8 million were between the ages of 18 and 49. Compare that with this year, when a typical episode has attracted about 19.2 million viewers, 7.5 million of whom are in that same demographic.
“The Voice,” which benefited from a post-Super Bowl premiere, came close to tying “Idol” in that demographic, with 7.2 million on a typical night. And ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” came close among total viewers, with 18.3 million on dancing nights, and 16 million on results nights.
This is something new for “Idol”: true competition. Peter Rice, chairman of the Fox Networks Group, said in an interview that the ratings decline for “Idol” was a surprise at first, but, “in hindsight, when you look at it, it became a much more crowded space.”
From Paul Krugman at the NYT, HERE.
Suddenly, it has become easy to see how the euro — that grand, flawed experiment in monetary union without political union — could come apart at the seams. We’re not talking about a distant prospect, either. Things could fall apart with stunning speed, in a matter of months, not years. And the costs — both economic and, arguably even more important, political — could be huge.
This doesn’t have to happen; the euro (or at least most of it) could still be saved. But this will require that European leaders, especially in Germany and at the European Central Bank, start acting very differently from the way they’ve acted these past few years. They need to stop moralizing and deal with reality; they need to stop temporizing and, for once, get ahead of the curve.
I wish I could say that I was optimistic.
The story so far: When the euro came into existence, there was a great wave of optimism in Europe — and that, it turned out, was the worst thing that could have happened. Money poured into Spain and other nations, which were now seen as safe investments; this flood of capital fueled huge housing bubbles and huge trade deficits. Then, with the financial crisis of 2008, the flood dried up, causing severe slumps in the very nations that had boomed before.
At that point, Europe’s lack of political union became a severe liability. Florida and Spain both had housing bubbles, but when Florida’s bubble burst, retirees could still count on getting their Social Security and Medicare checks from Washington. Spain receives no comparable support. So the burst bubble turned into a fiscal crisis, too.
Europe’s answer has been austerity: savage spending cuts in an attempt to reassure bond markets. Yet as any sensible economist could have told you (and we did, we did), these cuts deepened the depression in Europe’s troubled economies, which both further undermined investor confidence and led to growing political instability.
And now comes the moment of truth.
Greece is, for the moment, the focal point. Voters who are understandably angry at policies that have produced 22 percent unemployment — more than 50 percent among the young — turned on the parties enforcing those policies. And because the entire Greek political establishment was, in effect, bullied into endorsing a doomed economic orthodoxy, the result of voter revulsion has been rising power for extremists. Even if the polls are wrong and the governing coalition somehow ekes out a majority in the next round of voting, this game is basically up: Greece won’t, can’t pursue the policies that Germany and the European Central Bank are demanding.
So now what? Right now, Greece is experiencing what’s being called a “bank jog” — a somewhat slow-motion bank run, as more and more depositors pull out their cash in anticipation of a possible Greek exit from the euro. Europe’s central bank is, in effect, financing this bank run by lending Greece the necessary euros; if and (probably) when the central bank decides it can lend no more, Greece will be forced to abandon the euro and issue its own currency again.
This demonstration that the euro is, in fact, reversible would lead, in turn, to runs on Spanish and Italian banks. Once again the European Central Bank would have to choose whether to provide open-ended financing; if it were to say no, the euro as a whole would blow up.
Yet financing isn’t enough. Italy and, in particular, Spain must be offered hope — an economic environment in which they have some reasonable prospect of emerging from austerity and depression. Realistically, the only way to provide such an environment would be for the central bank to drop its obsession with price stability, to accept and indeed encourage several years of 3 percent or 4 percent inflation in Europe (and more than that in Germany).
Both the central bankers and the Germans hate this idea, but it’s the only plausible way the euro might be saved. For the past two-and-a-half years, European leaders have responded to crisis with half-measures that buy time, yet they have made no use of that time. Now time has run out.
So will Europe finally rise to the occasion? Let’s hope so — and not just because a euro breakup would have negative ripple effects throughout the world. For the biggest costs of European policy failure would probably be political.
Think of it this way: Failure of the euro would amount to a huge defeat for the broader European project, the attempt to bring peace, prosperity and democracy to a continent with a terrible history. It would also have much the same effect that the failure of austerity is having in Greece, discrediting the political mainstream and empowering extremists.
All of us, then, have a big stake in European success — yet it’s up to the Europeans themselves to deliver that success. The whole world is waiting to see whether they’re up to the task.
From the NYT; full story HERE.
Suppose scientists discovered a clump of neurons in the brain that, when stimulated, turned people into egalitarians. This would be good news for Democratic strategists and speechwriters, who could now get to work framing arguments about wealth and taxation in ways that might activate the relevant section of cerebral cortex.
This “share-the-spoils” button has been discovered, in a sense, but it may turn out to be harder to press than Democrats might think.
Pretend you’re a three-year-old, exploring an exciting new room full of toys. You and another child come up to a large machine that has some marbles inside, which you can see. There’s a rope running through the machine and the two ends of the rope hang out of the front, five feet apart. If you or your partner pulls on the rope alone, you just get more rope. But if you both pull at the same time, the rope dislodges some marbles, which you each get to keep. The marbles roll down a chute, and then they divide: one rolls into the cup in front of you, three roll into the cup in front of your partner.
This is the scenario created by developmental psychologists Michael Tomasello and Katharina Hamann at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany. In this situation, where both kids have to pull for anyone to get marbles, the children equalize the wealth about 75% of the time, with hardly any conflict. Either the “rich” kid hands over one marble spontaneously or else the “poor” kid asks for one and his request is immediately granted.
But an experiment must have more than one condition, and the experimenters ran two other versions of the study to isolate the active ingredient. What had led to such high rates of sharing, given that three-year-olds are often quite reluctant to share new treasures? Children who took part in the second condition found that the marbles were already waiting for them in the cups when they first walked up to the machine. No work required.
In this condition, it’s finders-keepers. If you have the bad luck to place yourself in front of the cup with one marble, then your partner is very unlikely to offer you one, you’re unlikely to ask, and if you do ask, you’re likely to be rebuffed. Only about 5% of the time did any marbles change hands.
But here’s the most amazing condition — a slight variation that reveals a deep truth. Things start off just as in the first condition: you and your partner see two ropes hanging out of the machine. But as you start tugging it becomes clear that they are two separate ropes. You pull yours, and one marble rolls out into your cup. Your partner pulls the other rope, and is rewarded with three marbles. What happens next?
For the most part, it’s pullers-keepers. Even though you and your partner each did the same work (rope pulling) at more or less the same time, you both know that you didn’t really collaborate to produce the wealth. Only about 30% of the time did the kids work out an equal split. In other words, the “share-the-spoils” button is not pressed by the mere existence of inequality. It is pressed when two or more people collaborated to produce a gain. Once the button is pressed in both brains, both parties willingly and effortlessly share.
So now let’s look at a key line in President Obama’s State of the Union address: “we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” The president is making three arguments about fairness in this one sentence, but do any of them press the “share-the-spoils” button? If you think that the economy is like a giant marble dispenser with a single rope, then you’d probably agree that if everyone does their “fair share” and pulls on the rope as hard as they can, then everyone is entitled to a “fair share” in the nation’s wealth. But do Americans perceive the economy as a giant collaborative project?
Unfortunately, President Obama promised he would not raise taxes on anyone but the rich. He and other Democrats have also vowed to “protect seniors” from cuts, even though seniors receive the vast majority of entitlement dollars. The president is therefore in the unenviable position of arguing that we’re in big trouble and so a small percentage of people will have to give more, but most people will be protected from sacrifice. This appeal misses the shared-sacrifice button completely. It also fails to push the share-the-spoils button. When people feel that they’re all pulling on different ropes, they don’t feel entitled to a share of other people’s wealth, even when that wealth was acquired by luck.
If the Democrats really want to get moral psychology working for them, I suggest that they focus less on distributive fairness — which is about whether everyone got what they deserved — and more on procedural fairness—which is about whether honest, open and impartial procedures were used to decide who got what. If there’s a problem with the ultra-rich, it’s not that they have too much wealth, it’s that they bought laws that made it easy for them to gain and keep so much more wealth in recent decades.
Sarah Palin gave a speech last September lambasting “crony capitalism,” which she defined as “the collusion of big government and big business and big finance to the detriment of all the rest – to the little guys.” I think that she was on to something and that she was right to include big government along with big business and big finance. The problem isn’t that some kids have many more marbles than others. The problem is that some kids are in cahoots with the experimenters. They get to rig the marble machine before the rest of us have a chance to play with it.
Jonathan Haidt is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and a visiting professor at the N.Y.U.-Stern School of Business. He is the author of “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.”