Monday, May 30, 2011

Ford's Lights in the Tunnel, early quibbles

I haven't read far enough through the book yet to know whether Ford actually stands behind these positions, or has simply propped them up as straw men.

In the Introduction, on page 5, he writes The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 demonstrated quite conclusively that there is no good alternative to the free market system. Perhaps he was attempting to ingratiate himself to economists in saying this, or attempting to preempt argument based on the soviet example, or maybe he truly believes it. Whatever his purpose, the statement by itself is a blatant non sequitur. The Soviet Union was a single example of an alternative, or maybe a class of alternative examples, since they tried just about every permutation of their own model at one time or another (some of which worked rather well in microeconomic terms, by the way). But their ideology-driven model severely constrained what experiments were possible and even more so which could be given sufficient latitude for a fair test.

Then, in Chapter 1, in the Automation Comes to the Tunnel thought experiment beginning on page 17, he discusses temporarily increased profits deriving from reduced costs made possible by automation, but he completely neglects the secondary effect of growth and jobs created in the automation/robotics industry, in design, customization, testing, sales, production, shipping, installation, maintenance, programming, and retooling. These may not add up to the jobs replaced by machines in other industries, but it's too large a factor to be ignored.

Now, back to the Introduction, page 2, for a consideration of the following. Put yourself in the position of a business owner and think of all the problems that are associated with human employees: vacation, safety rules, sick time, payroll taxes, poor performance...maternity leave. If an affordable machine can do nearly any routine job as well as a human worker, then what business manager in his or her right mind would hire a worker? This turns on the word affordable which at best comes down to a projection, made by a CFO, based on incomplete information, regarding whether the business will profit more from keeping its workers or from replacing some of them with machines, and it's not as simple as comparing the cost of a machine with the annual cost of the workers it could replace multiplied by the machine's estimated useful life. People are more adaptable, and can move from one task to another with a minimum of fuss, whereas a machine would at least need to be reprogrammed (or retrained) for each new task, and might even prove useless in the new circumstances; the more specialized the machine the less likely it is to be able to adapt. Also, just as technology enables automation, it also enables augmentation - strength amplification, protection against environmental hazards, heads-up displays providing just-in-time information, enhanced senses, precise manipulation, eye tracking, voice recognition and synthesis, etc. - making what the average human worker is able to perform a moving target.

The situation would seem to be less bleak than Ford's first pass through the tunnel suggests.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

wishing for the Janus (times 2 or 3) online locus

I've recently been making more use of Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, somewhat at the expense of participation on The WELL, but not entirely so. Each of these has something to offer, and leaves something to be wished for. I've also ramped up my use of RSS (until I became overwhelmed and had to shut it back down), and have three blogs (including this one), a couple of homepages, one dormant, and a couple of dormant domain names.

The blogs are all on Google's Blogger, so that's a single identity, and the active homepage is on The WELL, so that combines with my participation there to form another identity. RSS, the dormant homepage, and the domain names don't really count, for now, but that still leaves me with FIVE online identities, without including accounts on the systems of companies with which I do business.

Meanwhile there's a herd of other social networking sites wanting a piece of that pie, and more joining the melee all the time. It leaves me wondering what they could possibly be thinking, given the time and mental effort participants in existing sites have already invested, and amazed at the numbers reported by the more successful of the newcomers.

But I don't want more places to spread myself across. I want a single service that allows me to present my various aspects as parts of a single whole, allowing me to selectively expose some or all on a per-contact or per-group basis, and which allows me to make finer distinctions regarding sources of input than follow, like, or connect.

As for RSS, it's not the particular feed but the entity behind it, the specific organization, program, university department, startup company, or corporation, that I'm interested in and want to track. Not all of these publish the news I'd like to know about as RSS feeds; some publish press releases to mailing lists, and some merely update their websites. Some even publish news as YouTube videos. I'd like to be able to combine all such sources into a single interface, keeping the extraneous noise to a bare minimum.

So, while new systems competing for your attention, bringing new themes and new variations on the old ones, may help to build out the possibilities of online networking and information distribution, I look forward to the day when these upstarts have combined to form a smaller number of more complete systems, been acquired, or themselves swallowed one of the whales of social networking.

PS, I completely forgot about my Yahoo!/Flickr account, which adds two Yahoo! groups and a Flickr photostream, and a sixth online identity!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

confidence is a perishable commodity

Lodsys had best bite their tounges, before they inflict demonstrable damage on the perishable commodity that is the confidence of Apple's developers. Otherwise they may find their patents are worth less than the damage they've done, and are therefore forfeit.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

in search of the way forward

An old acquaintance suggested I check out Martin Ford's "The Lights in the Tunnel" which I'm in the process of doing.

The fast, first-pass take is a little scary. It seems to be about how the economy is falling apart because too many people have no purchasing power, because their jobs have been shipped offshore, automated, or both.

Ford has some suggestions about how to deal with this and I've had some thoughts along these lines myself, so I anticipate using his writings to reenergize and hone my own thinking and sharing the result of that process here.

One tentative conclusion I'd reached just shortly before hearing about "The Lights in the Tunnel" was that, generally speaking, when robotics is applied to bringing a better approach to bear to some task (doing things in progressively greater detail, taking more and more into account) the result is usually a net gain in employment. I'm not sure this is generally true, but I'm nearly certain it's true in circumstances where people have already been all but completely replaced by machines, such as is the case in modern agriculture, where humans have mostly been relegated to the role of machine operator, serving as the control unit that it hadn't until quite recently been possible to build.

The application of robotics to the conduct of horticulture on an agricultural scale is a longtime theme for me; I have another blog on that subject, so chances are I'll be returning to that example from time to time, but, as Ford is at some pains to point out, this is an issue which transcends any category of economic activity.

It is clear at the outset that it is the inertia of our socioeconomic arrangements that threatens a crisis in response to the liberation being made possible by emerging technologies, and, with another set of such arrangements we don't yet know to name, we might welcome that liberation as a godsend.

More to follow...

Saturday, May 21, 2011

in garb appropriate to the slaying of trolls

I just had a humorous thought. When WWDC 2011 rolls around, a little over two weeks from now, Steve Jobs takes the stage in full armor and carrying a great sword (all fashioned from aluminum for the occasion), which is to say in garb appropriate to the slaying of trolls.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

plea to GOP

Please, please, give us a presidential candidate whose candidacy can be conducive to constructive debate.

In case you're wondering, IMHO that would exclude Donald Trump.