Friday
Dec162011

Thoughts on Occupy Versus Police

(This post is way delayed and fairly disorganized, but I’m putting aside further editing in the interest of getting it out the digital door.)

Occupy is interesting, but it’s also interesting to consider the variety of tactics police have used in opposing the movement.  On the one hand, there’s the UC Davis incident, where the message of “if you are in the way, we will hose you down with military grade pepper spray at point-blank range” was communicated by actually doing just that.  That might be legal, even in the liberal 9th circuit, but doesn’t exactly defuse the situation, and it’s unclear whether it will prevent the protesters from achieving (some of) their goals.

On the other hand, there’s the aikido tactics of the St. Louis Police.  As related in this post by Brad Hicks, after a series of fake-out maneuvers, the police acted with a combination of power and restraint:

[…] [The police] didn’t show up in riot gear and helmets, they showed up in shirt sleeves with their faces showing. They not only didn’t show up with SWAT gear, they showed up with no unusual weapons at all, and what weapons they had all securely holstered. They politely woke everybody up. They politely helped everybody who was willing to remove their property from the park to do so. They then asked, out of the 75 to 100 people down there, how many people were volunteering for being-arrested duty? Given 33 hours to think about it, and 10 hours to sweat it over, only 27 volunteered. As the police already knew, those people’s legal advisers had advised them not to even passively resist, so those 27 people lined up to be peacefully arrested, and were escorted away by a handful of cops. The rest were advised to please continue to protest, over there on the sidewalk … and what happened next was the most absolutely brilliant piece of crowd control policing I have heard of in my entire lifetime.

All of the cops who weren’t busy transporting and processing the voluntary arrestees lined up, blocking the stairs down into the plaza. They stood shoulder to shoulder. They kept calm and silent. They positioned the weapons on their belts out of sight. They crossed their hands low in front of them, in exactly the least provocative posture known to man. And they peacefully, silently, respectfully occupied the plaza, using exactly the same non-violent resistance techniques that the protesters themselves had been trained in. […]

By dawn, the protesters were licked.

(Again, read the whole thing.)

The clearing of Occupy Boston used some of the St. Louis tactics, so maybe those are catching on.  More brutal tactics may or may not be self-defeating, but I suppose that depends on exactly how far police are willing to go, as Brad points out, addressed towards police:

In case you haven’t noticed, you are not the only police officers who have been asked to use as much force as necessary, in order to crack down on trivial ordinance violations, as an excuse to shut those citizens up. Your fellow police have been asked to shut down those protests in every country in Latin America, in every country in the Middle East, in every country in North Africa, and in almost every country in Europe. In country after country, one of three things has happened: the cops obeyed orders and the kleptocrats are getting away with imposing austerity, or else the cops obeyed orders but foreign governments stepped in, citing actual or impending police atrocities, and overthrew the kleptocrats, or else they did something that you chose not to do, this last week or two.

In a few countries, the cops saw that they didn’t have the choice of defending the perfectly law abiding, saw that they were being asked to defend criminals, concluded that they could not morally justify obeying the order to shut down the protests, and went home. Few if any of the protesters even asked the police to switch sides and join the protests against kleptocracy. Most of us know that that’s an unreasonable request, we know that most of you feel that you owe it to the uniform you wear, and to the oath you took, and to your fellow officers, not to join the protesters. But in the countries where the police, asked to use force to shut down peaceful protests against kleptocracy, took off their uniforms and went home until it was all over? Not just in the Arab (Spring) world, but in places like Iceland? Freedom is on the march. Nor have those countries slid into poverty because they refused to cover the debts that the thieves owed to the dishonest bankers; those countries are recovering from the global recession faster than we are.

Charles Stross has some interesting thoughts on how the police crackdown fits into the larger economic/political situation:

Public austerity is a great cover for the expropriation of wealth by the rich (by using their accumulated capital to go on acquisition sprees for assets being sold off for cents on the dollar by the near-bankrupt state). But public austerity is a huge brake on economic growth because it undermines demand by impoverishing consumers. Consequently, we’re in for another long depression. […]

Starving poor people with guns and nothing to lose scare the rich; their presence in large numbers is one major component of a pre-revolutionary situation. […] Worse, the poor have smartphones. […]

The oligarchs are therefore pre-empting the pre-revolutionary situation by militarizing the police (as guard labour).

The rest is interesting, too, including the comments.

Friday
Nov182011

Digital Generation

Kevin Kelly shares some anecdotes about the subset of the latest generation raised with cutting-edge technology from an early age.  Here’s one:

Another friend had a barely-speaking toddler take over his iPad. She could paint and handle complicated tasks on apps with ease and grace almost before she could walk. It is now sort of her iPad. One day he printed out a high resolution image on photo paper and left it on the coffee table. He noticed his toddler come up to up and try to unpinch the photo to make it larger, like you do on an iPad. She tried it a few times, without success, and looked over to him and said “broken.”]

Another:

Another reader had this story. Her son had access to a computer starting at the age of 2. Once while they were shopping in a grocery store, she paused to find a label on a product. “Just click on it,” her son suggested.

The comments are good, too.

The real question is whether this will have transient or lasting effects on how the children in question learn and think.  And will those effects be comparable to previous technological “generation gaps”, or qualitatively different?

Thursday
Nov032011

The Robot Revolution

Pithy:

Idea #6: The history of the 21st century will be one of technological singularity and collapse.

More accurate:

The history of the 21st century will be shaped by, on the one hand, labor-saving technologies (with vast and unpredictable effects on society), and on the other hand, peaks in resource production and attendent problems in maintaining complex systems in the face of random disasters, demographic shifts, increasing population, and so on.

For now, let’s focus on the former.

The history of capitalism is one of labor displacement and capital accumulation.  Really expensive tools make increased productivity possible.  Only the rich can afford really expensive tools.  The way to get guaranteed access to work is to sell most of the product of your labor in exchange for access to such tools.  Those that don’t make the trade are out-competed.  The rich get richer.  The new unemployed (since productivity increases exceed demand increases (which are at least somewhat constrained by population increases, but that’s a whole other post)) end up in newer, cooler jobs made possible by the same sort of technological development.  Or so the story goes.

The question is what happens when the newly-created labor demand from technological development is less than the labor-displacement from technological development.  A related question:  What happens when labor saving technology just creates demand elsewhere for not labor but more labor saving technology?

Or: What happens when having your job outsourced to Chinese robots just creates jobs for more Chinese robots?  (The robots are also built by Chinese robots.  In China.)

I’d argue that the marginal cost of adding production through labor-saving technology has probably been lower than the marginal cost of labor in many areas of production for a while.  However, there were a few mitigating factors delaying the robot revolution.  Both have to do with “developing markets”.  First, there was the desire to expand quickly into new markets.  If hiring people is quicker than building more-automated factories, it might be better to do the former than let your competitors beat you to the punch.  Second, there was a desire to produce stuff in areas that didn’t have the infrastructure to support highly-automated production (especially since many of those areas have fewer regulations and lower labor costs).

I think that’s no longer the case.  The most promising developing markets are developed, first-to-market incentives are diminished (i.e. the resource grab is over).  Infrastructure development has also come a long way.  Hence stories like this.

I’m not the only one who’s noticed this trend:

A faltering economy explains much of the job shortage in America, but advancing technology has sharply magnified the effect, more so than is generally understood, according to two researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

[…]

During the last recession, the authors write, one in 12 people in sales lost their jobs, for example. And the downturn prompted many businesses to look harder at substituting technology for people, if possible. Since the end of the recession in June 2009, they note, corporate spending on equipment and software has increased by 26 percent, while payrolls have been flat.

Corporations are doing fine. The companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index are expected to report record profits this year, a total $927 billion, estimates FactSet Research. And the authors point out that corporate profit as a share of the economy is at a 50-year high.

Productivity growth in the last decade, at more than 2.5 percent, they observe, is higher than the 1970s, 1980s and even edges out the 1990s. Still the economy, they write, did not add to its total job count, the first time that has happened over a decade since the Depression.

They concluded on an optimistic note:

Yet computers, the authors say, tend to be narrow and literal-minded, good at assigned tasks but at a loss when a solution requires intuition and creativity — human traits. A partnership, they assert, is the path to job creation in the future.

But that misses both that many people are not capable of “intuition and creativity” jobs (at a high enough level to make a living at it) and, at any rate, that the demand for such jobs will never equal the previous demand for industrial-labor jobs.  Intuition and creativity don’t scale.

I expect this effect will also have a way of trickling up from industrial workers.  As everyone tries to avoid the industrial-work class if at all possible, the struggle for those “creative” jobs becomes more intense.  This analysis from Robert Cringley is telling:

In the near term how do we creatively respond to jobs going overseas? In the longer term what happens if Ray Kurzweil is correct and the Singularity rolls along in 2029 or so and humans suddenly become little more than parasites on a digital Earth?

The easy answer to this problem has been the same since the 1960s — become Paul McCartney. But how many Beatles can the world sustain?

[…]

Where you live counts as much as anything else, too, so position yourself in a city that has high serendipity.  Any kid living with his parents in Palo Alto can get a job today simply because he already has a place to live. No skills required.

[…]

Live in the coolest place, I tell Cole and his brothers. Have the coolest friends. Do the coolest things. Learn from everything you do. Be open to new opportunities. And do something your father hasn’t yet figured how to do, which is every few years take off 138 days and just walk the Earth. [emphasis mine]

Cringley takes an optimistic tone, but I find the content of his post rather grim.  He’s right.  Sure, there are some high-paying jobs that the robots can’t do for now, assuming that not too many others are trying to do the same thing.

But if you want to get into / stay in the middle class after the start of the robot revolution, you’d better be cool.  Have the right connections, be in the right place.  Hopefully have parents wealthy enough to facilitate that and smart enough to realize that it’s not about “job skills” anymore. Social skills are the new middle class job skills.  It’s hard to evaluate those “intuitive” and “creative” jobs, so appearances matter.  As the job search becomes more competitive, attributes not related to job performance matter more.

And be lucky (the repeated “serendipity”).  Maximize your opportunities to benefit from luck.  It’s all a gamble, victory goes to those who can roll (or rig) the most dice.

Hard enough for the middle class.  And for those not currently in the middle class, being either “cool” or “lucky” enough is going to be mighty tough.

Though angry may stil be an option.

Tuesday
Oct252011

How Can Occupy Wall Street Win?

Occupy Wall Street continues to be very interesting.  (On the economic side, see also.)

I previously mentioned that non-violent protests can only win by being economically or politically disruptive, but there are a few ways to achieve that goal:

Consumer Siege: Cut someone off from funding by refusing to do business with them (boycott) is the typical example.  Indirect boycotts can sometimes work (for example, see Color of Change’s successful campaign against the Glenn Beck Show, which worked by convincing advertisers that being associated with Glenn Beck was not a good idea for their brand (or at least that it would be better to spend their advertising budget’s elsewhere).  Divestment can also work, since the people running an institution tend to also be investors.  Of course, that only works if equity in the institution is publicly held and the protesters have a lot of it (not usually the case).

In the case of OWS, this is why I’m interested in this story in which a bunch of protesters who were Citi Bank customers tried to close their accounts, only to be locked in by guards and arrested by police.  Bizarre.  A question:  In the actual bank runs of the 1930s, did banks ever try to get police to arrest customers who were closing their accounts?

Disruption of Business: Protesters prevent the institution from doing business with anyone.  This either involves discouraging customers or actually preventing institutional activities from happening.  The strike is an obvious (and fairly mild) example of this type.  So is the picket line, in which customers and/or replacement workers are discouraged (but not actually prevented) from entering a place of business.

Given the name “Occupy Wall Street”, I’m surprised there isn’t more action of this type.  While seeing the protesters “occupy” Times Square was impressive, it’s a far cry from actually occupying, you know, Wall Street.  There’s no indication that OWS has been at all disruptive to the business activities of anyone working on Wall Street.

Petition: In general, just expressing one’s grievances, no matter how publicly is pretty useless unless you can effectively turn that to recruiting people for one of the activities listed in this post.  Getting arrested is only great if you emerge from jail with your numbers doubled.  (The IWW was great at this, Anonymous not so much.  (That topic might be worth its own post, but in the meanwhile, read this, which also includes some very good speculation about the possible outcomes of the protests.))

There’s one exception, though.  If your grievances are expressed directly, in person, to an institution itself, then the actions the institution takes against you can effect the institution’s reputation enough to be disruptive.  That only works if the institution is considered to be in control of the action taken against protesters and the institution is perceived to have some sort of obligation to listen to protesters.  Here, that’s likely to be just government, and maybe not even that.

That tactic can also work as the political equivalent of “disruption of business”.  If hundreds of people are showing up in person to present their grievances at each congressional office every day, it does give Congress a bit more personal motivation to resolve the situation.

Elections: In a democracy, if you can mobilize enough support to actually get incumbent legislators replaced with legislators loyal to your position, then that’s one way to change things.  To do this at a large scale, you really need to establish an effective political party.  Specifically, it must be able to do two things effectively: Get candidates elected, and ensure that candidates who don’t toe the party line on important issues (the platform) are not reelected (and preferably are left with their careers in total ruin, such that they actually fear defecting).

I’ve heard suggestions that OWS needs a “non-partisan political party”, which is nonsense.  To the extent that the concept is coherent, we already have a non-partisan political party, the Democrats, which is wildly ineffective at whipping their members into going along with even the core of the party platform.  The Republicans, on the other hand, are wildly effective whips, at least on the limited platform of opposing Obama (or whatever non-Republican is in power at the time).  (They’re less effectively partisan when actually in charge, but you don’t really have to coordinate much on how to burn the place down in order to do so effectively.)

You also need a lot of political power to push around the bureaucracy, but I don’t think that’s an intractable problem in the case of OWS.  (At least not compared to the difficulty of getting legislators elected in the first place.)

Tuesday
Oct112011

Memetic Defenses Enabled

Comment moderation has been enabled to stem the tide of irrelevant and poorly written commercial solicitations.

Monday
Oct102011

Update on Netflix

Turns out they’re just really bad at business.  Not that I’m displeased with that decision as a customer.

Thursday
Oct062011

"Occupy" Where Now?

The Occupy Wall Street protest and related protests are interesting, but they mostly remind me of my first pithy generalization on this blog.  The protests have garnered some attention, but unless they can be economically or politically disruptive, they won’t get anything done.  As near as I can tell, the protests have not yet had a significant political effect and as far as economic effects go… well, if it’s still “business as usual” for the place allegedly occupied, the “occupation” probably isn’t doing a very effective job.

Wednesday
Sep212011

Netflix Shot First

Netflix’s recent decision to split itself into two businesses (Netflix for streaming, Qwikster for DVDs) has been a source of confusion and consternation all over the web.  Netflix does explain their reasoning, though.  Not in the most recent announcement, but in the announcement of their price change in July:

Given the long life we think DVDs by mail will have, treating DVDs as a $2 add on to our unlimited streaming plan neither makes great financial sense nor satisfies people who just want DVDs.

Note what’s left out.  For whom does “DVDs as a $2 add on to… streaming” not make sense?  Netflix, not streaming customers.  The other half is more or less accurate, DVD-only customers have several options and may be more price-sensitive.

And why does that not make financial sense?  Presumably, the studios are forcing Netflix to pay per-customer for streaming licenses.  If that’s the case, Netflix might see the scenario this way:  If we split up our customers (most of whom mostly use one method or the other) into two bins, we profit even if they all choose one or the other.  Why?  Because even though they’re now paying 80% of previous, the streaming expenses are cut in half.  Win-win, right?

The risk relates to the fact that there’s a big difference between all-streaming and mostly-streaming.  The convenience of renting a DVD when streaming was not available patched over the lack of streaming selection.  “A $2 add on” might not make financial sense to Netflix, but it makes perfect sense to customers who view it as a patch to a bug that, in their view, is Netflix’s fault.  $2/mo. is low enough to feel “basically free”, $8/mo. is not.  Thus, this move may cause some streaming customers, instead of picking sides, to leave entirely.

Therefore, it should be clear that the price change is not a grab for $6 more per month.  Separating the sites, marring the user-experience and reducing convenience (when this is all about convenience) is a clear anti-feature.  Netflix really wants people to choose sides, and was willing to cut prices to give them an incentive.  And where carrots are insufficient, let the beatings commence!

My guess is that Netflix is in a bit of a catch-22 here.  They can’t fix the selection problem while DVD streaming is an option.  Even if Netflix can convince a studio that they “have to be on Netflix”, the studio can just shrug and say, “So? They’ll just get it on DVD.”  On the other hand, the “have to be on Netflix” argument depends on the popularity of Netflix, which may depend on “DVDs as a $2 add on”, so staking everything on “streaming or nothing” is not without risk.

It’s a dramatic case of business negotiations.  Netflix is trying to convince the studios that they need Netflix to win (quickly) in the streaming video market, then holding itself hostage, threatening to shoot if the studios don’t renegotiate.

More than that:  Netflix shot itself first, and is daring the studios to let it die.

(Context: I’m not a Netflix investor.  I am a Netflix subscriber.  I subscribe to both DVDs and streaming.  Before the split I would have paid the extra money, but now I’ll probably cancel the DVD-by-mail service and keep streaming… for now.)

Monday
Sep192011

Second City Epidemiologist

I watched The Interrupters this weekend, and I second this review, it’s well worth seeing.  The documentary chronicles the front-line agents of the organization CeaseFire, the Violence Interrupters.  CeaseFire’s founder, Gary Slutkin, is an epidemiologist who formerly worked for the World Health Organization, and he takes very seriously the analogy of the “violence epidemic”.  The approach is similar:

  1. Identify outbreaks (violent incidents)
  2. Respond at the center with a focus on limiting transmission (discouraging new retaliation by those not already involved)
  3. Build long-term resilience with vaccinations, sanitation, and so on (change norms)

A more comprehensive approach also fits into this analogy:  Infected are quarantined (criminals captured) and treated (rehabilitated) or institutionalized.  CeaseFire’s efforts, though, are mostly focused on the above, particularly step two.

On the non-metaphorical health front, similar efforts have been similarly sucessful.  An example from The Checklist Manifesto was particularly vivid in my mind while watching the movie, a study in which soap was distributed, along with simple instruction on handwashing methods and habits, to impoverished communities.  The results were dramatic.  But those results relied on the cooperation of those participating in the program, and it would be a mistake to assume that their behavior was influenced primarily by the mere availability of soap.  The instruction was also a factor.  But one factor found in follow-up study as to why that program had been more successful than some similar efforts was that the soap used was particularly high quality.  Smelled good, felt good on the hands.  Washing with it was pleasant.

One question for CeaseFire is not just how best to educate about nonviolence, or how to bring social pressure to bear in favor of nonviolence, but how to make nonviolent conflict resolution “smell good”.  (The movie contains some interesting ideas in relation to this question, I think, though it doesn’t address that directly.)

For further reading, see this post on CeaseFire as applied anthropology.  Also related to the topic of violence in Chicago and the source of the title of this post, this blog.

Wednesday
Aug312011

FLY THE PLANE

I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted here, and I still don’t have a full post together.  But I would like to write briefly about a book I read recently, Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto.

In the book, Gawande advocates for the use of checklists as a means of improving outcomes in medicine.  He bases his analysis on three key cases:  The use of coordination checklists to ensure essential communication between the parts of a construction team, the use of “read-do” and “do-confirm” checklists (routine and contingency) in the airline industry (with a particular look at the case of US Airways Flight 1549, the recent “Miracle on the Hudson”), and the design and testing of the World Health Organization’s Safe Surgery Checklist.

The book is a great example of popular nonfiction:  The information is interesting, the narrative is compelling, and the argument is sound.  The tradeoffs involved in the WHO’s design process were also interesting to me as an engineer.  A checklist (in this use) isn’t an algorithm for amateurs, but a tool to help someone who already has a great deal of expertise.  The key is to identify the tasks where a reminder is of greatest benefit; maximize the product of the likelihood that a checklist item will avoid a task being missed by the magnitude of the consequences if it is overlooked.  Extremely high-level goals often end up omitted, since they won’t be forgotten in any case.  On the other hand, sometimes important things are easy to forget in crisis situations; the subject line of this post comes from a checklist for restarting a dead jet engine (the result, one hopes, of some embarassing simulator incidents).  When the tasks themselves are unknown, the key is identifying which communication tasks have the highest probability of identifying serious potential problems before they actually occur, so the risk can be mitagated.

If you’re intersted in medicine or engineering or like reading nonfiction in general, read it.