MonthOctober 2013

New Video by Brad Neely is a Return to Form

The 10 Stealth Trends That Rule the World Today

Interesting. Here are the trends, the full article has more details:

1) Old Trend: Expensive solar, surviving only on subsidies.
New Trend: Cheap solar, disrupting old industries.

2. Old Trend: The Latinization of America.
New Trend: The Asiafication of America.

3. Old Trend: The Chinese population bomb.
New Trend: The Chinese population bust.

4. Old Trend: Soaring U.S. CO2 emissions.
New Trend: Plummeting U.S. CO2 emissions.

5. Old Trend: College is becoming more and more important.
New Trend: College is no more important than before.

6. Old Trend: Americans drive more and more.
New Trend: Americans drive less and less.

7. Old Trend: Skyrocketing health care costs, skyrocketing deficits.
New Trend: Creeping health care costs, creeping deficits.

8. Old Trend: The BRICs are conquering the world.
New Trend: China is the only BRIC in the wall.

9. Old Trend: Active management rules the finance universe.
New Trend: Passive investment rules the finance universe.

10) Old Trend: China is buying up all our debt.
New Trend: China is selling off our debt.

Full Story: The Atlantic: The 10 Stealth Economic Trends That Rule the World Today

(Thanks Tim)

The Alt-Labor Movement: Low-wage workers fight to make bad jobs better

Nicole Aschoff on the “Alt-Labor” movement, such as the Walmart and fast food strikes:

University of Colorado-Denver management professor Wayne Cascio has shown, through a comparison of Walmart/Sam’s Club and Costco, that low wages are not necessary for high profits and productivity. Costco employees average roughly $35, 000 per year ($17 per hour), while Sam’s Club workers average roughly $21, 000 per year ($10 per hour) and Walmart workers earn an average of less than $9 an hour. Costco also provides it workers predictable, full-time work and health benefits. However, contrary to popular assumptions, Costco actually scores higher in relative financial and operating performance than Walmart. Its stores are more profitable and more productive, and its customers and employees are happier.

Costco is not exceptional. Zeynep Ton, of MIT’s Sloan School of Management, has studied retail operations for a decade and argues that “the presumed trade-off between investment in employees and low prices can be broken.” “High-road” employers like Trader Joe’s, Wegmans, and the Container Store have all found ways to make high profits and provide decent jobs. Catherine Ruetschlin’s research shows that a modest wage increase—bumping up the average annual salary of Walmart or Target workers to $25,000—would barely make a dent in big retailers’ bottom line, costing them the equivalent of about 1% of total sales. Even if a company like Walmart passed on half the cost of the increase to customers, the average customer would pay roughly $17 more per year, or about 15 cents per shopping visit. And, considering most low-wage workers spend nearly their entire paycheck on necessities, the industry would see a boost in sales ($4 billion to $5 billion more per year) to its own workers. Fast-food companies are highly profitable. McDonald’s alone saw profits more than double between 2007 and 2011. They could easily send some of these profits downstream to franchise owners and workers.

So why do most big retailers and fast-food chains insist on a bad-jobs or “low road” model? There are a few reasons. MIT’s Ton argues that labor costs are a large, controllable expense, and retailers generally view them as a “cost-driver” rather than a “sales-driver.” Store-level managers are pressured by higher-ups to control labor costs as a percentage of weekly or monthly sales. And because store managers have no control over sales (or merchandise mix, store layout, prices, etc.) they respond to pressure from above by cutting employment or forcing workers to work off-the-clock when sales dip. Another factor is financialization—the increasing dominance of finance in the economy. Firms feel a lot of pressure from Wall Street to be a Walmart and not a Costco. As Gerald Davis has argued, the rise of finance and the dominance of “shareholder value” rhetoric have resulted in an emphasis on short-term profits that register in increased share prices and big CEO bonuses.

Full Story: Dollars and Sense: Low-wage workers fight to make bad jobs better.

(via Metafilter)

This is encouraging, but the possibility of fast food companies switching to “less-costly, automated alternatives like touch-screen ordering and payment devices” is not an idle threat. I’ve seen something like this setup in the food court at the JFK airport. But as I wrote earlier, cultural issues could stop this from becoming widespread — it’s not clear that customers will settle for robots and touch screens over human beings. But I sure wouldn’t rule it out.

Report: 47% of U.S. Jobs At Risk of Being Automated Out of Existence

You’ve probably already seen news stories floating around a couple weeks ago about how 47% of jobs are in danger of being automated. The stories are based on a report that looked at 702 different occupations and ranked them based on how likely they are to be automatable based on advances in machine learning, machine vision and robotics. I took a look through the report and thought I’d share some thoughts.

Caveats Methodology aside, the report only predicts that probability that a job could, eventually, be automated, not that it will be automated. More on that later, but for one thing it means they can’t predict how long it will take for a particular job to be displaced (they suggest it will take a decade or two, and the most automatable jobs will go first), or what percentage of people in a field will be replaced. Also, they don’t talk much about economics of replacement — whether it might be cheaper to pay humans than to buy and maintain robots for some positions. One thing I’m not sure about is whether the 47% is meant to apply to the total number of job types (if so, I’m not sure what the cut-off point is) or if it means 47% of all currently employed people are at risk of being replaced (which I think is what they actually mean).

Automation Winners and Losers According to the report the safest jobs, predictably, are in engineering, health care and creative work. Managers and supervisors are also pretty safe. Journalists are relatively safe, but my old profession — computer support — is in danger. The hardest hit will be the working class. Even skilled workers like plumbers, welders, machinists and truck drivers — the sorts of skilled workers there are reportedly shortages of — are in danger (electricians, however, are relatively safe).

Other Potential Losers It doesn’t address other supply and demand issues. For example, there are more law school graduates now than ever, so although most legal work can’t be automated, it doesn’t make law a “safe” profession. It also doesn’t address the effects of some portion of work becoming automated, thus reducing the number of people needed. To use law as an example again, software tools make the discovery process easier, reducing the number of lawyers and paralegals required to do that task. In journalism, some types of reporting have already been successfully automated. I’ve argued before that most types of writing and reporting will still need to be done by humans, but more sophisticated tools could reduce the total number of journalists required to run a profitable publication. Many types of professionals, including engineers and doctors — could be vulnerable to such disruption as well.

Social and Cultural Factors It also doesn’t address social or political trends that might protect some workers. It’s my understanding — though I could be wrong — that freight trains could operate with far fewer human workers than they do, but the union keeps humans in many roles. Likewise, unions or professional organizations could protect some careers, like taxi drivers and truckers, by pushing for legislation that requires a human operator ride along with self-driving vehicles “just in case.” Some workers, like food servers, bartenders and black jack dealers, may be preserved by cultural norms.

Doom But even if only half the jobs they believe are likely to be automatable are actually automated, that’s still about 23.5% of all types of jobs. That means things will get worse for everyone as A) more people will be competing for the jobs that are left and B) unemployed people will spend less money, reducing the demand for the products and services provided by the non-automated professions. And while the industrial revolution created many new types of jobs to help replace those displaced by machinery, there’s no guarantee that will happen again. Even if it does, it could take years for enough new jobs to emerge to replace the old ones.

Why, Unfortunately, Malcolm Gladwell Matters

Christopher Chabris writes:

What Malcom Gladwell says matters because, whether academics like it or not, he is incredibly influential.

As Gladwell himself might put it: “We tend to think that people who write popular books don’t have much influence. But we are wrong.” Sure, Gladwell has huge sales figures and is said to command big speaking fees, and his TED talks are among the most watched. But James Patterson has huge sales too, and he isn’t driving public opinion or belief. I know Gladwell has influence for multiple reasons. One is that even highly-educated people in leadership positions in academia—a field where I have experience—are sometimes more familiar with and more likely to cite Gladwell’s writings than those of the top scholars in their own fields, even when those top scholars have put their ideas into trade-book form like Gladwell does.

Full Story: Christopher Chabris: Why Malcolm Gladwell Matters (And Why That’s Unfortunate)

(via Boing Boing)

Previously: The SHAME Project’s profile of Gladwell

My thoughts on the Breaking Bad finale (Spoiler Warning!)

Warning: spoilers.

Continue reading

The effect of diminished belief in free will

Tom Stafford wrote:

Psychologists have used this section of the book, or sentences taken from it or inspired by it, to induce feelings of determinism in experimental subjects. A typical study asks people to read and think about a series of sentences such as “Science has demonstrated that free will is an illusion”, or “Like everything else in the universe, all human actions follow from prior events and ultimately can be understood in terms of the movement of molecules”.

The effects on study participants are generally compared with those of other people asked to read sentences that assert the existence of free will, such as “I have feelings of regret when I make bad decisions because I know that ultimately I am responsible for my actions”, or texts on topics unrelated to free will.

And the results are striking. One study reported that participants who had their belief in free will diminished were more likely to cheat in a maths test. In another, US psychologists reported that people who read Crick’s thoughts on free will said they were less likely to help others. […]

This puts an extra burden of responsibility on philosophers, scientists, pundits and journalists who use evidence from psychology or neuroscience experiments to argue that free will is an illusion. We need to be careful about what stories we tell, given what we know about the likely consequences.

Fortunately, the evidence shows that most people have a sense of their individual freedom and responsibility that is resistant to being overturned by neuroscience. Those sentences from Crick’s book claim that most scientists believe free will to be an illusion. My guess is that most scientists would want to define what exactly is meant by free will, and to examine the various versions of free will on offer, before they agree whether it is an illusion or not.

Full Story: Mind Hacks: The effect of diminished belief in free will

Interesting stuff, especially when considered alongside the Milgram experiments, which turned out not to be very sound. It also brings to mind the Kitty Genovese myth. If this effect is real, it is important to be aware of it so that we can try to overide it in ourselves.

Silk Road Round-Up

Black Market Reloaded screenshot

The biggest story of the week biggest tech story of the week (obviously the shutdown is the biggest general interest story of the week) is that the Feds (claim to have) busted Silk Road, the anonymous, Bitcoin driven marketplace for illegal drugs and other wares. Here are some of the most interesting follow-up stories I read this week:

FBI agent Christopher Tarbell busted both LulzSec’s Sabu and Silk Road.

But the guy they arrested claims he’s innocent

One of my favorite takes on Silk Road and its significance, particularly with regards to making the drug trade less violent.

But for better or worse, there are other competitors to Silk Road.

That’s because the Feds busted Silk Road, not Tor.

More about Ross Ulbricht, the man allegedly behind Silk Road.

Electric Schlock: Did Stanley Milgram’s Famous Obedience Experiments Prove Anything?

Peter Barker on Gina Perry’s book Behind the Shock Machine, about the problems with Stanely Milgram’s famous shock experiments:

The wrinkles in Milgram’s research kept revealing themselves. Perhaps most damningly, after Perry tracked down one of Milgram’s research analysts, she found reason to believe that most of his subjects had actually seen through the deception. They knew, in other words, that they were taking part in a low-stakes charade.

Gradually, Perry came to doubt the experiments at a fundamental level. Even if Milgram’s data was solid, it is unclear what, if anything, they prove about obedience. Even if 65 percent of Milgram’s subjects did go to the highest shock voltage, why did 35 percent refuse? Why might a person obey one order but not another? How do people and institutions come to exercise authority in the first place? Perhaps most importantly: How are we to conceptualize the relationship between, for example, a Yale laboratory and a Nazi death camp? Or, in the case of Vietnam, between a one-hour experiment and a multiyear, multifaceted war? On these questions, the Milgram experiments—however suggestive they may appear at first blush—are absolutely useless.

It is likely that no one understood this better than Milgram himself. In his notes and letters, Perry finds ample evidence that, privately, he had significant doubts about his work.

Full Story: Pacific Standard: Electric Schlock: Did Stanley Milgram’s Famous Obedience Experiments Prove Anything?

Feds Raid Silk Road

ulbricht_linkedin-660x278

Kim Zetter reports for Wired:

The FBI has arrested the San Francisco man they say ran Silk Road, the notorious underground digital bazaar that allowed traffickers to anonymously peddle heroin, cocaine and nearly anything else illegal.

Ross William Ulbricht, 29, who allegedly operated the site as “Dread Pirate Roberts,” was charged with narcotics trafficking conspiracy, computer hacking conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy. […]

Hundreds of illicit drugs were available for anyone to purchase on Silk road, from Afghani hash to LSD and ecstasy, though the terms of service did provide some limitations – they prohibited the sale of weapons of mass destruction, the solicitation of murder, or the sale of stolen bank card data or anything else whose purpose was to harm or defraud.

Ulbricht allegedly violated his own rule, however, when earlier this year he allegedly solicited a murder-for-hire of another Silk Road member who was threatening to release the identities of thousands of users of the site, according to the criminal complaint unsealed this morning. Ulbricht hasn’t been charged with conspiracy to commit murder, however.

Full Story: Wired: Feds Arrest Alleged ‘Dread Pirate Roberts,’ the Brain Behind the Silk Road Drug Site

Previously: A Bitcoin-based E-Bay for Illegal Drugs

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