Tuesday, 19 July 2016

A tip for the race to the bottom

From the annals of uninspired guesswork. "The human race is probably decades away from creating a robo-tailor" I supposed in January. By May, I wasn't so sure "...if they have a robo-cobbler next year, what might happen to the global garment trade, if a viable robo-tailor comes along the year after that?"

Now we're in July and the Graun is reporting that:
The jobs of nearly 90% of garment and footwear workers in Cambodia and Vietnam are at risk from automated assembly lines – or “sewbots” – according to a new report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

There are 9 million people, mostly young women, dependent upon jobs in textiles, garments, and footwear within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) economic area, which includes Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. These are the workers the ILO identifies as most susceptible to losing their jobs to the new robot workforce.

Sewbots are unlikely to appear in factories in Asia, the report says, but will be installed in destination markets like Europe and the US. It is such a big threat that the ILO urges Asean countries to start planning to diversify to “avoid considerable setbacks in development”.
Moving swiftly on from my miserable failure to cut it as a prophet, or even a pundit, the interesting thing about this story is the on-shoring aspect. The work that corporations in the rich world exported, because poorer people would do it for a relative pittance, may be about to come back. But most of the jobs aren't, because robots will be doing them.

At least the title of one of my posts still stands - "Robots win race to the bottom?"

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Diggers to the rescue!

Who needs boring old Europe, anyway? Now we've got our country back and set the clock back to the jolly old days of empire, the colonies will save us! Look over there, Australia wants a free trade deal!

Britain's new headmistress called the news from Down Under a "very encouraging" demonstration of how leaving the European Union will work out splendidly for Britain.

And I'm sure it will. After all, who wouldn't want to swap a market of 440 million people, located right on Britain's doorstep for one of just 24 million, living almost as far away as it's possible to go without actually leaving the planet? And isn't Australia a dynamic, growing economy? Yes, it is ... sort of:
The national accounts published last Wednesday showed GDP growth of 3.2 per cent over the year to March – the highest since 2012, and among the highest of all ‘developed’ countries.

Those same national accounts, however, revealed that gross national income (GNI) had not moved over the year.

The main reason for the divergence between GDP and GNI is that recent GDP growth has come mainly from commodity exports – iron ore and liquified natural gas – at depressed prices (particularly for iron ore).

As resource companies’ earn income from exports, much of that income goes out again in the form of dividends to foreign investors and payments to foreign suppliers. Also, once these companies are fully operational, the domestic economic benefits of wages and contracts are far less than we had enjoyed in the investment phase.

Such is the cost of our “open for business” dependence on foreign capital to finance a mining boom ...

... The resources boom is over, and any recovery in resource prices will probably be minor. Thermal coal prices are almost certainly in long-term decline, as the world adjusts to climate change, and as less polluting sources of energy are developed...

...Had this foreign capital been directed to long-term wealth creation, our situation would not be so dire. But it has gone to finance extractive industries, with a legacy of holes in the ground, and to finance housing inflation.
"What's that Skippy? The poms are trapped down that big hole they dug themselves? Let's go and rescue them, Skip!"

"What's that now, Skippy? We're trapped in a big hole in the ground, too? Oh jeez, who's going to save us? Hello, is anybody there? Lassie? Flipper? Anybody!?"

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Headline of the day

In another startling turn of events, ex-Shadow Business Secretary Angela Eagle has upped the stakes in her increasingly bizarre bid to become Labour’s next leader, by attempting to take an Austalian child hostage. During a tearful police stand-off, Eagle told surrounding police and journalists that she hoped Jeremy Corbyn was a "reasonable man" and promised that if he just went quietly, nobody needed to get hurt.

In other news, a bird did a thing.

David Cameron (abridged)

I just decided to write a biography of David Cameron, because I think I’d be rather good at it. Here goes:
Asked why he wanted to become prime minister, David Cameron is supposed to have said “Because I think I’d be rather good at it.”*

He went on to accidentally plunge Britain into its biggest existential crisis since World War Two, then walked away, humming a little tune:

"Do doooo, do doo.... Right..."

The End (© Andrew King).
I think that just about covers all the important details. Publishers can contact me via this blog.

*I don't know the original source of this story, but the earliest reference I could find in the minute I spent extensively researching my biography was this, by Leo McKinstry, in the Express.

Headline of the week

Oh Fark.

Monday, 11 July 2016

The Incredibles

It's been in the headlines ever since the vote for Brexit, but I still don't understand the logic behind the Parliamentary Labour Party's coup to unseat Jeremy Corbyn. Suggestions that he's not "relevant" or "credible" keep getting thrown around, but I'm still failing to see what relevance or credibility the plotters from Labour's Old Guard have brought to the party.

Consider the most important issue facing the party and its leader - the economy, stupid. From 2010, the Conservatives' only response to the post-financial crisis slump has been self-defeating austerity with a side-order of promising to be tough on foreigners and tough on the causes of foreigners. The Labour Old Guard could have come up with something more relevant and credible than that, but all they could manage was to promise austerity lite, plus a mug that promised that they, too, would be tough on the causes of foreigners.

It isn't difficult to see why a watered-down copy of a failing strategy failed miserably. It really wouldn't have been that hard to do something different, like explaining why austerity wouldn't and couldn't work under the circumstances. Never mind making an anti-austerity case to people of voting age, they could have explained it to children. Literally:
Why are debts going up if the policy is "cut, cut, cut"?

Now this is something I just couldn't understand why Labour couldn't articulate. It's not difficult. You could kind of explain it to, as the US would say, to a seventh grader, right? Primary seven,* right? You could do this with a primary seven.

So imagine that the economy is composed of two bits. The debt and the economy that pays for the debt, you with me?

Now let's turn that into a sum. We've all done sums, right? So we'll put the debt on the top, we'll call that the numerator and we'll put the economy on the bottom, we'll call that the denominator.

Now let's call it 100 and 100, so you've got a debt to GDP ratio of 100%.

Now let's assume that 40% of the economy's government spending - which would be true for a developed European economy.

Let's say that you're convinced that the only way in a crisis to improve business expectations is to slash the welfare stare. So you cut government spending by 20%.

Now what just happened to your denominator?

It just went to 80.

So what happens now when you've got 100 over 80?

You've got 120% debt to GDP. Now if everybody's sharing a currency and they're all each other's trading partners and they're all simultaneously trying to save, the only result can be a contraction of the denominator and an increase reciprocally in the numerator.

That's what happened. That's what everybody said would happen. And guess what? That's what happened. It's not a shocker.
From Mark Blyth's talk Geographies of Austerity (video below -  it's a long talk, but the section I've quoted starts at 8' 56"):
So, after losing the election, Labour finally woke up, smelled the coffee and elected a leader with a clear, understandable, anti-austerity message. Then Brexit happened, Ukip and the the Tory Brexiteers went back on their pre-referendum promises within 48 hours, and there were resignations and turmoil in the blue and purple ranks. Oh, and look, the Tories just quietly abandoned their plan to eliminate the deficit with austerity (George Osborne would have you believe that he's abandoned his plans to cut his way to surplus because of the post-Brexit crisis, but that makes no sense at all, given that the whole justification for all the austerity since 2010 was that we had to cut because we'd just had a crisis - if this was true, he'd be announcing that we'd have to cut even harder to claw a way out of this new crisis).

Under these circumstances, "Now would be a good moment to start a civil war in the Party" may go down in history as the worst decision in Labour history since that other screw-up Corbyn wasn't responsible for, "Now would be great time to start a war in Iraq."

*A child of 11.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Loathsome concern troll

The spectacle of Andrea Leadsom lying to get votes wasn't that shocking in the wake of our post-truth EU referendum campaign. But her willingness to find an entirely new class of people to scapegoat in pursuit of her political ambitions is genuinely disturbing. Andrea is apparently now running as the Earth Mother candidate for the leadership of The Party Of The Family.

In a novel variant of the "I'm not racist, but..." trope, Andrea has told her electorate that she's got nothing against childless people but, obviously, her childless opponent can't possibly have quite the same stake in the future as she, a parent, does. All animals are equal, but breeding animals are more equal than the others.

Leadsom could do the decent thing and apologise, but she's chosen instead to do the Trump thing. Remember how Trump ended his famous rant about Mexico sending America its criminals, drug-pushers and rapists with those damning-with-faint-praise weasel words "...And some, I assume, are good people"? Leadsom tries to pull the same trick with the childless - after a bit of fake concern for the Mays' inability to start a family ("I am sure she will be really sad" with its vile Trumpian undertone of "sad" as synonym for "loser") she comes out with the exactly the same arse-covering rhetorical trick:
"she possibly has nieces, nephews, lots of people. But I have children who are going to have children who will directly be a part of what happens next. So it really keeps you focussed on what are you really saying, because what it means is you don’t want a downturn but never mind, ten years hence it will all be fine, my children will be starting their lives in that next ten years so I have a real stake in the next year, the next two.”
And when anybody dares to object to her spiteful little digs, the response is pure Trump - she even uses Trump's favourite word, "disgusting" in her attempt to silence journalists who accurately reported what she actually said.

If the rhetoric is nasty, the content is stupid. This excellent post by Maria Farrell on Crooked Timber manages both to put Leadsom's cruel and petty-minded taunts to shame with a measured and dignified response and to neatly demolish Leadsom's "stake in the future" argument as a variation of the fallacy of composition:

Tonight, as the cover of tomorrow’s paper does the rounds of Twitter, Leadsom is getting her denial in early. She didn’t say any of that. Or maybe just some of it. Or maybe it was out of context. She must mean the bit where she said May might have nephews and nieces, but she, Leadsom, has children. And anyway, as Loathsome concern-trolled May, it must be ‘very sad’ for her not to have children. Sorry, Leadsom. Don’t know why that keeps happening.

(And hey, it’s not as if May is a friend to families, not to immigrant and asylum-seeking ones, anyway.)

The direct quotes have Leadsom arguing that having her own children gives her more of a stake in the future. And not just in the next one or two years, but the next ten, even. Astonished though many of us may be that someone who campaigned for Brexit was thinking even two weeks ahead, let alone beyond Christmas, let’s take the assertion on its merits.

Do parents have a bigger stake in a nation’s future?

No, they do not. They have a big stake in their own children’s future, in the vulgar-evolutionist sense of having made a big investment in same, but many of them seem to convert this single – well, on average 1.7 times – play into a strategic desire to set the rules of the game in their offspring’s favour.

Let’s look at education. Middle class parents in the UK agonise over education, intuitively accepting that it is both a positional and excludeable good. (Forgive me, economists, if I’ve mangled your terminology.) It’s not enough that your own child gets a decent education. It’s actually quite important that other people’s children don’t. Otherwise, what is the value of your child’s accent and, ahem, contacts. If you doubt the fact that everyone implicitly accepts this, think about the way people talk about why they send their children to private schools. ‘I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t’. ‘I feel awful about it but I don’t have a choice.’ ‘We just want to give her every chance we can.’
All in all, the nastiest and worst economic argument since Niall Ferguson wilfully misinterpreted Keynes' remark that "In the long run, we are all dead" to imply that as a childless homosexual, Keynes had no stake in the future, when it's quite obvious from the context that Keynes was simply arguing against the notion that markets should just be left to naturally self-correct after recessions (everything might be fine in the long run, but people's live can be ruined if they, personally, are left avoidably poor or jobless in a short run which might last for years without some action to stimulate the economy).

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Blair, Gove and the experts

A few years ago I went to a workplace training session. The the trainer decided to break the ice with a "joke" which started with a rhetorical question. It went like this:
Q: What is an expert?
A: "X" is an unknown factor and a "spurt" is a drip under pressure.
Because the alleged humour depends on sound, not spelling, it sounds better if you say it, but not much. To this day, I have no idea what it was supposed to mean, although I get the general impression that the trainer wasn't very impressed by experts and might have bonded with Michael “I think people in this country have had enough of experts" Gove.
"If you just stop listening to the so-called experts, you can make everything above average. And you really can do that, if you only wish hard enough, children."

If you're unimpressed by such expert-baiting, you might be tempted to quote Isaac Asimov at this point:
Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."
On the whole, I think Asimov's right and Gove's wrong. That should be an end to it, except that, like a stopped clock, Gove is - very occasionally - right. On the whole, knowledge is better than ignorance and expertise beats bodging, but experts are wrong just often enough to give Gove's mainly stupid position a tiny grain of truth.

Take medicine. In most cases it makes complete sense to trust your health and life to a qualified medical professional, rather than to some unqualified person you just happen to know. But you can't guarantee that a nurse or doctor will help, rather than harm you. You might be unlucky enough to end up under an over-tired junior doctor who makes a mistake after working a silly-number-of-hours shift. Very occasionally, doctors turn out to be generally incompetent - some do, after all, get struck off from time to time. In an absolute worst case scenario, you might find yourself in the medical care of the next Harold Shipman. It's still overwhelmingly more sensible to consult a medical expert in the case of any non-trivial illness or injury, but even experts are fallible.

And then you might ask yourself "What is an expert anyway?" To stick with medicine, you could entrust your health and wellbeing to a qualified homeopath. In this case, the problem wouldn't be that your designated expert hadn't learned about the subject, or gained a certain level of competence. A homeopath could be completely up to speed with the theory and practice of homeopathy and still be completely useless because homeopathy itself just doesn't work.

Gove is overwhelmingly wrong - on the whole, you should listen to people who probably know what they're talking about. But he's not completely wrong, which is why you can't just reverse his statement and argue that people should always do as experts advise, because even experts make mistakes and some branches of alleged expertise, like homeopathy, turn out to be sheer bullshit. Which brings me to Mary Beard's thoughtful post on the official Iraq post mortem:
But I simply cannot understand how [Tony Blair] can now be saying what he is saying about Iraq. For me, it just won't do to claim that the 'intelligence' misled the government. There were plenty of people saying loudly that the intelligence was not correct: Hans Blix for one and my local scientists for another. But in any case, it is the government's job to look critically at what MI6 and others say... not simply to take it as read. The idea that many people in the country correctly and for good reason distrusted the intelligence, while the government appears to have taken it on trust, is an indictment of our system and how it draws on expertise. 
"Critically" is the key word here, which is probably why she puts it in italics. If you're a Gove-level idiot, being critical of something means just rejecting it. But what it should mean is using your own judgement and knowlege to evalute it, to see if it fits the facts and seems more or less probable.

There's a horrible irony here - if you take Tony Blair's version of events at face value, you'd end up, like Michael Gove, mistrusting experts, because Blair insists that his intentions were honourable and his judgement was fine, but then he went and listened to experts who got it wrong. But that's not the picture I'm seeing here:
  • Judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction - or WMD - were presented with a certainty that was not justified 
  • Intelligence had "not established beyond doubt" that Saddam Hussein had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons 
  • The Joint Intelligence Committee said Iraq has "continued to produce chemical and biological agents" and there had been "recent production". It said Iraq had the means to deliver chemical and biological weapons. But it did not say that Iraq had continued to produce weapons 
  • Policy on the Iraq invasion was made on the basis of flawed intelligence assessments. It was not challenged, and should have been [my italics]
It looks to me as though expert opinions went unchallenged, except where they contained inconvenient elements of nuance and doubt. This wasn't the experts simply getting it wrong, it was the experts presenting provisional and qualified conclusions, based in incomplete evidence. It was politicians who cherry picked the most sensational bits of the evidence in order to produce a PR campaign for a course of action they'd already decided on. And then shifted the blame onto the experts, because power is never having to say you're sorry.

Image credit

Friday, 1 July 2016

These aren't the drones you're looking for

Just look at this ridiculous flying machine:

The Convair XFY Pogo tail-sitter was an experiment in vertical takeoff and landing. The Pogo had delta wings and three-bladed contra-rotating propellers powered by a ... turboprop engine. It was intended to be a high-performance fighter aircraft capable of operating from small warships.
Which seemed like a good idea at the time (the 1950s).

Unfortunately, "Landing the XFY-1 was difficult, as the pilot had to look over his shoulder while carefully working the throttle to land", so the project came to nothing.

But maybe the Pogo wasn't ridiculous - just ahead of its time.

Because there's a now a Pogo for the 21st Century. Called the TERN (Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node), it does away with the problem of tricky, neck ache-inducing landings by doing away with the neck, along with the rest of the pilot.

The company building the TERN prototype, Northrop, believe that "modern precision relative navigation and other technologies" can handle backwards landings that would overtax a human pilot and, given the sort of stuff we've seen drones doing in recent years, I wouldn't bet against the robot reboot.

No more complicated thrust vectoring or hauling the dead weight of a lift fan through the sky. No more over-complicated, compromised money-pit design abominations like the  F-35. Just thrust going in one fixed direction and you turn the whole ship round depending on whether you're going up, flying horizontally, or coming down.

Bur why the gratuitous Star Wars reference in the title? Well, if this idea works, somebody's going to want one of those stealthy, jet-powered, manta ray-shaped drones to take off and land this way. But a flat, triangular flying wing sitting on its tail isn't a stable shape. Maybe if the wings were split, they could hinge out into a sort of "x" shape for sitting on the ground, take off and landing. Remind you of anything?

Although what I'm picturing here would operate in exactly the opposite way to its fictional counterpart - in the Star Wars universe, the wings are folded flat on the ground and only open out in flight, in order to do whatever the hell they're supposed to be for (apart from making the rebel craft look distinctively different from the baddies' ones).