Saturday, October 22, 2016

Understanding trees

Lab GirlLab Girl by Hope Jahren

This is an odd cocktail of a book made up of three ingredients, shaken or stirred together with varying success.

First, there’s the science: beautifully written, poetic but rigorous explanations of how trees grow and reproduce: like Biology A level taught by Seamus Heaney.

Second, there’s the story of how a child from ice-cold Minnesota made her way in the world, found love and – well, I won’t give it all away.

Then there’s the inside view of academia: how a scientist makes a living; the interplay of hard graft, hard won connections and the large dose of luck needed to wring a stable livelihood from even the most brilliant work.

Put all that together over 300 pages and sample it a little at a time over a week or so and the effect is like hanging out with someone who goes on about different parts of their life in unpredictable ways. There’s no question that Jahren is an interesting companion. But sometimes you just wish she’s tell you more about the trees and less about her lab partner Bill, and sometimes the other way round.

Ah yes, Bill. It’s hard to believe that this truly eccentric character and his peculiar relationship with Jahren isn’t a work of fiction. He starts as a kind of down-and-out, living in a hole in the ground, then in a car. But he’s completely reliable, the ultimate fixer of things that need fixing in a lab. He works night and day and has no other life – living in the lab as a step up from his previous arrangements.

Jahren is devoted to Bill, and, as his employer and only source of material wellbeing, wracked with guilt about him. There seems to be no sexual or romantic side to their relationship. He’s more like a twin, but she is the leader. According to her allegedly verbatim accounts of their conversations, he’s smart and well-informed, canny and wise. Because Jahren is not hugely self-absorbed, the book sometimes seems to be more about Bill than her. If you don’t want to hear about Bill, you won’t like the book.

What makes the book better than the above may sound is the quality of the writing:

In the end, trees die because being alive has simply become too expensive for them. Whenever the sun is up, leaves are working to split water, add atmosphere, and then glue the whole mess into sugar that can be transported down into the stem, where it meets dilute nutrients that were laboriously pulled up by the roots. A plant can bundle all these treasures into new wood and use it to strengthen the trunk or branches. But the tree also has many other demands: replacing old leaves, making medicine against infection, pumping out flowers and seeds – these use the same raw materials, there are never enough to spare, and there is only so far out or down the tree can go in order to search for them. Eventually it will require more nutrients to maintain the branches and roots that do not grow quite far out enough to capture those nutrients. Once it exceeds the limitations of its environment, it loses all. And this is why you must trim a tree periodically in order to preserve it. Because – as Marge Piercy first said – both life and love are like butter and do not keep: they both have to be made fresh every day.

Whether Lab Girl is more than a set of essays, sewn into a quilt at the insistence of a publisher, is another question. But there's no doubting the quality of the ingredients.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Another dispatch from the wild frontier of the tech business

Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up BubbleDisrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyon

Disrupted fits neatly into an entertaining genre of first person accounts of the madness of the tech revolution. Michael Wolff’s Burn Rate (1998) was an early classic, a hilarious account of a dot com startup that failed to deliver the promised riches to Wolff or anyone else involved. Start Up by Jerry Kaplan (1994) and The Leap by Tom Ashbrook (2000) both tell similarly sad tales of startups that are no longer with us. Then there’s Amazonia (2004), James Marcus’ record of Amazon’s messy transition from employing writers like him to deciding that algorithms did a better job. Douglas Edwards’ I’m Feeling Lucky (2011) is set in the bizarre world of Google. And there are more.

The best of these books are written by journalists who were unable to resist the promise of easy money, and, foolishly, it usually turned out, jumped on the tech bandwagon. Things never quite work out as hoped, and, either to exorcise the disappointment or because it’s the only work then on offer, the ex-journo, having left the business, produces a book about life in the crazy world of tech startups.

What makes Dan Lyons’ account special is his extreme cynicism about the company he’s joined from the moment he walks in the door. Indeed Hubspot, as it’s called, does appear to be gripped by its own brand of world class lunacy. The inevitable decoupling between our hero and his techie colleagues is especially bloody.

HubSpot is (still) a Boston-based marketing company. Lyons’ descriptions of it reminded me most of a fictional tech business, The Circle in Dave Eggers’ 2013 book of that name. There are the same armies of eager young people, the same cultish devotion to the company’s ideals and the same grandiose ambitions, somewhere between inspired and unhinged.

I mean, would Eggers have considered this plausible? HubSpot’s co-founder, Dharmesh Shah, brings a teddy bear called Molly to meetings to represent the customer, because in the words of Shah’s manifesto for company culture Hubspot should always be “solving for the customer” (shortened to “SFTC” in the company)? Hence Molly sits there, to remind everyone of the customers. Shah even posts a picture of Molly in her little chair at a meeting on LinkedIn. Lyons is not impressed:

“Here are grown men and women, who I presume are fully sentient adult human beings, and they are sitting in meetings, talking to a teddy bear. And I am working with these people. No: worse! I am working for them.”

Then there’s the company mantra of HEART, the values HubSpot aims to live by: Humble, Effective, Adaptable, Remarkable, Transparent. Everyone gets a mark for each of them from their manager, which as Lyons points out, seems more like just a measure of how much their manager likes them.

All that kind of thing may be silly, but is unlikely to give anyone a nervous breakdown. What might is the way Lyons was ostracised by his colleagues for not being ‘HubSpotty’ enough (the term being a straight imitation of Google’s ‘Googly’). Meanwhile, his bosses switch unpredictably between non-communication, being warm and supportive, and subjecting him to bullying campaigns of nit-picking micromanagement in which, by his account, he was constantly tripped up despite playing along with the demeaning tasks he was set.

The story is a gripping and pacey tale of highs and lows, with some vivid character studies. But Lyons uses them to make bigger points. First, he shows how a narrowly-defined company culture in which people are praised for being ‘a good fit’ can be a proxy for a discriminatory regime. In his case, for example, he claims the culture disadvantaged older workers like him. Lyons called out the co-founder for as good as admitting as much in a published interview.

Second, he puts HubSpot’s IPO - from which, against the odds, he profited modestly - into the context of other tech flotations in today’s bubbly market. He argues that while the venture capitalists and founders get extremely rich, the ordinary workers don’t – at least not as much as they used to. And that the business fundamentals of the likes of HubSpot are not as solid as they should be for a stock market flotation. They are often still not profitable, and may never be. For the market, the only metric that counts is sales growth. But while that may impress share buyers who provide the original investors with a windfall, it’s not a good basis for a long-term bet on a company.

If you’ve been surprised by the book, you’ll be astonished by the epilogue. Serious but unspecified crimes are alleged in connection with some of the people he’s depicted, about his writing the book you’re reading. But far from that making publication a problem, Lyons goes the other way: he gives us the real names of more of his protagonists. It’s a dramatic and disturbing end to the story.

So what did HubSpot say about Lyons’ apparently damaging portrait of its strange (at best) ways? Well, they addressed some of his complaints in a statement on Linkedin. There are a few admissions, including on diversity. But many questions remain unanswered. There’s no comment, for instance, about the extreme treatment to which Lyons was subjected by his manager. Nor of the criminal allegations.

There’s enough in this book to make great film but it would be much darker than The Social Network. Lyons describes his trademark journalistic attitude as “acerbic”. I’d say it ranges from caustic to, occasionally, plain bitter – albeit with apparent good reason.

It remains to be seen whether in years to come Disrupted will be of interest on account of Lyons’ attitudes as an older worker having difficult adapting to the 21st Century workplace, or because of Hubspot’s bizarre but, it turns out, transitory workplace and business practices.

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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Money, class, luck and boredom: Trollope's convincing world

The Small House at Allington (Chronicles of Barsetshire #5)The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope

The Small House at Allington is the fifth of Trollope’s Barsetshire Chronicles series, and is John Major’s favourite novel.

This is a long book: 845 pages in my OUP World’s Classics edition. But Trollope knows how to keep his readers guessing to the end. As in life, things don’t work out as neatly as in musicals.

Indeed, Trollope’s story draws the reader in with its realism. Good characters have their faults and bad ones their virtues. Only on the fringes of the story does Trollope allow himself to skip the nuances. So there are passing references to a Mr Optimist and a Mr Fiasco, minor civil servants. But only a step closer to the main narrative we meet, for instance, a minor character, an official called Mr Butterwell with a convincing hinterland: he “had walked his path in life discreetly. At the age of thirty-five he had married a lady with some little fortune, and now lived a pleasant, easy life in a villa in Putney.”

It is easy to imagine Trollope drawing inspiration from his Post Office colleagues for such details. Similarly, he must have drawn on his knowledge of London for the subtle gradations of status of its various districts. Young Crosbie picks a house for himself and his fiancĂ©e in (the fictional) Princess Royal Crescent, “a very fashionable row of buildings abutting upon the Bayswater Road,” which boasts a view of Hyde Park from one end. The house wasn’t ideal: “the street being unfinished had about it a strong smell of mortar …but nevertheless, it was acknowledged to be quite a correct locality.” And it could have been worse: “we know how vile is the sound of Baker Street, and how absolutely foul to the polite ear is the name of Fitzroy Square.” The bride’s family was paying, so the groom didn’t get his choice, which was Pimlico. That was rejected after the bride had a warning from a friend: “For heaven’s sake, my dear, don’t let him take you anywhere beyond Eccleston Square!”

Equally convincing is Trollope’s meticulous recording of the financial constraints which have such a powerful hold on his characters. Young John Eames starts work in London with a salary of 80 pounds a year plus an allowance of 20 from his mother. At the other end of the spectrum, Plantagenet Palliser receives seven thousand a year from his uncle. As a rough rule of thumb, it feels as though money can be multiplied by a hundred to bring it into today’s world – putting Eames on £10,000 a year and Palliser on £700,000.

The negotiating of jobs, houses and marriages determined people’s lives. If they got it right, they could look forward to decades of security and respectability. But as Trollope shows so vividly with young Lily Dale, a blameless girl of modest means, if you put a step wrong, or are unlucky enough to be treated badly, the consequences are devastating.

Even with apparently good luck, the road to respectability can be tough. A young married couple who hardly know each other are thrown together. If they haven’t the means to entertain or even be entertained (which means arriving and leaving a social event in an expensive carriage), life can be agonisingly dull. Crosbie and his wife, who can’t afford to honeymoon in Paris, discover that six weeks in a hotel in Folkestone, starting in the middle of February, can be quite a test. As Trollope comments drily: “all holiday-making is hard work, but holiday-making with nothing to do is the hardest work of all.”

After Folkestone, life off the Bayswater Road was even more boring for the Crosbies. There was no money to go riding in Hyde Park: “she would tell her husband that she never got out, and would declare, when he offered to walk with her, that she did not care for walking in the streets. ‘I don’t exactly see, then, where you are to walk,’ he once replied.”

Trollope’s virtuosity is not as self-conscious as Dickens’; his set pieces are vivid and engaging but our attention is seldom drawn from the story to the writer. It’s true that Trollope often addresses his reader with a companionable comment on his own work, but it’s never self-dramatising: “of whom else is it necessary that a word or two should be said before I allow the weary pen to fall from my hand?” If Trollope’s social range is a little less spectacular than Dickens’, the ground he covers is rendered with complete solidity. The Small House at Allington feels like a true story, perhaps a little polished in the telling, but true nonetheless. At the end of the book, it’s hard not to wonder how Squire Dale, Eames, Crosbie, Belle and Mrs Dale are doing.

John Major must surely have seen himself as Eames, the hardworking, brave, honourable young man who found himself moving in wealthier circles of higher social standing. Huntington sounds like Allington but it can't be that neat.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Up and down the Wye

I have just discovered that the panorama function on my phone's camera can do up and down as well as left and right.

You don't really get the full benefit of it on a web page. But then the other way isn't much use either:

Of course, you can click on the photograph, which displays it bigger and improves the horizonal one, on a computer screen at least.

But probably, photos that fit the shape of the screen are always going to be more satisfactory...

Friday, July 22, 2016

A strange coincidence of family history

When we got married, my wife and I bought a terraced house in West London, in an area that estate agents like to call Chiswick but is really Acton. It's near Chiswick Park tube station but the neighbourhood had historically been called Acton Green - or, locally, Starch Green, because of the laundries that used to be there.

Acton Green is a small network of residential streets bordering on the much smarter Bedford Park. Bedford was my mother's maiden name. I'd never wondered if there was a connection between Bedford Park and 'my' Bedfords until I started looking into the history of our local area, in search of an ancestor who an old family tree told me had lived in Acton.

I had a idea that this just might be worth investigating when I noticed that there were two streets near us called Fairlawn Avenue and Fairlawn Grove. My mother had told me that Fairlawn was the house name the Bedfords had always used. She had been born in a Fairlawn in Northumberland, and there had been others, before and after.

After visiting the local history section of the Chiswick Library, I was put in contact with a genealogist called Lawrence Duttson, who had spent years looking into the history of Bedford Park, where he lived, and the Bedford family after whom it was named.

One day, before I'd even met him in person, Lawrence posted through our front door, a photocopy of a large Bedford family tree he'd been making. It came with a note, telling me that the tree would "save you years of work".

I unrolled it and discovered that among its most recent entries was my grandfather. Back from him stretched a line of Bedfords, including a John Bedford (1741-1805) who had indulged in some property speculation in the area, building three large houses in 1793, one of which he called Bedford House. When the new garden suburb estate was built around it, starting in 1875, the planners decided to call the neighbourhood Bedford Park.

As well as putting me in touch with Lawrence, the local librarian was able to explain the Fairlawn connection. Those roads were so called because they'd been built on the site of Fairlawn House, the home of John Bedford. The original Fairlawn was pulled down to make way for residential streets, but its name lived on.

By sheer chance, it seemed I'd bought a house within a quarter of a mile of where my ancestors had lived. But that wasn't quite the end of the story.

It turns out that after Fairlawn was pulled down, a new Fairlawn House was built a little to the North of the old one. This house was much closer to our new home.

Here's how the second Fairlawn House is shown in the 1893 Ordnance Survey map of South Acton and Gunnersbury:

Our road had yet to be built, but would appear in parallel with Kingswood, starting in the little gap in the row of houses in Rothschild Road. Here's how it appears on Google Maps today, with our house in red:

So were we living in my ancestor's back yard? Well, it's hard to know exactly what the surroundings of Fairlawn House consisted of, or who owned them. But I'd guess that the answer is, not necessarily, but certainly within a few yards at most.

If you superimpose the two images, with the apparent boundaries of Fairlawn House also in red, here's how close they are:

I don't know who lived in the new Fairlawn, but it seems reasonable to assume they were Bedfords, and that this was the start of the tradition of keeping the house name, even when the family moved house.

Looking at the map, I don't suppose my ancestor would be impressed to see how small my plot of land is compared to his. But I am only one of many of John Bedford's great great great great grandchildren. Collectively, we have probably expanded his empire.

A second edition of the late Lawrence Duttson's book 'Mainly About Bedford Park People' has been completed and published posthumously by his friends. 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Commuting from Barnes

Amazing to be able to cycle through the woods at the end of my commute. This is the ride from Barnes station on a sunny evening. It smells good too.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Smarter than the best brains: IBM builds a new kind of genius

Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know EverythingFinal Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything by Stephen Baker

It’s more than five years since a computer called Watson beat two quiz champs on Jeopardy, the American TV game show. The achievement of that day, witnessed by millions, seems, if anything, more interesting today as developments in artificial intelligence have moved centre-stage.

The spectre of middle-class jobs lost to AI has become part of conventional wisdom. As people spend more and more time exchanging data with distant computer servers, knowing little about what happens between their keystrokes and the results they study onscreen, the systems which control information, whether classified as AI or not, are ever more sophisticated and central to our lives.

The Watson experiment on Jeopardy was both a triumph of scientific and technological research and a kind of homage to the great tradition of computers in the States. Watson was built by IBM’s research team and named after the company founder. Thomas J. Watson and his son, between them, turned the company from a cash register business in Chicago to the epitome of corporate modernity, selling mainframe computers to customers who first had to learn what a computer was.

On a shorter timescale, Watson was the follow-up to another IBM triumph, when its computer Big Blue beat world chess champ Gary Kasparov in 1997. That was an extraordinary feat, but at least chess is a game with a limited number of possible moves – albeit a very large number.

But how could they make a machine that could deal with the natural language used in Jeopardy questions? Especially since the tradition of Jeopardy was to ask witty, punning questions, a bit like crossword clues? To make it more difficult, as a result of the game show scandals of the 1950s, where popular contestants were given the answers to keep them on shows and improve ratings, Jeopardy had been designed to prevent such a possibility by giving the contestant ‘the answer’, and requiring them to formulate the right question.

So that was the challenge IBM’s research team took on, less than four years before the show in which their computer won. It was partly a question of computer speed: even if Watson knew the answer, it had to be able to produce it before the human champions that were its opponents. These winners dealt in split seconds, hitting the buzzer often, apparently, before their conscious minds had an answer. As one put it “you find your thumb pressing the buzzer while the brain races to catch up.”

An early version of the computer was so slow that the programmers would ask it a question and then go to lunch, hoping it might have produced something (usually the wrong answer) by the time they returned.

Stephen Baker, an experienced business and technology journalist, was given privileged access to IBM’s team as they tackled their audacious challenge. The result is a technology thriller, with no shortage of intriguing characters, incidents and, well, jeopardy. The story brings together the East coast world of IBM, and the West coast world of network television – another venerable US institution, harking back to the innocent days when home entertainment meant sitting as a family, choosing between the three networks and a couple of local stations.

Network television, as much as IBM, was on a difficult journey to adapt to the modern world – a world in which TV was one of many choices of screen entertainment beckoning from a variety of devices. To lose Jeopardy’s academic fustiness, its producer Harry Friedman had broadened its agenda. Now, as well as the traditional, fact-based questions, there were many that required a knowledge of pop culture or just ordinary life. When weaved into tricky ‘answers’ by the show’s writers, they made Watson’s life harder. How could a computer possibly get this right?

Answer (question): “Here are the rules: if the soda container stops rotating and faces you, it’s time to pucker up.”
Question (answer): “What is Spin the Bottle?”

Baker’s account gives enough detail to appreciate at least the principles with which the IBM team approached their challenge. For instance, they broke it down into sub-tasks: understanding the question, assembling a massive library of information, creating a list of candidate answers and assigning a level of confidence to each. The latter because a Jeopardy contestant is also required to gamble money on its chance of getting an answer right, and must even take a view on how its opponent will bet.

The story raises the question of how intelligent machines should be presented to human beings. What sort of ‘character’ should Watson be given? After thinking about tones of voice, visual representation and physical form, the team decided to create a screen view of Watson’s brain: activity in the computer would produce a display that showed Watson ‘thinking’. But there would be no attempt to turn the computer into humanoid form, as that might encourage fears of computers taking people’s jobs. It would have a calm male voice and wouldn’t attempt to mimic emotion – triumph, frustration or disappointment. That might produce an unintentionally comic effect. Instead, Watson would remain “relentlessly upbeat”, whatever was going on in the game.

As well as giving IBM some good publicity – and risking the opposite if it had failed – the Watson project had serious business potential. Not only could a Watson-related machine master huge libraries of information, it could also analyse all the online information being produced every second. As Baker puts it:

“A new generation of computers can understand ordinary English, hunt down answers in vast archives of documents, analyse them, and come up with hypotheses. This has the potential to turn entire industries on their heads.”

Medicine might be one of the first fields to benefit, but it won’t just be the limitations of technology that determines how it goes; it will also be human foibles, especially pride. As one doctor put it: “Doctors like the idea of having information available. Where things get more psychologically fraught is when a damned machine tells them what to do.”

The impact of AI is examined in Martin Ford's Rise of the Robots, which I wrote about here

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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Alibaba: Arab myth for Chinese translation of American dream

Alibaba's World: How a Remarkable Chinese Company is Changing the Face of Global BusinessAlibaba's World: How a Remarkable Chinese Company is Changing the Face of Global Business by Porter Erisman

The slogans of most internet tycoons suggest the clean lines and aggressive culture of Silicon Valley: “move fast and break things”, says Zuckerberg; “organise the world’s information” say Page and Brin. But “run as fast as a rabbit but be as patient as a turtle” is different. It’s the advice of an entrepreneur who is indisputably in the same league as the founders of Facebook and Google, though not as well known as them outside of China.

Jack Ma, an English teacher, failed his college entrance exams twice because of his poor maths, but was good at English thanks to having chatted up British and American tourists visiting his native Hangzhou when he was a boy.

He wasn’t a Bill Gates, fascinated by computers from childhood. When he first tried one, he was afraid to touch it because it was “such an expensive thing”. His friends encouraged him and he searched for “beer”. He noticed the search engine results didn’t include Chinese beer. That set him off on a journey that led to the building of Alibaba, a company that had the biggest IPO in history two years ago, being valued at $220 billion – worth more than Amazon and eBay combined.

For some of this extraordinary journey, from 2000 to 2008, a young American, Porter Erisman, was within earshot of Ma, taking notes and shooting video – 200 hours of it, which he later turned into a documentary called Crocodile in the Yangtze. In book form, Erisman’s account is satisfyingly intimate and excuseably affectionate. It doesn’t gloss over the traumas of building Alibaba, but more often than not, turns them into character studies of the formidably determined entrepreneur.

Ma’s epiphany about Chinese opportunities on the internet turned into a startup called China Pages. Free enterprise was hardly a key part of local culture, and Ma soon got sucked into a kind of official version of his idea within a trade ministry. But, as he put it afterwards, while the ministry hoped to control small businesses, he wanted to empower them.

So he started again, this time outside government, with Alibaba – the name suggesting the internet could be an “open sesame” to new business opportunities. Working in China as an entrepreneur, relations with government can never be ignored. Ma’s goal, he says, is staying “in love with the government but not marrying it”.

Before joining Alibaba in 2000, Erisman was working for a US ad agency in Beijing. He was recruited by Ma, on the promise of stock options that Ma said would be worth a million dollars when the company went public three months hence.

That didn’t happen, and the path to the eventual IPO in 2014 was strewn with booby traps and elephant holes, many of which Ma failed to negotiate. There was the small matter of Alibaba’s failure to earn any money, resulting in painful layoffs. There was the fight to the death with eBay in China (ultimately successful). And there was the strange deal with Yahoo! that saw Alibaba turned into a Google lookalike search engine, until it quickly changed back to its original Chinese look, having lost a lot of its audience in the process.

Both Ma and Erisman shrug off the mistakes: “Jack used to joke that if he ever wrote a book about his experience, he would call it Alibaba and the 1,001 Mistakes. From watching Jack in action, I realized that two great traits every entrepreneur should possess are resilience and amnesia.”

Part of the interest of Erisman’s story is in the puzzling out by Ma and his colleagues of which aspects of Silicon Valley business models are internet universals and which are simply expressions of American culture. So, for instance, after that disastrous switch to a Google-style search page, new Alibaba sites, such as the retailer Taoboa, did not to imitate American minimalism. As Erisman puts it:

“Compared to the home pages of Western websites, Taobao’s looks busy, with flashing icons and animated cartoon characters promoting special deals. If clicking through eBay is like a walk down Main Street, USA, clicking through Taobao is like a walk down Shanghai’s busy Nanjing Lu, where sights and sounds bombard the shopper. To Western eyes Taobao’s home page might seem too cute or flashy, even distracting, but it is what Chinese users prefer and expect.”

It is Ma’s ability to learn from the Western internet without compromising his instinct for what will work in the Chinese market that’s key to his success. Today Alibaba is a complex web of interlocking businesses including Tmall, through which overseas brands sell in China, AliExpress, through which Chinese manufacturers sell overseas, AliPay, an online payment and financial services business and even Alibaba Pictures, a movie production company.

Today the Alibaba group has annual revenues of almost $16 billion, with net income of $11 billion. There’s still a way to go before those numbers rival Silicon Valley’s biggest, but the profitability is impressive and Ma is still in a fast-growing market, one that Facebook would dearly love to enter. Erisman says that more than half the packages shipped in China are from deals that originated on Alibaba’s websites. Amazon isn’t close to that in its best markets.

One quality that Ma shares with Western entrepreneurs is persistence. Erisman tells us that one of Ma’s favourite sayings is: “Today is tough, tomorrow is tougher, and the day after tomorrow is beautiful. But most companies die tomorrow evening and can’t see the sunshine on the day after tomorrow.” For a man who has come so far so fast, the day after tomorrow is dawning.

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Thursday, May 12, 2016

Tech change and society: this time it’s different

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless FutureRise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford

People who are interested in the future of technology tend to believe that its impact on jobs and the economy is, and will be, largely benign.

OK, people in ‘disrupted’ industries may suffer: those who work in factories or newspapers or as travel agents. But there’ll be exciting new jobs like Search Engine Optimisers instead. As long as technology oils the wheels of industry, economies will grow and everything will turn out fine.

It’s a convenient view because it means you can sit back and relax, whatever effect technology appears to be having. Amazon may boom while your local bookshop closes. But there are new jobs in Amazon’s ‘Fulfilment Centres’. Isn’t it just snobbery to think they’re not as good as jobs in bookshops?

The theory is getting harder to believe in the light of evidence marshalled by Martin Ford in The Rise of the Robots (2015). Ford has worked in the tech business for decades so he’s not some kind of Luddite – although his conclusions here could easily get him mistaken for that.

Ford forces together economics and technology, acknowledging the conventional wisdom about the replacement of old jobs with new, saying it was once true but ‘this time it’s different’.

Why? Well, it was only true, he says, during a particular era after the Second World War. Technology boosted productivity but wasn’t powerful enough to replace many blue collar jobs. During what Ford calls this “Goldilocks” period, the fruits of increased productivity were shared between business owners, workers and the growing middle class in developed countries.

Everything went well until 1973. But then, somehow, the link between increasing productivity and increasing compensation for workers was broken. Productivity per worker went on rising after 1973 but workers stopped getting better paid. Ford offers a convincing graph to prove it, with the productivity line an unbroken upward trajectory and the compensation line taking an unmistakeable new downward turn since 1973. A worker who earned $767 a week in 1973 would only earn $664 forty years later (with the 1973 figure adjusted to 2013 dollars).

So who is benefitting from those continuing gains in productivity? Predictably enough, it’s the filthy rich. Not only are they getting richer, but as time goes on, the inbalance is increasing: Ford quotes an American study that concluded that “an astonishing 95 percent of total income gains during the years 2009 to 2012 were hoovered up by the wealthiest 1 percent.”

All this could be just circumstantial evidence for blaming technology. Ford’s linking of the two depends on a couple of separate points: first, the richest technology companies today create huge wealth without needing substantial workforces. In real terms, General Motors at its height, in 1979, made 20 per cent less than Google did in 2012. But while Google employs just a few tens of thousand people, General Motors kept more than 800,000 in well-paid jobs. Today, says Ford, it seems unlikely that any profitable new business will be highly labour-intensive.

Second, after factory workers lost out, the much-heralded replacement of middle class jobs with technology is visibly under way. As a result, the spending power of the middle classes is being reduced, and, compounding the effect, the middle-classes may choose to save rather than spend, with a further negative impact on economies.

You need look no further than the IT industry, says Ford, to see what’s happening: where a few years ago there were armies of computer and network specialists servicing the complicated computer systems in every office, those jobs have already disappeared as systems are automated and more data is stored online.

For the users of those computers, the same fate is in store. There’s a Japanese project to write a program to pass the entrance exams into a top university, and thereafter, presumably, to be ready to take on the jobs of university graduates. Already lawyers’ jobs are starting to be automated, with law graduates turned into what seem like little more than pigeons pecking at levers in a 1950s learning experiment:

“Each lawyer sits in front of a monitor where a continuous stream of documents is displayed. Along with the document, there are two buttons: “Relevant” and “Not Relevant.” The law school graduates scan the document on the screen and click the proper button. A new document then appears. They may be expected to categorize up to eighty documents per hour.”

Whatever the particulars of when and how different kinds of jobs are replaced by machines, there’s no mistaking the direction of travel. It’s hard to dispute Ford’s conclusion that the result will be a shifting of wealth towards the owners of businesses, with less and less economic power in the hands of workers. He quotes a study that found that between 1995 and 2002, 22 million factory jobs were lost, but in the same period, manufacturing output actually rose by 30 per cent.

How can civil society survive such an onslaught? How can we avoid a sci-fi nightmare in which “the plutocracy would shut itself away in gated communities or in elite cities, perhaps guarded by autonomous military robots and drones”?

Well, there is way, says Ford. First, it means transferring the burden of taxation from income to capital. Second – and this is the hard one – it means creating a system of universal basic income, or a “citizen’s dividend” as he prefers to call it, in recognition of the fact that the rich have only been able to prosper thanks to the systems put in place by the societies in which they operate.

This isn’t such a radical view any more. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and other philanthropists talk about “giving back to society” the wealth they’ve accumulated, and about the luck of their birth in providing the social structures and opportunities that they exploited.

But would a universal income create a nation of layabouts (the kind of life enjoyed by the fat, lazy deckchaired citizens in WALL-E)? Not necessarily, says Ford: the security it provided could be a stimulus to entrepreneurship, letting people take risks without risking everything.

There’s an urgency about Ford’s message, echoing the conventional of wisdom in tech circles that we tend to overestimate tech changes in the short term, but underestimate them in the long term. The time of overestimating may be coming to an end: it’s not as if variations on this kind of warning haven’t been heard for years. But Ford’s evidence and our own eyes point to a creeping up on us of really radical change. As he says, “the future may arrive long before we are ready.”

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Sunday, April 3, 2016

Home to the more discerning duck

It wasn't a sunny day, and this isn't one of Richmond Park's bigger ponds, but it's my favourite. It's on the road between the Pen Ponds car park and Robin Hood gate. And it's home to some of the park's more discerning ducks. OK, you don't get fed by tourists, and it's next to a small road, but it's a peaceful spot, and just a nice size of pond.

Friday, February 26, 2016

More than you want to know about my greenhouse: a widget from Pinterest

Just testing Pinterest's widget, this one linking to a Pinterest board to do with my other blog, about my new greenhouse. Enjoy the pics, and see if you can be bothered to follow the link to the greenhouse blog.

Follow Charles's board The transparent shed on Pinterest.

If you can't, let me make it easy for you: just click here.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

No wonder Dickens liked Richmond

Dickens' many associations with Richmond are helpfully documented by the town's library. He enjoyed holidays at the Star and Garter Hotel and refers to the Terrace in Pickwick Papers.

Tracey Tupman, having retired to Richmond, "walks constantly on The Terrace during the summer months, with a youthful and jaunty air which has rendered him the admiration of the numerous elderly ladies of single condition, who reside in the vicinity." Today, the Terrace was worth a walk for its famous view even though it's still January.

The rest of the town was looking good too.