Sunday, January 25, 2015

The myth of tech-economy 'makers'

This short little piece struck a nerve. As a result I'm gonna ramble far and wide here, so get ready....

If you want, ignore the feminist stuff in Debbie Chachra's essay. I did.

First, let me adduce my frequent correspondence with a Tea Party libertarian, John Birch Society dues-paying member, Silent Generation curmudgeon and Hayek-Pinochet admirer, who says that every American without a job because of structural changes in the U.S. economy or globalization should become a barber, plumber, landscaper or carpenter, because Americans will always need such workers, who are generally sole proprietors, independent contractors, or even in the "gray" economy that works on cash and doesn't pay taxes.

True, such professionals are not strictly speaking "makers" or creators in the Silicon Valley sense of the word... but nor are they the great middle of white-collar service professionals, blue-collar service workers, home-care workers, etc. They do something with their hands, they can create "something" out of nothing, albeit with materials available to anybody. (But isn't coding just the same in that respect?) I think that's really what Debbie Chachra is getting at, although she would probably disagree. She would call much of that blue-collar work "repair." Her focus is on service-sector workers who are "caregivers" and nurturers.

She's talking about what our present culture and economy seems to value -- technological savvy. Whereas the Bircher is talking about the everyday needs in our economy that seem (?) to go unfilled. Both acknowledge a labor gap where people who can't write the next great app or create the next great disruptive business model -- the other 99 Percent of us -- actually dwell. Most of us are not adept enough to thrive in the tech culture as such; yet meanwhile, most of us are not trained to take care of our own quotidian needs, and furthermore, use such skills to make a living in the persistent remnants of the "old economy" -- I would call it the "domestic demand economy" -- that still needs hair cut, leaky faucets fixed, ceiling lights wired, etc. 

Indeed, the persistent value of domestic-demand economy workers probably does go overlooked. My old Bircher correspondent, however, goes too far, and unrealistically sees in them a way out for ALL those folks who are not made out for white-collar management or tech-savvy. 

To switch gears: In my home city, there is a business incubator supported by the city and a few large local corporations and donors to support young tech startups, most of them trying to write mobile apps. Most of these apps, from what I've seen, are contingent services. That's what I call them. Maybe you know a better term. I mean apps or Internet-based services that consolidate, or piggy-back on, existing businesses. This is the majority of apps that I've seen. The app makers endeavor to provide a composite, streamlined, user-friendly interface for people looking to do everyday things that they already do, not something new. One hopeful assumption is that people will consume these services more frequently -- or at least more frequently through such new apps -- than they do already. I think that's a foolishly naive assumption. 

For if you think of the Internet as a utility -- as I do -- then it's just pipes. In this case, pipes of information. You can piss down this pipe or that one, a la George Castanza, but you're still pissing the same amount. The Internet isn't going to make you piss more. Maybe somebody's new pipe is nicer, or easier to piss in, so it collects more piss -- but it's still just a pipe. That's how I view most Internet startups. They're trying to channel existing demand. Most are disruptive in the sense that they may rupture existing sales and distribution channels of established players by lowering transaction costs and doing better marketing -- but demand (the amount of piss) in most cases is not increasing, it's just being re-channeled. Do you get me so far?

Now let me contradict myself. The Internet's pipe-makers are hoping that, by making product search and payment so much easier, you actually will piss, er, consume more. In some cases, they may be right. (This is where my metaphor comes up dry; because without additional income to consume more, people must take on debt; and in real life you can't borrow piss. But borrowing to consume more, amid stagnant median incomes, is exactly what Americans have done since the 1970s).

Then I hark back to the structural economy. Consumers have to make more money to consume more, whether they're buying at Internet-based companies or bricks-and-mortar companies. The explosion of knowledge-based companies is not putting more money in consumers' hands to consume more. If you're skeptical of this truth, look here at U.S. per capita disposable income:

This shows that, "Per capita disposable income displays a low level of volatility." It doesn't change much. But even that stat is misleading, since rising U.S. inequality means that rising disposable income of the rich skews the total. The One Percent has more disposable income, not the rest of us.

The point is that average Americans don't have more money to spend; they have less. (And they're still paying down debt from the Great Recession). So any Internet-based business that forecasts rising demand is probably a pipe dream. The most they can hope for, again, is to disrupt existing businesses by lowering transaction costs and re-channeling sales and distribution through their app; meanwhile the good or service being bought through them will still be provided by the same existing business that simply loses a cut of the sales to the app.

You can think of exceptions. For example, Uber or Airbnb. They are creating additional supply/capacity with private-sector contractors. But such companies are a transitory phenomenon. They are skating on the fringes of regulation to provide more capacity at a lower cost. And sooner or later regulation will catch up with them. Because most regulations came about for a reason -- usually to protect consumers, but also employees of suppliers -- and so when enough consumers get cheated and catch on, or enough providers' staff complain, then regulation-skaters' days will be numbered. Regulation simply hasn't caught up to them yet. That's my take.

And so I have just debunked the idea that most tech workers are "makers" -- in fact, most are derivative sellers and consolidators of somebody else's product or service. (Exceptions: behemoths like Google and Amazon; but they are still great market-makers and consolidators). In other words, they may create new marketplaces where goods and services can be bought and sold, but that's all. They are not creating new products or services. Again, there are exceptions but this is the general tendency.  And this makes sense! For all these app-makers and code-writers are not experienced businessmen in their industry; generally they aren't trained to make widgets, drive cabs, run hotels or restaurants or fix roofs -- they have never "created" a product or service before, they just see an opportunity to dismantle an existing marketplace and displace it with a new one: theirs.

This realization puts Chachra's argument in its place. She's right that the knowledge economy is sexier, and gets all kinds of attention, and high salaries for some. But most of these tech startups have a lot to prove, and in the end, provide very little. Indeed, they often succumb to competition from competing "marketplaces" established by tech competitors. Maybe one or two survives, and it has little to do with tech, and more to do with first-mover advantages, marketing, and hard-nosed negotiating with existing suppliers. And what are consumers left with? One or a few new marketplaces to replace the old ones; and consumers still have the same amount of money in their pockets to spend. 

By Debbie Chachra
January 23, 2015 | The Atlantic

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Taibbi: 'American Sniper' too dumb to criticize

No comment here except to kind of echo Michael Moore's comment... At least in my youth we had movie war "heroes" like Stallone and Schwarzenegger who actually got their hands dirty and (sort of) risked death, as opposed to a covered sniper on a roof shooting women and children. 

Sean Hannity went nuts over this movie before it was even released, which instantly made me suspicious. I haven't seen it yet but feel like I have. 

By Matt Taibbi
January 21, 2015 | Rolling Stone

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Bill Maher is wrong about Muslims

For the record, Bill Maher is wrong. And he probably knows it. He's right that all religions are irrational and most of their sacred texts espouse violence and outdated morality.

Where he's wrong is the liberal response. The liberal response to radical Muslims should be the same as what it has been to radical Christians from the days of the Ku Klux Klan onward: condemn the criminals, not the religion. 

Because religion is like human nature. We can ascribe everything bad we do to "human nature." But then there are all the good things we do, like love and charity, that are also human nature. It's the same with religion: the Inquisition and the Sistine Chapel coexisting.

Maher knows that the United States is not really going to single out Muslims for discriminatory treatment, second-class citizenship or the like. That's not who we are. But he wants media attention and maybe enough liberals to say, "Yeah, maybe you're right, maybe these guys are nothing like us."  False enemies like this are like jackalopes inserted to mock the American pageant. 

Remember: 12 million Muslims live in America. Twelve million! 

The "liberal" Maher is wrong that Muslims are not like us just like conservatives are wrong that blacks or Hispanics are not like us. Who is "us" anyway? Guys that look like Bill Maher? Or maybe Mike Huckabee? People that think like Ted Cruz? Or Bernie Sanders?  

By Travis Gettys
January 9, 2014 | Raw Story 

Friday, January 9, 2015

A recent history of terrorist killers...

A conservative equivalent of what Bill Maher decries among Muslims is when right-wing Christians blow up abortion clinics, shoot abortion doctors, or law enforcement officers. 

The attackers against Charlie Hebdo killed 12 people, including a Muslim policeman. 

How many Americans remember the Atlanta Centennial Park anti-government bomber Eric Rudolph who in 1996 killed two people and wounded 112 others? Or Wade Michael Page's murder of six Sikhs in Wisconsin in 2012? Or Jim David Adkisson who killed two and wounded seven others in 2008? Or the guy who flew a plane into the IRS in 2010 and killed himself and one other? Or the Army of God that murdered two people? Or Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people, mostly children, in Norway with an anti-Muslim motivation? And do I really need to mention Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who murdered 168 Americans and injured over 600 others? 

I'm not recounting recent U.S. history to excuse inexcusable crimes somewhere overseas; I'm just reminding you that crazy people do crazy things, and often for reasons that "upstanding" people would generally sympathize with.

So the response is not to demonize all Arabs or Muslims, or all conservative Christians for that matter, but rather to demonize the alleged murderers, their ideology, and anybody who likewise espouses terror and/or violence against innocents as a means to a political end.

By Travis Gettys
January 9, 2015 | Raw Story

Taibbi: MSM hypocrisy on Charlie Hebdo? 'Je ne suis pas Charlie!'

I'm gonna have to go ahead and kind of disagree with Taibbi on this oneAnd I'm gonna do it, first, by describing a Charlie Hebdo cartoon, not showing it to you, which is what annoys Taibbi in the first place:

So, imagine a cartoonish "congo" line of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost (the latter depicted, quite humorously, I admit, as a Triangle with an All-Seeing Eye in it, a la the U.S. dollar), in that order, each sodomizing the one in front of Him. The cartoon was supposed to lampoon, I suppose, those Christians who were opposed to gay marriage.

Besides that, Charlie Hebdo seems fond of depicting Arabs as big-nosed, towel-headed oafs and Jews as, well, pretty much the same, except with black hats and squiggly sideburns.  And black people as monkeys. This goes to show, says the lib'rul media, that CH are equal-opportunity offenders. Which not only gets them off the hook, but somehow exalts them. ... Wait, what?

My cultural bona fides: I am not a reverent person; and I possess an above-average sense of humor, even a love of dark and inappropriate jokes. But this stuff just isn't that funny. Still I doubt myself, because of cultural differences. Is it just me? Because all I keep hearing is how much of an institution this caricature magazine is in France; how it represents a quintessentially French irreverence that cuts across the political spectrum, class, education and age groups. It would be as if -- don't laugh! -- Mad Magazine were on every American's night stand. 

OK, if that's really the case, then I call a no-call. A truce. I won't judge Charlie Hebdo out of ignorance. But I'm certainly not going to say, "Je Suis Charlie." Because I'm not. I don't get it. Je ne comprends pas! I don't get this irreverent brand of 14-year-old fart and dick humor that is, the media assures me, in fact very clever, and very French. 

The medieval forebears of Charlie Hebdo?

And now on to Taibbi's main argument, that the Western press were hypocritical pussies for not publishing some offending Charlie Hebdo cartoons for their readers to give them a flavor of what they publish.

First, it's important to note: We don't know exactly which cartoons offended the alleged terrorist murderers. That's not a small detail. Were western editors supposed to select and publish a bunch (and how many?) of anti-Muslim or -Arab cartoons to, like, give their readers context

Second, related to that, the story here is not Charlie Hebdo's cartoons. If that were a story worthy of the Western press, we would have heard about them already. The story is how alleged Arab-Muslim terrorists allegedly murdered Charlie Hebdo staff and an Arab-Muslim police guard.  

Third, Taibbi cries "hypocrisy" and "double standard" that some U.S. papers once published (and have maintained in their archives) photos of the offensive-to-Christians Piss Christ art installation, but not any anti-Muslim Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Taibbi's assumed reasoning being, the media isn't afraid to piss off prudish Christians, (and probably enjoys it, too), but it is scared to offend scary hard-line Muslims who might shoot them.

So here's the difference: Piss Christ was a legitimate national news story; and whatever some obscure French caricature magazine published one week (certainly more of the same) is not. (I've seen similar cartoons in British lads mags -- NYT, get the republishing rights, and don't skip the tits!)  Back to point #2. The story is not the cartoons, it's the murders.

Fourth, in this age of the Internet, does Taibbi actually think that readers of the New York Times really can't find, in about 2 seconds, examples of Charlie Hebdo cartoons if they really want to? This isn't 1975 anymore, when the NYT and Washington Post held the keys to the nation's information. The NYT Ed's. simply decided they weren't going to be one of the ones to show us this stuff. Is that really so cowardly and hypocritical?   

Finally, I just don't agree that these cartoons are striking a blow against terrorism, or for freedom. Yes, Charlie Hebdo enjoys the right, the freedom to publish their puerile French fart humor... But an Aegis missile in the heart of global Islamism Charlie Hebdo is not. It's just not. I'm sorry.

On a personal note, even though he's wrong this time, it's good to see Taibbi back where he belongs, at Rolling Stone, after playing at media start-ups with dickhead billionaires.

UPDATE: Here's an op-ed saying much the same thing: "#JeSuisCharlie? No, I'm Really Not Charlie Hebdo--And Here's Why."  

By Matt Taibbi
January 8, 2015 | Rolling Stone

Thursday, January 1, 2015

'Murphy's law' and Walmart toddler shooting

I guess this is my first post of 2015, from CNN:

The toddler was able to unzip the pocket and grab the gun -- without being noticed. He was also able to grip the gun and exert sufficient force to fire, at least three rounds...

'Murphy's law just came into play today in so many ways and there are irreversible consequences for that'...

Murphy's law, my ass!

This just goes to show, once again, that carrying guns around is inherently unsafe. Because a gun, when used as intended, hurts or kills people. 

So now this two-year-old kid is fated to grow up with all kinds of guilt and remorse that he will struggle with and probably never comes to grips with because, let's face it, HIS MOM WAS A F---ING IDIOT. (UPDATE: A nuclear scientist idiot). And apparently her relatives are idiots, too.

Call me a cynical liberal SOB, but I don't feel sorry for her. But indeed I do feel sorry for her son and her other family members who witnessed her shooting death in... Walmart of all the godforsaken places. 

What's it gonna take to shake the belief out of the right-wing gun nuts? I mean, what possible metaphysical event would have to happen to make them change their minds? Can you even imagine what would be horrible enough?

I'm sure this won't do it. It would have to be... oh... I don't know anymore. A school filled with bullet-ridden children hasn't done it... a few times. Certainly this won't.  

I try to retain my liberal optimism and faith in people, but... I just don't see what it's gonna take. These people are blinded, fully, and to their own detriment. And self-inflicted pain is not a factor. They just chalk it up to God or fate, the morons, and keep on keepin' on.

I'm at a loss for words.