Supersonic Man

January 22, 2017

Trump’s inauguration crowd is yuge

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 5:50 am

​From one perspective, it’s hilarious: Trump has taken time off of his twitter feuds to engage in a ridiculously juvenile dick-measuring contest over who had the bigger crowd in DC, his supporters or the protestors.  And he sends out this Sean Spicer character to make absurdly transparent lies about it, in order to back this up.  As (presumably) a professional media guy, Spicer has got to be pretty deeply embarrassed about hitching his national reputation to such a transparent fib, but Trump has him doing it anyway (albeit fleeing the podium as soon as possible afterward).  This is not only some good late-night-comic fodder, it’s also an open invitation for the straight news media to directly call out your administration as liars, despite their normally great reluctance to depart from “neutrality” whenever there is disagreement about facts.

But there’s another way to look at this, which isn’t so funny.  In a nation with a free press, this kind of attempt to transparently invent your own fake facts is laughable… but in countries where the press is not free, it’s routine.  This is exactly how news reporting is treated in totalitarian countries where the media are captive to the state.  In those circumstances, the big lie is the only story the public gets to hear, and if the truth gets to them, it’s only in the form of rumor and anecdote, which might be just as untrustworthy when it comes to pinning down solid facts.

What makes this sobering is Trump’s continual attacking and denigration of the news media.  He very much wants his supporters to distrust them, but even more, he wants them to stop reporting facts which contradict his stories.  Why all the attacks?  Because he wants his supporters to demand change, to shout down stories they don’t like — to pressure the media into compliance with his will.  Consciously or not, what he is pushing for is an end to the free press.  To him, a free press is the enemy.  He will never stop attacking them, so long as they report news that they discover through their own lying eyes and ears, rather than the official truth of Trump.

Trump is not just making this attack out of ego or spite — he is betting his presidency on it.  As long as the press remains free, Trump is a clown.  As soon as it’s not, everything he’s doing starts to work exactly as he intends it to, and he can rule as strongly as he wishes.

Trump is governing in a style which can only work when the press is not free.

December 19, 2016

red country vs blue city

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 10:11 am

Anyone who’s studied election maps has seen that when you look at which areas voted conservative and which voted liberal, it isn’t a matter of “red states” vs “blue states”, it’s a matter of urban areas vs rural areas.  The cities in red states are blue, and the countryside in blue states is red.  The balance of the state as a whole largely comes down to how urbanized it is (though the racial composition of rural areas can also be a factor).

countymappurple512

So what is it about city and country that correlates with liberal and conservative views?  I think there is one factor which explains most of the difference.  It comes down to investment.

(more…)

December 1, 2016

conservatives face a test

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 1:41 pm

There are several types of conservatism in the United States.  They differ in what sorts of principles and values they consider to be the moral basis of conservatism.

The first branch to consider is small-government conservatism.  This includes libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, and other ideologies favorable to laissez-faire free market policies.  The underlying values and principles have to do with liberty, individualism, responsibility, and self-reliance.  They judge people as friends or enemies depending on how willing they are to impose rules on each other.  When this philosophy reaches a toxic extreme, you get philosophies like objectivism, in which caring for other people is anathema.  But the mainstream of this type of conservatism is the most common one you will usually find in intellectual discourse: it has a rich body of abstract philosophy supporting it, and often attracts highly intelligent people.  But I don’t think it’s a majority among American conservatives.

How compatible is this type of conservatism with the rhetoric of Donald Trump?  Not very.  He tends to easily mix hands-off ideas in one area with interventionist ones in the next. (more…)

November 6, 2016

the obsolescence of labor

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,the future!,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 5:29 am

A few years ago I wrote about how artificial intelligence is going to make it impossible to plan any long-term career because there’s no safe way to pick a job skill that won’t become obsolete.  A few weeks ago I wrote about how Trump took over the Republican party, and may end up leaving it in ruins.  These two topics may not seem related, but they are.  They’re both about the value of labor.

Three days before the election, I was in an argument with a left wing Trump supporter — yes, they exist — and we disagreed about many things, such as whether Trump is a racist, but we totally agreed that the major split in this election — at least among swing voters — is about class.  Hillary represents white collar voters and Trump represents blue collar workers.  We agreed that the interests of the latter are largely unrepresented by either political party nowadays.  But I’m not here today to write about electoral politics.  Today I’m taking a much longer term view.

It may seem odd to refer to people as being in different classes just because they have different kinds of jobs.  This is not the proletariat vs the bourgeoisie anymore.  White collar workers are in many ways in the same position as blue collar ones: often stuck in jobs with little prospect for advancement, working for employers who view them as disposable, facing an uncertain and unstable financial future, and sometimes having to meekly submit to demeaning crap for fear of the consequences if they protest.  Both are often seeing their prospects of having as good a life as their parents had dwindle away.  The overall experience of working for a living is similar, and you’d think the two groups would have a lot more common ground than differences.  But despite that, the classes are quite distinct in practice, with some dramatic differences in culture and values.

The main influence on this differing outlook is probably college education.  But just as important is the attitude toward learning and intellectualism that one grew up with.  I personally never attended a real college, and spent a fairly large part of my working life doing the kind of semiskilled outdoor work that needs no such education.  Nevertheless, culturally I am 100℅ a member of the white collar class, because of how I grew up.  Similarly, there are those who can be educated yet remain members of the blue collar class.  (The guy I was arguing with has also lived both sides: he does have a degree, but due to personal issues is now stuck in the crappiest of jobs.)

Politically, the first obvious thing you notice about blue collar America nowadays is how angry it has become, and how under the anger it’s not hard to find despair.  And it’s very clear why that is: for the last fifty years, their economic condition has gotten steadily weaker, until nowadays many of them are being ground into outright poverty.  Though exacerbated by many factors, such as union-busting and trickle-down tax policies, and all the other regressive abuses that come from special interest corruption, the inexorable underlying force is one that I am not hearing people discuss: that increasing mechanization and automation are steadily reducing the economic value of their labor.

Though ruling classes and employers throughout history have usually been quite good at keeping workers in line so their work can be had cheaply, for most of history the real value of that labor was high — it was essential and there was no substitute for it.  This is why labor unions were able to succeed, once they finally got organized.  (One further distinction between the blue collar and white collar classes is how the latter never managed to organize this way.)  Early mechanization reduced the value of the crudest forms of muscular labor, but balanced that by increasing the economic output of other kinds.  Automation and basic computerization continued that trend, trading worthlessness in some skill areas for higher productivity in others.  This tradeoff mostly works fine, as long as human hands remain essential to the overall process.

But every time we make such a trade, the skills required by the human worker get a little more difficult and demanding, and move a little bit more into the realm of specialists and experts, away from the range of tasks that an ordinary person can learn to do in reasonable time.  And this means that at each step, there are a few more people who no longer have any good path to learning an economically valuable skill.  The more skill we require, the larger the percentage of people who fall short in some way, and who therefore have economic value only to the degree that they can work more cheaply than what it would cost to automate their jobs — a cost which keeps moving downward.

As automation advances and begins to approach artificial intelligence, it becomes less and less an essential necessity to include human work.  A little more every year, employing human beings becomes an optional choice for soneone developing a business.  Human labor, which used to be (despite how poorly it might be paid) an absolute requirement for production, is now useful but not always mandatory.  As Bill Maher said to Trump voters, the worker who’s going to take your job isn’t growing up in China or Mexico, it’s being built in Palo Alto.  Quite a few of those Chinese and Mexican workers are themselves in the situation I mentioned, of being employed only while their cost stays below that of automation to replace them.  Protectionist measures to block overseas competition will not stop the ongoing erosion — it will at best just delay it.

That is a big part of why rural and blue collar America feels desperate enough to elect a Trump, above and beyond shorter term abuses from the likes of Wall Street pirates and crooked lobbyists and anti-union ideologues: because their labor is losing its value.  They have to compete with workers poorer than themselves, who in turn have to compete with robots, which get more capable every year.

And to the extent that members of the blue collar and white collar classes think about this problem, they tacitly agree on one thing: they see it as a blue collar issue.  For semiskilled workers, the loss of labor value is an immediate personal threat, but in the white collar world it’s usually seen as at most a distant tragedy, like a famine on the far side of the world.

Most people who consider this issue do so with a strong unstated assumption: that there’s a separation between jobs vulnerable to automation — essentially, those that involve manual tasks — and those that are generally safe, which depend on verbal or intellectual skills.  In other words, they are assuming that some jobs are too difficult and subtle to mechanize  — that there is an upper limit on the level of complexity, skill, and human judgment which can be automated.

I am here today to tell my readers, particularly those in the white collar class, a single awful truth: there is no such upper limit.  We are limited in how much we can automate so far, but there is nothing to stop that limit from continuing to rise beyond anything we can imagine today.  The falling value of labor is not a blue collar issue — before the robots finish taking over the blue collar jobs, they’re going to start in on the white collar jobs, including mine.  Once AI starts to develop seriously, there is not a single white-collar job anywhere, from customer service to CEO, which will be immune from automation.  All human labor is losing its economic value.  Some types are losing it quickly and others much more slowly, but it’s disappearing for everyone in the end.  Each of us has abilities of which we can say “I can _____ better than any machine”, but the list gets shorter and shorter, until it’s down to skills no one pays money for.

We have built our whole way of life around trading labor for sustenance.  We are approaching a time when such trades will no longer function.  Society will need a new basis.  When the goods we depend on remain abundant, but job skills no longer suffice to buy a share of them, we’ll need to start allocating the necessities of life in some other way.

And that means we face a tremendous choice.  We are coming to a time when we’ll be redesigning our whole way of life, and as yet we have no way to know what the available options will even be.  We’ll have to get creative and think them up, once we see what we’ve got.  We can’t really preplan it now — we know too little in advance.

Of course, for a long time the most popular answer will be to try to cling to the old way.  Free-market believers will be especially insistent.  But as the erosion continues, taking away the economic value not just of particular job skills, but of human work in general, free-market thinking would demand that those with little or no economic value should receive little or no economic benefit.  And as that group becomes an increasing majority of the population, the only endpoint such a path can have would be for the whole species to be reduced to poverty and slavery, accepting scraps from an ever-shrinking class of privileged owners, until finally the owners themselves are replaced, because there is no need for human beings to fill their roles either.  Such a course would be suicide, and we will not follow it, no matter how many ideologues might insist (as long as they have not yet succumbed themselves) that we have to.  We can and will choose a better path — any path we like.

My pro-Trump acquaintance fully expects this dire capitalist outcome if labor in general is lost to automation, opining that “the idea of a leisure society is bullshit”.  But I say that it (or some similarly implausible new way of life) can happen, simply because it must.  This doomed type of capitalism will end.  What will replace it, no one can yet say.

What I can say, today, is that if letting insufficiently valuable workers starve is going to be wrong then, it’s also wrong now.  In addition to the clear need to support fairer wages and more financial security for those who are working today (instead of our current policy of seeing how much we can fatten up Wall Street speculators before they burst), we also need to start thinking of options for supporting some kind of decent and dignified path of life for those among us who have limited employability.  And we need those ideas now, not in another generation.  The severe economic shock of mass unemployability may be decades away, but the pain it will bring has already begun.

What you are willing to do for your impoverished fellow citizens today, you will quite literally be doing for yourself later.

October 13, 2016

a pre-post-mortem of the 2016 Republican debacle

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,the future!,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 3:07 pm

It is now 24 days before the 2016 election, and the Democrats seem very likely to have a solid victory, retaining the Presidency and gaining a number of House and Senate seats.  Their popular vote advantage is expected to be around six percentage points, according to current polling aggregates… but there are now hints and rumors and suspicions which suggest a much broader and more lopsided victory than that could be coming.  Trump’s support is continuing to erode, and in early voting, Republican enthusiasm seems low.

[Post-election update: yeah, I look like an idiot now.  But I think most of what I wrote below remains valid.]

If that does happen, it’s traditional for the punditry, and the parties themselves, to do a post-mortem to try to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.  I figure I’ll just do it ahead of time.

So, what is to blame for the crushing defeat that the Republican Party just experienced (hypothetically) in the 2016 election?

(more…)

September 9, 2016

Star Trek: 1966–2005

Filed under: fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry,Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 3:43 pm

Star Trek has now been an important and inspiring part of our culture over a span of fifty years.  But it’s done.  It is now time to let the shambling corpse have its rest. (more…)

August 6, 2016

pseudo-documentation

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 8:09 am

In my occupation as a coder, I have to read a lot of technical documentation in order to use existing software components.  And sometimes that documentation can be frustratingly incomplete or unavailable, but to me the worst situation to encounter is what I call pseudo-documentation.  It’s abundant out there.

I will give you a little example of what that’s like.  Let’s say you just encountered a line of code like this:

myThingy.FrabnicateZinxer(Zinxer.Load("arf"));

You have no idea what this does, so you look it up, and this is what you find:

Thingy.FrabnicateZinxer

Frabnicates a Zinxer for an instance of Thingy. If successful, the Zinxer will become frabnicated for this Thingy. If the Zinxer was already frabnicated for another Thingy, the new Thingy will be placed first in the frabnication order of the Zinxer. If it is already frabnicated for this Thingy, no change takes place.

Signature:
public void FrabnicateZinxer(Zinxer zinxerToFrabnicate);

Parameters:
zinxerToFrabnicate – the Zinxer which is to be frabnicated for this Thingy.

Return value:
none

Exceptions:
NullParameterException – a null value was passed as zinxerToFrabnicate.
InvalidOperationException – the Zinxer passed as zinxerToFrabnicate is in a nonfrabnicable state.

Example:
Thingy thingy = new Thingy();
Zinxer zinxer = Zinxer.Load("brb");
thingy.FranbicateZinxer(zinxer);

See also:
Zinxer class
Thingy class

 
. . . You see what the problem is?  The documentation covers all aspects of what needs to be available in reference material, but you learn nothing by reading it.  It labels the parts but says nothing about what they actually do.  All it tells you is what you had already assumed just from seeing the name — that some unknown thing undergoes some unknown process.  The only new knowledge you come away with is maddening hints of ways it might go wrong, none of which have any explanatory context.

There are many outfits which produce crap like this, but Microsoft may be the worst.  Their tech writers don’t seem to have any supervision by anyone who checks the quality of the work.  Even when they’re writing at length in tutorial or instructional form, the result is often full of gaps and omissions where crucial pieces of context are missing, not to mention inconsistencies which undermine your chances of piecing together anything definite.

May 21, 2016

a suggestion I intend to send to my legislators

Filed under: fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry,life,Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 12:28 pm

Senator Lois Wolk, Assemblymember Bill Dodd, Senate candidate Mariko Yamada, Assembly candidate Dan Wolk, and Assembly candidate Don Saylor,

Are you tired of dealing with pennies? I sure am. They take time and effort out of one’s day even if all you want to do is get rid of them. I don’t think any other economy keeps such a worthless coin in circulation — in Mexico, for instance, you never see anything smaller than a half peso. The US Treasury has been considering eliminating the penny from our coinage for twenty years, but hasn’t been able to move forward due to pointless obstructionism from assorted directions.

But fortunately, we don’t have to wait for the federal government to act. We can solve the problem right here in California. We can make it so people can use pennies if they want to, but nobody will need to. How can we do this? With a minor adjustment of the sales tax code.

All we have to do is make a rule that when buying retail at a location which accepts cash, the tax amount is rounded up or down by a cent or two, so that the total purchase price including tax is always a multiple of five cents. Note that this applies to noncash purchases as well, as long as they’re made at cash registers, so the amount remains consistent. But it would not apply to mail order purchases as they don’t offer a cash option. This means that we would not burden merchants in other states with adjusting to any new complexity.

The result would be that nobody who pays cash would need to either bring pennies, or receive them as change. People would become accustomed to nickel prices and before long, merchants might get into the habit of advertising nickel prices also. The other states would envy our penniless lifestyle and start copying us, and eventually the Treasury will stop minting pennies. And California will once again be seen as taking a leadership role.

But before that, we need someone to lead this idea in Sacramento. I’m hoping that among you, the legislators and candidates to represent me in Napa County, are the ones to do so.

I hope that this change can be accomplished by simple legislation, without requiring a ballot measure. If one is needed, I am confident that would pass, without requiring any substantial campaign effort.

Thank you for your attention, and I hope this idea appeals to you.

May 18, 2016

what we need in a president

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 1:44 pm

When we’re electing a president, the quality we need to look for is not experience or knowledge.  It’s not intelligence or education.  It’s not imagination or vision.  It’s not inflexible ideology or even steadfast ideals.  It certainly isn’t friendliness or folksiness or personal charm.

What we need from a president is wisdom.  The choices a president faces are often ones where an unwise decision can have calamitous consequences. What is needed above all else is good judgment in considering all the consequences of each major choice, and in discerning good reasons for action from bad ones.

This is why candidates always have to exaggerate their religious faith: because many voters believe religion to be a source of wisdom.

And this is why most voters dread the prospect of an egotistical blowhard in the White House: because we know that such a person is unlikely to act wisely.  But it’s also why an egotistical blowhard is winning the nomination: because the other candidates have tied themselves to continuing a whole range of policies which have been shown by their consequences to have been very unwise, thereby negating the advantages that should have been theirs by virtue of knowledge and experience.  The untried blowhard has a chance, at least, of turning out to be wiser than they were.

And it’s why the blowhard might even win: because the presumptive opponent, despite having every other quality a president ought to possess, has in the past supported many of those same dreadfully unwise policies.  Repudiating those bad choices today fails to reassure us, because the doubts are not about what side a candidate is on, but about how wisely the candidate would make the next difficult decision.

April 29, 2016

the meaning of money

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 2:33 pm

“Money’s only paper, only ink”, sang Tracy Chapman.  She’s one of a long line of people who view money as something that has no true value and no true meaning, which we fool ourselves into thinking means everything.  These people have a valuable point to make about the importance of keeping money in proper perspective, and the enrichment one can find by seeking detachment from the pursuit of money… but the idea that money is inherently without meaning or value is one I can’t agree with.  Money means something very important.

Economists call it a store of value.  What is “value”?  We can’t just define it as that which makes people willing to pay money for something.  Where does it come from?

One possible answer is scarcity.  But when a rare natural resource is found in the wild, it doesn’t yet have any value; only when someone fetches it back to civilization and sells it does it become valuable.  And most sources of value don’t come from scarcity.  There is certainly nothing scarce about potatoes or vegetable oil, yet people pay an awful lot over the course of a year to keep themselves supplied with french fries, with little of that payment going to the farmers who produce the ingredients.  More tellingly, people are perfectly capable of making their own french fries at home, yet most would rather pay someone else to make them.

We can now see that most of what people pay for, when they buy something, is not any kind of scarce material, but for the work it takes to make something ready to use from that material.  Rough gemstones might be rare and expensive, but they’re not nearly as expensive as the jewelry made from them is.

If you want a one word answer to what “value” is… it’s labor.  That ephemeral abstract quantity which is stored and made fungible by money is actually something very concrete: it’s the work that people do every day — the sweat and skill that we put into our jobs.  When you pay money for something, what you’re doing is claiming the fruits of someone else’s work.  The magic of money is that, by storing “value” over an indefinite period, it lets the work be accomplished without needing to find out first who it is that wants the work done.  The labor and the benefit from it are uncoupled in time.

What does it really mean to be wealthy?  If you’re rich, it means that a disproportionate number of people spend their time and effort working for you instead of for themselves or each other.  They labor to satisfy your whims, and you have no need to perform any further labor of your own to benefit them.

This gives us a new way to look at people’s dreams of easy money and get-rick-quick schemes.  It may seem like a harmless fantasy to dream of winning the lottery or finding buried treasure — after all, you’re not taking anything from anyone else — but what the dream really amounts to is a desire that people labor on your behalf while you do no labor for them.  It’s not so harmless when you think about it that way.  What people are craving in these dreams is, in a word, privilege.

It’s also a different way to think about the social issue of concentration of wealth.  Sure, it may seem only right and proper that some who perform their labor wisely and adroitly should accumulate greater rewards than those who don’t… but does that justify the creation of a class of people with permanent wealth?  Think of it in the extremes: if everyone had only a tiny amount of money and we all had to work and trade for everything we got, it can’t be denied that we would all have great freedom.  But if, at the opposite extreme, you imagine that all the money was owned by one little group and everyone else had nothing, and depended on the rulers who own everything to dole out the means for sustenance, then the effect in practice would be slavery.

I don’t think it’s an oversimplification to say that concentration of wealth implies a general loss of freedom, and the degree of concentration makes a pretty good metric for how unfree most people are in practice.  This is ironic in that those who defend such concentration often do so in the name of liberty.  Their argument may be coherent on paper, but in practice, the more concentrated wealth becomes, the more difficult it is for someone not already privileged to find any path for bettering their own circumstances; when the problem becomes severe, most forms of labor end up enriching only the already rich, rather than the person who performs the work.  If this were not the case, the concentration would already be correcting itself.

So money certainly isn’t meaningless.  The balance of how much you can get against how much you need determines the degree to which you are personally free to choose how you spend your time.  And that’s why we admire those who speak of detachment from chasing money: because they are speaking of reclaiming freedom.

But we can be free without money only to the extent that we are able to be self-sufficient.  If we have land to grow food on, natural resources around us, and a capacity to work hard to make things for ourselves instead of buying them, it’s possible to live quite well without money.  But if suddenly you can no longer do that — if you have, say, a disabling injury or a chronic medical condition, or your land and property are lost in a catastrophe — the ability to be free without money can vanish in an instant.  It doesn’t even have to be you that falls ill — it could be a family member.  Even without such losses, for millions of people there are insuperable obstacles to overcome before it’s even possible to reach a bit of ground from which one can obtain food or water by one’s own efforts.  If you’re stuck in the middle of a refugee camp or a shantytown or an urban ghetto, with no way out that doesn’t cost money, the freedoms that can come from renouncing pursuit of financial rewards are nothing but a myth.

 

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