Category Archives: ideas

Derek Parfit: Why anything? Why this? 

The great philosopher Derek Parfit died recently. At the time, many things were posted about him, including where you can find his works online. One such work is this:: Derek Parfit · Why anything? Why this? Part 1 · LRB 22 January 1998.

In it, he asks:

Why does the Universe exist? There are two questions here. First, why is there a Universe at all? It might have been true that nothing ever existed: no living beings, no stars, no atoms, not even space or time. When we think about this possibility, it can seem astonishing that anything exists. Second, why does this Universe exist? Things might have been, in countless ways, different. So why is the Universe as it is?

Worth reading, and accessible, even if you aren’t a philosopher (although we are all philosophers, from time to time).

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Thoughts on automation, from the WSJ (and me, someone who specialized in automation)

Robots
Christopher Mims has a good piece here that touches on many of the recent arguments concerning automation, here: Automation Can Actually Create More Jobs (WSJ). Well worth reading.

For my own perspective, early in my career my job was automating many of the systems operations tasks in my part of IBM. In one year I automated essentially the work of 10 people. No one lost their job as result, because while it was good to have these activities automated, the activities were not valuable enough to justify hiring people to do the work. Essentially the automation improved the quality of our work. Automation using IT to improve the quality of work is a good use of automation, be that automation be a lowly shell script or very expensive robot with A.I. Quality aside, how the automation affects staff depends on the culture and the makeup of an organization.

There is talk of places like McDonald’s replacing workers with kiosks as a result of a drive by some for a higher minimum wage. First off, McDonald’s are rolling out those kiosks in Canada, too, which makes me think they are going to deploy them regardless of what the minimum wage is. Second, I have used the kiosks a number of times, and they are of a limited benefit to a McDonald’s customer. The kiosks are good if there is a long line for a person to take your order: they kiosks are bad if there is a small line or no line. They are bad because it will take you many more minutes to place your order, due to the kiosk’s user interface. (Try one and you will see.) The kiosks some time will fail to print out your receipt: if you don’t remember your order number, then you have to go in line, tell them what you ordered, and then get your number. Overall the kiosks are not bad: they are especially good if you like to special order. But if the lines aren’t long and your order is standard, skip them and go in line.

Besides that, McDonald’s will still have plenty of staff and likely will for the future. Kiosks can’t cook, can’t pack your order, and can’t clean the restaurant. If you think robots can do that and do it cheaply, you need to learn more about robotics. I can see why McDonald’s and other fast food places need automation: they are constantly trying to retain people while trying to keep costs down. But the notion they are automating to spite people looking for a higher wage is ridiculous. McDonald’s is not going to become a glorified vending machine and they should not try to be. People go to restaurants and coffee shops to socialize and to come in contact with other people, and automation will provide less of that, not more.

As well, smart fast food places will learn that human contact makes for better business (see Starbucks). There are many ways to be successful as a fast food business, and a positive experience in dealing with staff is one of those ways.

Automation changes work. However, how it changes work is complex. It is tempting to assume that it will eliminate all work, but that is too simplistic. In addition, we need to think about work, income, and why we do what we do. Automation can help us do that, and that is one clear benefit of automation.

(Image: link to image.freepik.com)

Zeitgeist links for December, 2016

I often come across links that capture the spirit of the time, links that I save using Pocket or Instapaper.  Here are some of them, with quick comments.

Politics, mostly American:

Culture:

Psychology, mostly links about glumness in America

Work, mainly grim or putting a good face on work.

Another benefit of meditation? Raising your IQ

So says this article: Want to Raise Your IQ by 23 Percent? Neuroscience Says Take Up This Simple Habit | Inc.com

The article provides the details and a strong case for it. Meditation: not just good for relaxing. Make it your goal in 2017.

Sixteen ways to think about and improve your life

Over the last year or so, I’ve found these worthwhile pieces on how to think about life and how to improve it. If you find one of these worthwhile and it improves your life as a result of you reading it, then I think collecting and writing about these is worthwhile.

  1. If you are feeling lonely and want to understand and deal with it better, consider this: The Science of Loneliness: How Isolation Can Kill You – New Republic
  2. One idea you can consider: talk to strangers. Hello, Stranger – NYTimes.com
  3. If you need new ways to live a better life, courtesy of a famous person….7 Steps to Living a Bill Murray Life – Vulture
  4. Or if you like to write, try to improve your life via writing: Writing Your Way to Happiness – NYTimes.com (I am guessing some writers would not agree with it)
  5. If you struggle to be happy, this could help: Everyone wants to be happy. Almost everyone is going about it wrong. – Vox
  6. If you want to be more optimistic, consider the big picture, presented here: A Cockeyed Optimist – NYTimes.com
  7. If you think you are working too much and are often thinking of cutting back, this could help you: Keynes’ 15 Hour Work Week Is Here Right Now
  8. Lots of good ideas via a collected stream of tweets, here: Things @GhostfaceKnitta Learned in 2015 (with tweets) · valerieinto · Storify
  9. Why should you give away money and be happier: Giving money away makes us happy. Then why do so few of us do it? – Vox
  10. Don’t hesitate when it comes to improving your life. You have less time than you think. See this to see why: These graphics will make you rethink your life – Tech Insider
  11. Being laid off will happen to everyone. If that’s you now,  and you are struggling with it, consider: Advice For the Recently Laid Off – Medium
  12. Self Confidence makes for a better life. Here’s how to become that way and more so: The Truth On How To Become Self Confident
  13. Change your mind, change your life. How? One way: Rewire your brain: Why Practice Makes Perfect: How to Rewire Your Brain for Performance
  14. If you struggle with your thoughts (e.g., worry too much), read : BBC – Future – Why we should stop worrying about our wandering minds
  15. Sometimes the way to improve our lives is not to have more, but to seek less and not be caught up in the trappings of status. To live a simpler life, like this: Here’s why one of the world’s richest men wears hand-me-down clothes – The Washington Post
  16. More on how to live with less. Living With Less. A Lot Less. – The New York Times

(Image from one of the articles linked to on NYTimes.com)

Palo Alto vs. Tokyo: some modest thoughts on housing 

Image of Palo Alto linked to from Wikipedia

Two pieces on housing got me thinking of housing policy and what if anything can be done to improve it. The two pieces are this:

  1. Letter of Resignation from the Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission — Medium
  2. Tokyo may have found the solution to soaring housing costs – Vox

(Note: I don’t have much expertise on housing policy. These are just some notes I jotted down after thinking about these pieces. Take the following with a (huge?) grain of salt.)

The first piece describes how housing in Palo Alto, California is becoming too expensive for all but the rich. Part of what is causing this is the limits placed on adding new housing in the area. The second piece describes how Tokyo gets around this, namely by removing the decisions about housing from city politics and making it at a national level.

It seems pretty straightforward then: all cities should remove decision making about housing from the local level and assign it to a body at a national level. But is this true? And would it work in North American cities?

It depends on what you expect your housing policy to be and how effectively you can impose it. If the policy is to have affordable and available housing for a city, then the Tokyo model makes sense. However, there is an assumption that decisions made at a national level will be in line with the desires of the residence of the city. This is a big assumption.

There are at least two sets of desires that home owners have for their homes and their city. One, that their homes and the neighbourhood they live in remain stable or improve. Two, that their homes appreciate in value. The first desire could be wrecked by the Tokyo model. The second desire would definitely be affected by the Tokyo model. With cities like Palo Alto, you have the two sets of desires met, at least in the short term. In the longer term, the second desire could level off as people and industry move elsewhere.

The ideal is to have a national policy that takes into account the need for neighbourhoods to grow organically, for house values to appreciate over time but still allow for affordability, and for cities to  allow for new housing as well as account for when neighbourhoods become depopulated. Having such a policy would support vibrant cities at a national level. You would treat cities as a network of systems, and you would allocate or remove resources over time to keep all cities vibrant, regardless if they are growing or declining.

This is the ideal. Practically, I just can’t see this happening in North American cities. North Americans are too strongly capitalist to allow what is happening in Japan to happen here. If national organizations tried too hard to manage cities and resulted in cooling off housing markets, people would oppose that. For many people, their house is their chief asset, and any efforts to restrict that from appreciation would be met with defiance.

Sadly, I think there are going to have to be many failures within cities such as Palo Alto and San Francisco before there is enough political will to change the way housing is managed. I think the Tokyo/Japan model is out of reach for my continent for decades, still.

It’s unfortunate: you have cities in the U.S. in the rust belt suffering great decline, while cities on the coasts struggling to come to terms with growth. A national policy on housing would help all cities and have a greater benefits for people than the current approach.

I like Palo Alto. It’s a great city, in a great region. I think it would be greater still if it had more housing.

A great primer on self driving trucks that everyone should read. (Really!)

This piece, 1.8 million American truck drivers could lose their jobs to robots. What then? (Vox) is a great primer on self driving trucks and how they are going to have a major impact sooner than later.

If you are interested in IT, AI or robots, it really shows one of the places where this technology is going to have a significant impact.

If you are interested in economics, politics, or sociology, then the effect of robots replacing all these truck drivers is definitely something you want to be aware of.

If you drive on highways, you definitely want to know about it.

In any case, it’s a good piece by David Roberts. That is his beat and I find he always does a great job of breaking down a topic like this and making it easier to understand and relevant to me. I recommend any of his pieces.