Tuesday, July 30, 2013

How Music Expanded My Vocabulary


Music has been a learning tool for years.  Whether it's in Sesame Street helping kids figure out numbers, or various bands using their songs to spread awareness for some sort of social injustice, political movement, or something to do with the environment, there's no lack of ways in which a tune can impart some sort of knowledge on listeners.

However, most of what I've learned from music has been unintentional.  More often than not songs have made me wonder what a word was that was being used in a piece rather than get riled up over some greater meaning.  Sure, it may be a bit pedantic, but it's what often stands out for me in a song when scrutinizing its lyrics, and there are a few cases in particular that have always stood out in my mind.

The one that looms above all others, though, came in the early 90s when I started to get exposed to punk music.  First I was listening to fairly recent stuff that was getting some radio air play, but after a little while curiosity got the better of me and I decided to start looking into earlier bands that influenced the ones that I was listening to.  This inevitably led to listening to Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols.

In terms of the music, I thought it was alright at the time.  There were other albums in the genre that I liked a lot better, but I didn't mind this one either.  It was a very controversial album for its time, and I could see why people in the 70s would have a problem with it.  It was almost 15 years since its release by the time I got around to listening to it, though, so society had already moved on to vilifying other types of music, like hip hop.  In any case, there was one thing about the record that I just couldn't figure out, and it really bothered me for quite some time.  What exactly were bollocks, and why did the English dislike them so much?

It's important to remember here that this was the very early 1990s.  The internet was still several years away from most people's homes.  I couldn't just do a quick search on Google to answer my question.  Research required going to the library and getting actual books.  When kids wrote essays, they had to lug home a good 20 lbs. of materials, and woe betide anyone who needed to look stuff up on old, archival newspapers stored on microfiche.  If I was going to unlock the mystery of the bollocks, it was going to take a good amount of sleuthing to get to the bottom of it.

I did get the vague impression that it was a swear word.  I'd seen the occasional British TV show or movie that made its way to Canada, and did remember the word being uttered on occasion.  It was mixed with various other curse words that I actually was familiar with, so I kinda figured bollocks was a word one didn't usually say in front of their grandmother.

Being in my early teens, this excited me because as limited as my world view may have been at the time, I was still determined to expand it, and what better place to start than to learn how to tell people to fuck off in as many languages as possible?  Granted, people in England speak the same language as I do, albeit far more eloquently, but delving into the lexicon of British swears is like going to another planet all together.  The sheer number of ways they have to tell someone off is truly staggering, and I was eager to embark on this voyage of discovery.  While I had my sights firmly set on bollocks, I knew it was just the tip of the iceberg, and further study would lead to countless other swears, each one more exciting than the last.

The hunt for some sort of reference guide to all of these amazing words proved somewhat fruitless, in the end.  There was no big book of British swears at any of my local libraries, and, after a few weeks of trying in vane to find out what bollocks were, I was feeling a little blue.  During that time, I did my best to get closer to the answer, and even learned some other neat English slang like how their use of the word "fag" can be very different to what it means here.  However, as interesting as all of that was, I'd come no closer to finding out what bollocks were, and it felt like they'd forever be slightly beyond my grasp.

Finally, when I was just about to throw in the towel and give up on getting to the truth, all was revealed.  In casual conversation with some of my school mates, I brought up the trials and tribulations that I'd been through trying to figure out what the word meant.  One of the guys there actually knew what bollocks were and happily informed me, "It's kind of a slang word for 'nonsense' or 'rubbish'" and I thought fair enough, but it seems an awfully harmless word for so many people to get bent out of shape over it.  "It also means testicles!" he added.  Oooooooh, well that explains everything, and with that the great mystery was solved at last.

There have been several other instances of music expanding my vocabulary as well, like Desire Lines by Lush, Boards of Canada's use of numbers stations, and that Pygmalion is an actual thing, and not just a criminally overlooked album by Slowdive.  Nonetheless, it's bollocks that will forever be etched in my mind as the word I remember most fondly because it was so difficult to find out what it meant in the small, isolated, internet-free world that I lived in as a youth.

Sure, it's bollocks may be a bit of a weird thing to get hung up on, but it's one of the few times in my younger years where I remember pursuing knowledge with any sort of zeal.  I still did history papers, had classics of literature flogged on me, learned all sorts of fancy equations, and participated in all the other academic hoopla that one normally goes through in their teenaged years, but none of that stuff really resonated with me.  This brief episode just goes to show that young people can indeed be coaxed into learning.  It's just a matter of finding something that they can get excited about, and in my case it was bollocks.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Wait, What Happened to "We Just Don't Know"?

I've always been impressed with the humility that members of the scientific community display in recognizing the limitations of their knowledge.  While these minds may be striving toward new frontiers in their field, they still admit that there are a lot of questions that they are unable to answer.  Ask one of these people about something that they haven't gathered enough data on to really get the concept sorted out, and they'll respond with a solemn, "We just don't know."  Pretty great, isn't it?

This is why it strikes me as funny how there is one area where a lot of scientifically minded individuals suddenly cast aside all good practices when it comes to research, and prattle off some half-cocked hypothesis explaining their take on the matter before dropping the subject entirely.  I'm talking about the question of what happens to us after we die.  One would think that this is the biggest We Just Don't Know of them all, but suddenly these people that pride themselves on meticulous research and logic throw all of that out the window in favor of a poorly cobbled together theory that would never stand up to proper peer review.

For the longest time, the vast majority of attempts to answer this question have come from elsewhere, namely religion.  For thousands of years humans have looked to various deities, after lives, and reincarnation to explain this mystery.  Really, it's just the polar opposite of everything that science holds dear.  There is no scientific method here, no painstaking attention to detail, instead everything falls into the realm of superstitions and faith.

Scientists, on the other hand, embrace atheism and / or naturalism, viewing religion as an archaic storehouse of irrationality, and instead pursuing the logic of the natural world with a view that everything in the universe can be explained with proper research.  When the subject gets brought up of what happens to us when we croak, this practice often ceases to come into play.

The scientist may construct an explanation that is perfectly logical on the surface, but whether or not it would stand up to rigorous testing in the lab is another question all together.  If anything, the person putting together the theory is just placing a lot of faith into the thing being reasonably sound.  To some degree the extent to which they cling to their hypothesis being good enough comes across as a form of belief.

A big part of this, I think, is because the theory put forward is usually that upon death our brains cease to function, and with that we cease to exist.  I won't deny that it's one highly plausible answer, but we can't say that with absolute certainty.  This opens the gate to all sorts of possibilities, and the part which gets under many scientists' skin is that some of these could well be interpreted as supernatural.  So, blammo, we're into areas that go against atheist sensibility, and even then, it's the militantly atheists who are most likely to get all bent out of shape.  I reckon it's those people making all the noise, and ardently clinging on to the aforementioned oblivion theory for death.

Brains shutting down is a perfectly natural explanation of death.  Anything else, especially suggesting some sort of existence beyond when our body dies just gets too close to religion for these people, and out come the knives.  There is a very strong emotional element that comes into play that drowns out the cold, detached, by the numbers approach to research that I think most people expect from scientists.

An intense push back against anything interpreted as religious comes about.  The brain simply dies, this is the way things are, and this argument is good enough, so just keep your notions of an afterlife out of this.  Fair enough if someone wants to steer clear of superstition, but it doesn't dismiss the fact that their argument for what actually happens to people after they die isn't bullet proof.  Moreover, it doesn't negate the possibility of their being some sort of existence after death.

Granted, there are some fringe groups in the sciences that have tried to answer the question, but they are very much in the minority.  Moreover, they're often dismissed as crackpot parapsychologists like one would expect to see in a movie.  Even if someone does come along that looks like they're doing some rather sound research into the phenomenon, there's a strike force of scientists with differing views ready to dog pile on top of them.

Sometimes I wonder if some of this attitude is a natural reaction to all of the centuries that science had to suffer under the heel of religion, especially in the western world.  For the longest time if someone came along and said, "Hey gang!  Check out this nifty theory I have about how the sun and planets actually work!", they would be greeted with a hearty, "WITCHCRAFT!!!" and get burned at the stake.  After a few hundred years of such treatment, it stands to reason that more than a little bit of resentment would fester from all of that.

Certainly, not every scientist is like this.  There are some who are, in fact, religious.  There are others that do concede that they don't know what happens to us when we die, and there are others still who don't particularly care one way or the other.  Nonetheless, it's that noisy camp that stamps down their foot, and says, "No, this is more or less what happens" and stubbornly cling to it that I find hard to ignore. The only possible answer for them is that upon death the brain stops working and that's it for us.

I'm not even religious, either.  I don't care about deities, ritual, or any of the other stuff that surrounds it.  It just rub me the wrong way when I see certain scientists on TV chiming in on life after death.  If it was a question to do with their actual field of expertise and there wasn't an answer, they'd reply with the tried and true, "We just don't know."  When it asks about what happens after we die, suddenly out comes that ramshackle response that in a lot of ways is inconclusive.

Obviously, we humans simply don't have an answer to that question, because if we did death would either be a lot less scary, or maybe more terrifying than it already is.  So, it would be nice if these surprisingly vocal members of the scientific community piped down a bit.  A lot of them seem like they're more on a crusade to promote atheism than anything else, and as a result cast a bad light on scientists at large.

It'll probably be a while before society does get an answer to this age old question, though, because any research into the matter will require bringing a lot of death into the laboratory, and I don't see governments being keen to pass legislation that greenlights that any time soon.  So, for now, the only way we'll hurdle this colossal We Just Don't Know is when our own time comes and we find the answer for ourselves.  I really wish the militantly atheist scientists out there would be a little bit more honest about that.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

It's No Wonder Everyone Smoked On Poirot

Dobbelmann Goldhair Cigarettes

Back in the 1920s and 30s it seemed as if everyone smoked.  It was like society got together and decided that they actually missed the smoggy, sooty charm of the Industrial Revolution, and took it upon themselves to recreate that environment in the comfort of their own homes by smoking.

Then I saw the art that was used back then on cigarette packages, packets of rolling paper, and on billboards, and they actually make the whole thing look surprisingly appealing.  Granted they do get a bit of a free ride with all the art deco and other early 20th century art styles that they sported, which can make damn near anything look tempting.  Hell, even I'd be hard pressed not to want to pick up a cigarette and have a puff if these were the sort of images that I was being bombarded with.

With that, here are a selection of vintage cigarette advertisements and related artwork for you to peruse.  Most of these are from the late 19th and early 20th century, as I absolutely cannot stand the majority of cigarette ads from around the 1940s onward.  They just have too much text on them trying to make the hard sell, where as these usually have only the brand and a small slogan on them, letting the picture do the talking instead.  The images are below the break, so click on the "Read More" to see them all.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Are Magazines the New Vinyl?

Magazines and albums including Zeit, Hot Cow Rum, MBV's Loveless, The Mollosk by Ween, Monocle, Japan Architect, Cereal, Spooky by Lush, Radiohead's OK Computer, and General Dome by Buke and Gase

As the 80s were drawing to a close, there were plenty of people championing the CD, saying that it would dominate the music industry.  Thanks to the clarity of its sound, portability, and claims that they were fairly indestructible, the general consensus was that the medium had everything going for it, and it was only a matter of time before big, bulky record albums with their scratchy, poppy sound would become a relic of the past.

In the following decade, it certainly seemed like these audiophile oracles were on to something.  Walk into any music shop in the 90s, and it was easy to see that compact discs were taking up more and more of the shelf space, while records gradually receded to an ever-shrinking corner of the store.  Things were looking bleak for vinyl.

However, another shift started to take place in the early 2000s.  Suddenly CDs were no longer safe.  With the rise of the internet and all things digital, these discs too began to look like dinosaurs.  The new game in town was MP3 files.  Who bought CDs anymore?  Old geezers with terrible taste in music, that's who.

Once again, the steady march of technology was getting ready to sweep aside an old, outdated antique in favor of its newest offspring.  This period proved particularly interesting because it wasn't just a singular medium in one quadrant of the entertainment industry that was being affected, like we saw with the shift from VHS to DVD, or the tale of records and CDs that I just discussed.  Instead, pretty much every branch was getting hit at about the same time as everything from film to music to literature has tried to make the shaky, awkward shift from physical to digital.

Over the last few years, though, something rather unexpected has happened.  While mediums previously viewed as the wave of the future have been piledriven into irrelevance, an old favorite for those that refused to give up on it started to make a comeback.  It was vinyl.

There was always a group of diehards that never stopped believing in it.  Records just have a warmer, truer sound than any digital medium has managed to replicate, and the pops, hissing, and crackles are all part of the charm.  Moreover, sometimes it's nice to have something you can actually hold.  For some, there's something immensely satisfying about being able to pluck an album from the shelf and hold the thing in all of its tangible glory.

Now things are looking up for vinyl.  It's one of the few areas of the music industry that seems to be doing alright for itself.  A lot of bands put out limited runs of new releases that way, and the fans lap it up.  Admittedly, part of it is the appeal of having a special keepsake that can be viewed as a barometer of just how big of a fan they are among their peers.  Nevertheless, it shows that, for various reasons, and despite what pundits have said in the past, there are still people out there that will happily plunk down cash on a physical medium that they care about.  It's not a huge renaissance by any means, but, for now, vinyl is doing alright.

So what does this have to do with magazines?  Well, over the last 10 years or so we've seen experts forecast the death of print in the face of the internet.  It would be just another victim of the switch to digital.  In a lot of sectors, this definitely seems to be the case.  There have been a deluge of reports discussing how newspapers and magazines have seen circulation numbers shrink, often at an alarming rate.

However, in the last couple of years things have been turning around for magazines (newspapers, not so much).  In that particular area of print, ad rates have been getting better, and new publications are constantly being launched.  By the sound of things, subscriptions are also doing pretty okay at some of these places.  Certainly not every magazine is doing well, but there are plenty that people feel are worth hitching their wagons to.

Purely in terms of content, magazines are handled in a much different way than most newspapers and even web sites.  The latter two largely vomit out news stories and articles as they happen.  In many cases speed is of the utmost importance, being the first to report on some event, review some movie, and so forth.  There may be some long form, analytical pieces, but they usually aren't as consistent and take up only a small amount of a paper or site.  Magazines, however, tend to center around some sort of editorial focus in each issue.  There's a common thread tying the entire thing together.

As such, there is a far greater level of cohesion in each magazine, causing them to have a narrative based on whatever theme the editors have chosen for a given issue.  It's a very appealing element of the medium, and something that one seldom sees in newspapers or on a web site.

This has always been the case, though, and it's what differentiated magazines from newspapers before the age of the internet.  The dot com boom clouded people's view of things.  Suddenly web sites were the next big thing, and over the next ten years or so there was a heavy shift toward digital information.  It ushered in an age of instant information.  News could be consumed at a ferocious rate of speed.  Reviews were available for just about anything someone might be interested in on the day it came out.  If there was an opinion piece, interview, or feature article it would just go up after an editor had given the greenlight.

Really, as someone reading the stuff, it feels a lot more like the mentality of a newspaper has won the day on the web.  New content is churned out on a daily basis from a number of sources, and the public nibbles on it all the while like it's a bottomless bag of chips.  More often than not, that common thread that holds a magazine together is absent from a web site.  Yes, there is some sort of subject of interest that will be the focus of a site, be it technology, fashion, music, or whatever.  Beyond that, each individual article is fired out one after the next, and whether there will be any motif connecting them together is anyone's guess.

Sometimes a site will do some sort of thematic week where each day stories are posted that actually do have an overarching tie to one another that goes much deeper than being a string of tech articles, or general fashion interests.  It's not often that this happens, though.  Furthermore, they're still being trickled out like an IV drip over the course of a few days.  So, to a degree the articles and the larger message they're trying to convey can feel diluted.

The fact that magazines will select a theme for an entire issue, then sculpt the bulk of its articles around it, finally to put the whole thing out at once in a completed issue makes the message that is trying to be conveyed have far greater impact.  I think a lot of people lost sight of this with all of the ballyhoo that has surrounded the rise of the internet, where this much more rarely happens.  Now some are craving this approach to editorial direction and returning to magazines.

Of course, there are other things going for the medium as well, not the least of which being art direction.  Peruse the design of most web sites, and readers will see that pages look more or less the same.  It may be a very pretty design, but there will be a strict uniformality to it across the domain.  Conversely, if one flips through a magazine, seldom do two pages look alike.  A lot more thought goes into the types of photos taken and where they are placed on each page.  There may even be some fancy graphic work sprinkled throughout.  Better still, it's a medium that still cares about typography.  It leads to a visual experience that is much more appealing to look at, as the images complement and enhance the articles.  Meanwhile, photos that would accompany a web site article often feel very utilitarian.  They act as little more than visual aids to the words on the page, being inserted into very specific, templated locations.

That's probably what bothers me most about web sites: it doesn't take long before I grow tired of their look.  In any case, the mentality at those places is to keep everything looking roughly the same all in the name of familiarity and ease of updating.  It's a very pragmatic approach, and there's plenty of logic to it.  Nonetheless, I do very much like the way a magazine's pages can come to life simply from the variety of design choices that were made.

So, in terms of approach to content, there are at least a couple of reasons why some people may be attracted to magazines.  After a brief tryst with the internet, they are now finding themselves pining for more purposeful periodicals.  There is something about the way that content is conveyed in a magazine that is appealing, perhaps similarly to how the tone and timber of an album draws some people to vinyl instead of a digital alternative.

However, the digital realm continues to pound at the gate thanks to the emergence of tablets.  A number of outfits have been experimenting with making their magazines available on those devices.  Each issue is handled just the same as the actual print edition.  They're subscription-based, released on a steady but not too frequent basis (monthly, quarterly, etc.), and the layouts are the same as a magazine, sporting vibrant, unique designs, and not the bland, undeviating blueprints of the web.  The main difference is that readers view it on a touch screen, and not a pile of bound together pieces of paper.

This could prove an interesting turn of events as it tests just how much magazine readers care about a physical medium.  In this instance, the content is usually identical whether on a tablet or on paper.  Is it possible that one may actually draw some sort of tactile inclination out of readers over the other?  Such a battle sees things drift into the stomping grounds of inexplicable taste preferences and sentimentality.  Why do some people like tea over coffee?  Some have a reason, others don't know, they just do.  With that, why would someone choose a traditional magazine over its tablet-published equivalent?  Again, for some, they may not know why exactly.  For others, it may come down to enjoying actually flipping through pages, the smell of the ink, and just being able to pick up and hold an actual magazine, as opposed to a device with the data from several publications stored within it.  Maybe they simply hate the glare of the sun on a tablet when going outdoors.

In the end, I have a lot of trouble seeing magazines going away as a concept any time soon.  Whether on a tablet or in traditional paper form, they do appear to be enjoying a resurgence in popularity.  This whole episode just strikes me as being quite similar to the saga of vinyl.  Many were wooed away from record albums and towards CDs and MP3s in the music industry, only to come back years later after realizing they actually quite liked the older medium.  The same may be true for magazines.  Pulled away by the vague allure of the internet, web sites, and some sort of grand future that they would usher in, some saw that there was something different, and a bit lacking in how they presented content.  Now people are slowly making a return to the magazine, realizing that these publications have their own truer, warmer qualities that other outlets have failed to replicate.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Rise of the Machines

Will widespread automation have a negative impact on the economy?
Over the past 150 years or so, there has been a consistent fear that technological innovations would cause a tidal wave of job losses as some new type of machinery, computer system, or a combination of the two bursts onto the scene. Whether the industrial revolution, the assembly line, or robotics, the reaction from many was that humans were doomed as these things make various lines of work obsolete. While there was job loss, and people were forced to transition into new fields, things weren't as catastrophic as some people led on.

Does this mean that any time that a new piece of tech is introduced we have nothing to fear? I'm not so sure about that. Maybe up until this point technology just wasn't there yet to supplant human labor on the scale pundits of the past believed. Perhaps it's only now that we're seeing improvements in robotics, software, and materials such that automation will improve at a rapidly accelerating rate. If so, we could see people replaced by machines in more and more areas of the economy quicker than governments, education systems, and companies can find ways to get the newly pink slipped into alternative employment. It could well lead to a period of extended structural unemployment. More worryingly, it could be a lot closer than a lot of people think.

Assembly line manufacturing is becoming increasingly efficient with companies spending quite a bit of money in recent years snapping up fancy, new equipment to help them produce stuff faster, more reliably, and at a lower cost to them than ever. I remember a while back Apple was in the news proclaiming that they were helping in the first step to bring manufacturing back to America. The way media outlets were going on, you'd think that it would be like the good ol' days with a new wave of blue collar jobs sweeping the nation, dragging it out of the malaise it's been stuck in for the last several years. Things will be just like the opening credits of Laverne and Shirley!

Not quite.

Manufacturing in the States has steadily been changing in recent years via something called lights out production. This is a heavily automated form of manufacturing that requires very few actual humans in order to do its thing. In fact, the machines can be left on their own and will do just fine pumping out whatever it is they're making. Some plants still keep a skeleton crew on board, though, to help move parts down the line, but how much longer will that last?

It stands to reason that Apple will be embracing this method in the US, especially given that they're only bringing on about 200 employees to make products in America. A stark contrast to the legions of human laborers that the company uses at its Chinese plants. Whether it's Apple, GE, or some other company, it's hard to imagine this unmanned approach to production not being favored in advanced Western nations. Certainly, the increase in spending on automation that I mentioned early across the manufacturing sector suggests that there will be a lot more of this in the future.

Arguably the greatest threat to manufacturing isn't something that you'll find on an assembly line, though. It's a device that could well be in a lot of homes before too long: a 3D printer. Just as the name suggests, this is a printer that can make actual objects. Printers are no longer just for pumping out school reports and spreadsheets, they'll soon be making us everything from mobile phone cases to tools to clothing, and everything in between. The list of objects that people will be able to make at home with these devices continues to grow all the time. With that, it seems a pretty good bet that 3D printers will have a huge impact on manufacturing as production of a wide variety of goods is transferred from factories to homes.

Moreover, the fact that all of these things can be made from home won't just affect factories. It will have repercussions throughout the entire supply chain. As it stands now, factories make the goods, then they get put on a truck and sent to the company's warehouse where they will be stored until they need to be shipped to their next destination. From there they may be put on another truck and taken to a retailer's warehouse where the product is again kept until it's sent to various store locations where these goods will finally be sold to customers. This scenario is assuming that the factory, all of the warehouses, and the retail locations are all on the same continent. If the product was manufactured overseas, now you have to factor in transoceanic container ships, more storage facilities, and possibly even rail and air freight. There is a lot of stuff between the factory that makes a product and consumers' hands.

Now, let's bring the 3D printer into the mix. As you can see, it's not just the factories that are eliminated from the equation. There also isn't any need for the warehouses, dockworkers, rail companies, hauliers, customs officers, air freight, and a slew of other jobs. So, this new technology has tremendous reach in terms of the shock waves it could send across the economy as it renders an immense number of jobs redundant.

While manufacturing has suffered the brunt of automation, and only now are we looking at fallout metastasizing into connected sub sectors as a matter of course, there are other industries where companies have been trying to introduce automation, most notably the service sector. One of the most common examples, and one that just about all of us participate in, is the near universal acceptance of ATMs. When was the last time you made a cash withdrawal from your bank account by talking with a teller? It's probably not too common. I remember years ago there were quite a few people scurrying around behind the counter at the bank, nowadays not so much. Shifting two of the most common activities at a bank (deposits and withdrawals) to an automated service drastically reduced the need for tellers.

We're even seeing automated checkouts becoming more and more of a thing at super markets and certain other retail outlets. Want to avoid the huge line up at till three?& Try the self checkout and maybe you'll be able to get out of the store a little bit quicker. So, here we have another area where machines are taking the place of humans, and in this case companies are doing all they can to encourage customers to use them. All too often it seems like only half of the human operated checkouts are open, then after a few minutes in line someone from the store is suggesting to use one of the automated ones.

Technology is also starting to work its way into restaurants more and more. Places dealing in fast food are starting to offer touch pad ordering more widely, removing the need for someone to stand behind a till and say, "Can I take your order?" Instead, people can do it directly without even needing to worry about a mistake being made since they're entering what they want themselves. How long will it be before this is common in sit down restaurants? In Japan, a lot of places have a little button on the table that customers push to summon a waiter. When the person arrives, they take the order on a digital pad that transmits the data to a computer in the kitchen where it tells the chefs what to make. How hard would it be to just put a touch pad on the table, then all the restaurant needs are a few runners to bring things out from the kitchen?

Of course, with the potential for so many manufacturing and service sector jobs to be axed, one has to wonder how many management jobs would be next on the chopping block. These folks were largely brought in to manage people and with most of them gone how useful are these supervisors, department heads, and the like? Would it be better to show them the door and bring in a few technicians to make sure that the machines continue to work properly? It's doubtful companies would need anywhere near the amount of management positions that they currently retain. If anything, there was considerable bloat in that area until recently. With a heavily automated work environment not only is there little need for human employees to do grunt work, there's also less need for supervisors to keep an eye on them.

Although the areas touched on so far are fairly predictable ones to be struck by the affects of automation, there are others that many probably don't even realize could be impacted by it. Surprisingly, publishing is one of them. Have you heard of algorithmically created content? It's an actual thing. At this point, the technology is still in its infancy, but researchers believe they'll be able to get it to the point where it's possible to create full-on prose eventually simply through software.

I'm not sure if we'll see computer software capable of producing fiction that can lock horns with the works of Dickens, but it could well shaking up other fields of composition. Specific areas of writing have a very paint by numbers style to them in how they're approached. Some news stories in journalism fall under this, as do certain elements of copywriting, and ditto for some of the content created for web sites, as just a few examples. These are all areas that could fall sway to algorithms. They're types of articles that simply relay facts, perhaps regurgitating existing information, and don't really need a human touch. It's entering the realm of possibility for a piece of software to be capable of doing the job just as well, so why wouldn't employers obsessed with the bottom line opt for such a thing if the end result is the same at a much lower cost? This development in publishing illustrates that automation could potentially pop up anywhere.

Up until now, when an industry has been gutted, it's been a relatively isolated affair. People affected would shift into other lines of work. Maybe they made the same, maybe they made less, maybe they even managed to make more, in any case a good size chunk of those laid off had options as to where they could find work when they dusted themselves off and tried to move on with their lives. Those that weren't successful in making the transition, the state was able to absorb and support through various types of benefit programs for the most part. This has been doable because areas affected have been contained.

What we're seeing now is a situation where multiple sectors could be impacted at once, as automation works its way into not just manufacturing but also the service sector, and, as we're seeing in the world of publishing, possibly even into areas we didn't imagine were possible. Then there's the cascading affect illustrated earlier with the ramifications of 3D printing becoming popular as it not only hits factories but every supporting industry that got the products those places made to the customer. So, a situation could arise where there isn't anywhere for the people losing their jobs to go. They can't retreat to the service sector because it's being gutted at the same time. If automation spreads into even more areas thereafter, more and more alternative forms of employment are stripped away, potentially leaving a lot of people trapped, and the state having to support them.

Can governments even afford to do this? We're in an age of crushing public debt, politicians preaching the need for austerity, and cutbacks in various social programs. This is before automation has even had a chance to sink its claws into the economy to the full extent that it's capable of. Once the ball really starts rolling with this technology, it could build up a lot of momentum and be very difficult to stop. One has to wonder just how well-equipped governments would be to support the huge uptick in unemployment, and the possibility of it being a structural issue for decades. They can hardly get their houses in order now. If they were to be broadsided by this, it's questionable whether they'd be able to react to it. It's one thing to support a relatively small percentage of the population that cannot find work. If the number of people in such a situation balloons, the task becomes significantly more difficult. It may well be untenable.

Then the question becomes a matter of how sustainable heavily automated production and services are in and of themselves if it leaves vast swathes of the population unemployed. Companies can offer as many products and services as they want, but it doesn't mean a whole lot if no one buys them. Just ask China! Rapid increase in automation seems to be leading to a paradoxical situation where all these goods are being made but there's hardly anyone to buy the things because many of them have lost their job. So, in the search for short term gain, improving margins by finding alternate forms of labor, companies could be shooting themselves in the foot since they're cutting loose the part of the equation that allows them to make money: people working, thus earning a pay check, and then going out and spending it on stuff.

The problem is that a lot of these companies seem to have a worryingly myopic view of the world. While they're busy cutting labor costs first by shipping jobs to cheaper markets overseas, and now by shifting into automation, they have the attitude that some other sector will pick up the slack while they do this. However, as has been discussed here, these other sectors are starting to do the same thing, and we're back to the very real threat of these newly unemployed having nowhere to go, and thus not making much money to spend on whatever goods these companies make. If these people aren't running out to buy a lot of the things these companies are making with their shiny, new robots, over the long term said companies will see sales shrink, and possibly collapse under the weight of this shift.

With that, the picture painted in this post is pretty grim. There are plenty of people out there that are firm believers in Adam Smith's notion of an invisible hand guiding the free markets, and that everything will find a way of working out. A large part of their argument is that as jobs disappear in one area, new ones will appear in others. If multiple sectors of the economy are all clobbered in short succession, this could become a lot harder, possibly taking a lot longer. What's the timeline on this kind of transition? A few years? A few generations? The invisible hand may still be in play, but for all we know it could take a while to do its thing. In the meantime, how keen will the vast numbers of unemployed be to hear some economic egghead tell that not to worry, the free markets will sort everything out, they just have to be patient?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Hunt for Shoes

Not owning a car means that I walk around a lot.  It also means I run a lot, but that's mostly because I'm chasing a bus, having left the apartment five minutes later than I should have because once again I got to thinking, "It'll be fine.  That thing's never on time."  The truth is that the bus in question is usually pretty punctual.  In any case, what I'm trying to say is that I spend a fair bit of time on my feet walking, running, and occasionally pirouetting from point A to B, and, as such, shoes are important to me.  They need to be comfortable.  They need to last.  They need to look reasonably decent.

When it comes time to buy a new pair, things turn into a bit of an expedition for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, my feet are gigantic.  Clocking in at size 13, selection is sparse for footwear.  When asking a sales clerk to check if there's anything in stock, I can tell by the look in his or her eyes that it will prove fruitless.  Nonetheless, they're kind enough to at least humor me by heading into the back, where I assume they simply bang together a few boxes in a vain attempt to make me think that maybe, just maybe, they actually found something.  If there's one thing that I've learned in these 20 or so years of post-pubescent life with a pair of colossal pontoons attached to my legs, it's that companies don't make a lot of shoes that I can fit into.

Once I finally do come to a place with at least a handful of shoes that are in my size, and, with any luck, matching, the next order of business is finding something that neither bores me to death nor fills me with rage.  Given the current state of sneaker fashion, and make no mistake, I am a casual sneaker man through and through, this has become an increasingly daunting challenge in recent years.

On one end of the spectrum, there are shoes that are soul-crushingly simple in design, and more often than not in all one color (usually black or white).  While I do frequently take a lackadaisical approach to fashion, there is a tiny part of me that wants to wear clothes that looks at least somewhat interesting (the key word here being somewhat).  What I don't want are these boring bits of footwear that seem hellbent on heralding in a monochrome, Soviet Russia-inspired era of utilitarian fashion.

Then on the other side of the divide there are the shoes that just scream for customers to look at them with their explosively bright colors and peculiar designs.  The worst offenders I've seen are the ones sporting florescent shades of yellow, green, orange, and occasionally even blue.  I spent a fair number of my formative years plodding through the 80s and remember those obnoxious color schemes all too well.  I would be perfectly happy to see them remain in the past.

Unfortunately, individuals slightly older than myself that are a little further along in their careers have risen to positions of influence in the world of couture.  They're at just the right age to have much fonder memories of that decade and many of the fashions that were elevated to prominence then.  As such, a rose-tinted nostalgia has clouded their memories, and now they're foisting these fashions that mean so much to them on younger generations that just don't know any better.

However, I do take solace in knowing that this won't last forever, as these monsters will eventually be promoted to higher positions where they have less direct control over this sort of stuff, or they'll possibly be sacked in a fit of dismissals as the economy continues to sputter.  In either case, it's only a matter of time before my generation ascends through the ranks, takes the reigns at these fashion houses, and can finally bring salvation to the masses through the triumphant return of Hammer Time.

Until that glorious age dawns, though, these shoes will continue to clutter store shelves, inflicting a subtle but constant state of post retinal vision upon me with their florescent glow.  Meanwhile, I press on, stumbling through the shop in search of a pair of shoes that aren't horrible.  This is where the rage comes from when buying shoes.  The most frustrating part is that it wasn't always this way.  Even as recently as a few years ago, shoe styles were a lot more interesting, and a lot less obnoxious.

Maybe this is in part due to stuff like Facebook, Twitter, kissy-faced smart phone photos, and the unyielding "Look at me!" attitude to permeate from those environments.  Thus, we're assaulted by a cornucopia of brightly colored footwear with all sorts of strange patterns or design choices aimed at a generation incubated by these aforementioned technological advances and the social mores to emerge from them.  This is then contrasted against a handful of single-colored, supremely practical alternatives for the squares.  There just isn't much in the way of a happy middle ground any more.

Even price doesn't seem to have much impact on how a lot of these shoes look.  Going cheap results in a pair that are either tawdry or tedious and likely to fall apart in a scant few months.  Opting for something a little more expensive may lead to some sneakers that don't disintegrate with the zeal of freshly submerged bath salts, but the styles are just as horrid and companies have the gaul to charge a king's ransom for them simply because of a brand label strategically placed where anyone can see it.

In the end, I do manage to find a satisfactory pair of shoes and that's exactly what they are: satisfactory.  A time where I could find some sneakers that I'm well and truly pleased with may have come to an end.  So now I persevere in my yearly search for new footwear.  It's a process that can take weeks as I wade through the vast sea of terrible, but if that's what it takes to avoid something with either the joie de vivre of a boulder or that radiates with the light of three suns, then so be it.