March 28, 2017

The Urge for Going

Episode 5 of Containers is out. This one is about the strange and sometimes tragic condition of the American merchant fleet. In short: shipping is now domianted by foreign companies, but a 1920 law requires that cargo running between American ports is sent on American-made ships. The actual business doesn't create a lot of excess cash, so the ships are old and the companies are loathe to buy new ones or do anything more than the minimum in maintenance. While this has been the case for years, the sinking of the El Faro brought this issue into the spotlight. We revisit that tragedy and talk with American sailors about the complexities of their industry. It's probably the saddest episode of Containers, but I think it tells an important story about the human consequences of trade policy.

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1. Larry Summers essentially names the category of "automation denier."

"Mnuchin’s comment about the lack of impact of technology on jobs is to economics approximately what global climate change denial is to atmospheric science or what creationism is to biology. Yes, you can debate whether technological change is in net good. I certainly believe it is. And you can debate what the job creation effects will be relative to the job destruction effects. I think this is much less clear, given the downward trends in adult employment, especially for men over the past generation. But I do not understand how anyone could reach the conclusion that all the action with technology is half a century away. Artificial intelligence is behind autonomous vehicles that will affect millions of jobs driving and dealing with cars within the next 15 years, even on conservative projections. Artificial intelligence is transforming everything from retailing to banking to the provision of medical care. Almost every economist who has studied the question believes that technology has had a greater impact on the wage structure and on employment than international trade and certainly a far greater impact than whatever increment to trade is the result of much debated trade agreements."

+ At the end, Summers skips over the fact that one key technology is, in fact, our entire system of international trade, making it harder to disentangle the impacts of these structural forces.

2. We don't make the tools of automation, we just use them.

"What’s helping to power Vickers’s made-in-America success? Advanced Japanese and German factory equipment. When Vickers first bought industrial robots in 2006, it chose between only European and Japanese models, says Mr. Tyler, and has been adding Japanese robots ever since. 'We were not aware of any American-made option.' America is losing the battle to supply the kind of cutting-edge production machinery that is powering the new automated factory floor, from digital machine tools to complex packaging systems and robotic arms."

3. Humans really getting pushed aside through the centuries.

"This is what I have defined as the Fourth Revolution in our self-understanding. We are not at the centre of the Universe (Copernicus), of the biological kingdom (Charles Darwin), or of rationality (Sigmund Freud). And after Turing, we are no longer at the centre of the infosphere, the world of information processing and smart agency, either. We share the infosphere with digital technologies. These are ordinary artefacts that outperform us in ever more tasks, despite being no cleverer than a toaster. Their abilities are humbling and make us reevaluate human exceptionality and our special role in the Universe, which remains unique. We thought we were smart because we could play chess. Now a phone plays better than a Grandmaster. We thought we were free because we could buy whatever we wished. Now our spending patterns are predicted by devices as thick as a plank."

4. This remarkable person lived with Ursula LeGuin's family before she was born.

"On 29 August 1911, a 50-year-old man, a member of the Yahi group of the Native American Yana people, walked out of the forest near Oroville, California, and was captured by the local sheriff. He was known at the time and popularised in the press as 'the last wild Indian.' He called himself 'Ishi' – a word in the Yahi language that means simply 'man'. He was the very last of his people, and had been living in the wilderness alone, traveling to places he remembered from the time when his tribe had flourished, in the hope of finding some remnant of those he’d grown up with. When he realised they were truly all gone, when a series of forest fires meant he was close to starvation, he allowed himself to be found and taken in."

5. Zugunruhe, a future film by Werner Herzog.

"Ah, zugunruhe! Spring is here, and it brings with it thoughts of migration. Birds head north, college students go south — the birds to breed, the college students to find a warm spot to study for their final exams. Zugunruhe is what does it to them. Zugunruhe is the need to migrate. Joni Mitchell, the singer, songwriter and ethologist, called it 'the urge for going.' Unfortunately this description is a tad imprecise and subject to sophomoric misinterpretation. Some geese go north when they get the urge; others go all over the golf course."

+ If you want a real science piece on this, try this paywalled New Scientist.

1. washingtonpost.com 2. wsj.com 3. aeon.co 4. theguardian.com | @annegalloway 5. nytimes.com

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The Urge for Going