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Comment The problem with history... (Score 1) 754

is that when you're looking for precedent there are always those two little words: "it depends". You can't count on history to repeat itself.

I don't think there's a fundamental economic principle that says, "productivity increases actually increases employment." Yes, it *tends* to do so. If the next dollar of labor produces fifty cents of income, a firm won't lay out that next dollar; but if it produces *two* dollars of income it will.

However that scenario assumes that demand for the product is "elastic"; that if you drop the price a little you'll sell more, and make more profit. Suppose demand for a product is *inelastic*, that dropping the price won't get you much more in units sold. If the market won't buy more widgets at a lower price, then it makes sense for a firm to lay off workers as productivity goes up.

In the past the fear that greater productivity would result in job loss tended not to come true. At the outset of the industrial revolution nearly everybody would be considered materially poor by modern standards. Even in my granfather's generation it was common to by new clothing just once a year, and nearly everybody mended their own clothing. When computers were introduced to do things like payroll, yes the people who manually processed paychecks lost their jobs, but businesses responded by demanding far more complex and timely financial information products.

Now we live in a different world now. Almost nobody darns socks or turns collars; they throw worn or even stained garments away. Clothes shopping has become a pastime, not an annual ritual; many people shop every week. Financial products turn on split-millisecond timing, and are so complex you need an advanced degree in math to understand them. It makes me wonder whether we might be approaching a kind of productivity/demand singularity.

The biggest problem with predicting the future isn't *what*, it's *when*. People were attempting computer tablets decades before the iPad, but until the processor, battery, software and user interface technology were all available it was an exercise in futility. Much of Steve Jobs' genius was a matter of timing, of sensing when there was an opportunity to be created. I think there may be a productivity singularity in our future, a point where our established wisdom based on past experience fails. But I can't say when that will occur. I'm certain the market has surprises in store for us, but in the short term at least they'll probably tend to confirm established wisdom.

disclaimer: I am not an economist. But I *do* write science fiction.

Comment A more interesting application (Score 2) 62

Creating feedback points in space is cool of course, and will have a lot of uses. But I suspect the highest impact will be when applying a simpler version to ordinary 2D touch screens, and only at the screen surface.

We could finally have screen keyboards and games where you can find the buttons with your fingers, and where they actually give tactile feedback as you press them. Might be able to define surface textures for elements on screen, again making it much easier to use your phone or tablet without having to look at the screen at all times.


Bennett Haselton's Response To That "Don't Talk to Cops" Video 871

In response to both of my previous articles raising questions about the Fifth Amendment, people sent me a link to a famous video titled "Don't Talk To Cops" delivered by Regents University law professor James Duane. Whether his conclusion is correct or not, I think the argument is flawed in several ways. Please continue reading below to see what I think is wrong with his position.

Comment Re:What exactly is the point of the furlough anymo (Score 1) 1144

Well, then the AVERAGE person should cut back so they can live within their means, or get a better job.

First of all, we should be thinking median income rather than average. On average, you and I and Bill Gates never have to work another day in our lives.

The median household income in the US is about $29,000. Suppose you're a family of four with that median income, and you live in a relatively cheap urban neighborhood. You're probably paying $1400/month (average in Mattapan, Boston's cheapest neighborhood) in rent and $1000/mo (average for US family of four). That leaves you a grand total of $16/month for things like clothing and transportation. So you economize. You live in the worst slum in the worst neighborhood and save $200/mo there. You cut down on your food purchases and save maybe another $200. You deduct utilities, clothing, transport, and the conclusion is that the "average" American is living pretty close to paycheck to paycheck.

Of course the average federal employee is doing considerably better, with a median salary of $74,000. But going with out pay for a month would be a major hardship for a lot of those workers who fall beneath the median line -- the janitors, groundskeepers and maintenance guys at the bottom of the pay scale. A lot of these guys are "non-essential", and if the shutdown goes for more than a few weeks they'll be hurting.

Comment Re:Speaking as a non-American... (Score 1) 1144

The Democrat-controlled Senate and White House are voting down and threatening to veto these budgets, and thus the partial government "shutdown".

The next step to re-open government is for the Republican Speaker to bring a continuing resolution bill to the floor of the Republican House, so the ball is in the Republican court.

Your post conflates a continuing resolution with budgeting. A continuing resolution authorizes the government to continue under the old budget (that's why it's called "continuing") while a new budget is worked out. Using a continuing resolution to enact budget changes defeats the purpose. The Senate is not constitutionally required to rubber stamp the House's budget; the House and Senate have to negotiate a compromise. While they're working out their differences it is customary to pass a continuing resolution.

What's going on here is that the House is attempting to coerce the Senate into rubber stamping its budget priorities -- priorities the Republicans don't have the votes to carry in the Senate.

In my business experience, there's never been a lawyer who could write a contract that will make a business deal entirely safe. The first and most important thing in any business deal is to have trustworthy partners. Most of that lawyer-ese stuff in contracts is a safety net, provisions against a future day when the deal goes sour and fingers are pointed. That stuff is important, but no contract can completely protect you from a business partner who's acting in bad faith. It so happens that the House is technically within its rights to withhold a continuing resolution but they're abusing a technical feature of how the government keeps running during budget negotiations to do an end run around those negotiations. They're acting in bad faith.

Comment Re:Not gonna happen (Score 1) 472

"What happens when some crap falls off a truck and the sensors don't quite pick it up? What happens when someone runs out in the road in front of it?"

The video and sensor recordings stored for such eventualities will clearly show who was to blame for the accident (the negligent truck driver; the idiot running out in the road). It will also most likely show the time frames involved were too short for any system (human or computer) to stop or avert in time, and that the self-driving car probably did a better job, with faster reaction times, than a human would have.

Self-driving cars _will_ mean short-loop recording of everything. Which _will_ mean plenty of data to determine causes and assign blame. Which _will_ be human - not computer - error in the vast majority of cases.

Which, over time, will mean driving yourself will be a lot more expensive and will force you to drive much more carefully and defensively than in the past. Any speeding, overtaking, weaving across lanes and you are recorded and will be to blame. More money, no fun and the drivers around you can sit and surf the web or read a book while you stare out into traffic. I'd expect the "freedom" of driving yourself will lose its luster pretty quickly once self-driving cars are viable in the market.

Comment Re:What exactly is the point of the furlough anymo (Score 5, Informative) 1144

Since congress already voted to pay all furloughed workers for the days they missed, what is exactly the point of not having them come into work anymore?

Er... have you been reading the news haven't you? OK, I'll explain.

It's never been about saving money. The GOP wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but doesn't have the votes in the Senate to do it, much less override the veto that would inevitably provoke.

So plan B was to take funding for implementing ACA out of the budget. But they don't have the votes to do that either.

Now when you are arguing over the budget, you still have to keep things running; soldiers and air traffic controllers have to be paid. But the president doesn't have the constitutional power to spend money; he has to spend what Congress tells him to spend, neither more nor less (a lot of Americans don't seem to understand this). He has a lot of influence over the budget, but ultimately Congress has the power of the purse.

So what Congress does when it can't resolve its budget differences on time is pass something called a "continuing resolution". It pretty much says "continue on as you were under the last budget for so many days or until we hash this out." Congress is behind on its budget work so, it's time for a continuing resolution.

What the House Republicans tried to do was slip the budget stuff they didn't have the votes to pass into the continuing resolution. When the Senate stripped that stuff out and sent the CR back to the House, the Republican leadership refused to bring the CR to a vote until their demands were met. Those demands have been a moving target, running from a long laundry list of priorities (including stuff like the Keystone pipeline), to anything that will allow them to claim victory. Boehner has also floated a cut of a certain size to yet-to-be-named budget items as a condition, but this was precisely the gambit that was tried in 2011. Those cuts never materialized, triggering the sequestration cuts across the board this year, including defense. That's not very credible. So the only way the House Republicans come out of this with something that looks like a victory would be to get ACA de-funded, which is not going to happen.

The House Republicans are technically within their rights not to bring an continuing resolution to the floor, but they're using it to undermine the Constitution. They don't have the votes to get what they want, nor have they anything offer in exchange that will persuade anyone else to vote with them, so they're trying to *compel* the Senate to vote the way they want by shutting down the government.

Honestly, it feels like final years of the Roman Republic, when wealthy, ambitious men competed to carve power bases for themselves out of what had been offices of service to the Republic. Crassus Boehner, anyone?

Now they basically get a free paid vacation. If the taxpayer is on the hook for their salaries, they should be doing their jobs.

I agree with you. They should be back at their jobs, and being paid on payday as usual (you do know that essential employees aren't getting paid). But that's not going to happen until one side or another cracks under the political pressure. Already the US Chamber of Commerce is wading in with promises of primary support to Republicans who vote for a clean CR.

Comment Re:Wearable computing... (Score 4, Insightful) 236

I disagree. It's lot quicker and easier to glance at my watch than it is to dig my smartphone out of my pocket and wake up the screen. For that matter living in New England, when it's winter I've got to figure out which pocket the phone's in.

What having a phone with you means is that it's no longer *compulsory* to have a watch for telling time. A watch is still a heck of a lot more convenient than a phone. I think that a phone companion watch that did caller id and notified me of incoming messages and upcoming appointments would be awesome, provided that it could go a couple days between charges. The Samsung device, I think, is a bit over an overreach; it tries to do too much and does some of it not so well.

I do agree that people aren't wearing watches as much as they used to. My daughter carries a pocket watch. One day at school she popped it open to check the time, and a girl asked, "What's that?"

"A pocket watch," daughter answers.

"What does it do?" the girl asks.

Comment Re:Government waste (Score 1) 257

Well, one has to ask, why did horses go out of fashion in warfare in the first place? The supplanting of draft animals with gasoline vehicles happened extremely rapidly as such things go. Consider the gasoline powered military vehicles of WW1, and that these all came into use less than a decade after the introduction of the first successfully mass produced automobile.

The reason for the rapid changeover to internal combustion was that the logistical demands of supporting draft animals is overwhelming. Pre-mechanized warfare was seasonal. You could mount small guerrilla actions on foot, but winter mobility was severely limited, particularly for cavalry and artillery. Lack of winter forage is why the powerful British army could not successfully put down the American Revolution right away. Not (as I was mendaciously taught) because the Brits were too stupid to hide behind rocks in a firefight.

What's worse is that a draft animal has to eat even when it's not in use, unlike a gasoline powered vehicle. Moving and protecting hay took up a huge share of a pre-mechanized army's time and effort.

Now the idea of a draft animal in *limited* modern use is an intriguing one. I could easily imagine squads patrolling Afghanistan with specially trained mules or mountain ponies to carry extra gear. But the casualty rate for the animals would be high, and I think it would be politically impossible to sustain as soon as the first video of a screaming, wounded horse was released -- ironic though that may be.

A gasoline powered horse might well fit the bill for the kinds of asymmetrical warfare situations US troops are now facing, where they have a fortified forward base that's practically impenetrable to the insurgent enemy, but are forced to patrol outside that base. The mystery to me is, why not some kind of autonomous wheeled vehicle? You could put the wheels on legs to give it the ability to move its wheels over obstacles.

Comment Re:Well duh. (Score 5, Insightful) 668

Really? Do you honestly believe there will be some disease outbreak because a government bureaucrat wasn't present to check a box on a form that only the allowable level of rat feces was present?

As a matter of fact, I do. It's not like outbreaks of foodborne illnesses are rare. Major outbreaks happen in the US every year or two, and smaller outbreaks are contained all the time before they get big. If there's an E. coli outbreak in lettuce or listeria in hamburger, who do you think tracks it down to the source and tells all the supermarkets which food to take off the shelves? The food safety fairies?

You can be complacent about food borne illness because government bureaucrats (and scientists, engineers and information technologists) keep contamination in American food to manageable levels. Worldwide, the third most common cause of death is diarrhoeal diseases, most of which are food or water borne,

I've never worked with the FDA, but I've worked with the CDC as a contractor. I happened to be at the Fort Collins DVBID one time when they were scrambling a team to investigate an outbreak of some mysterious hemorrhagic fever in Africa. People were fleeing the area but the CDC's team was going in. Why do they do that kind of thing? So whatever it was that had people bleeding out of their eyeballs never finds its way over here. People just *assume* that things like Yellow Fever, Dengue or Malaria just don't happen here in the US. They never stop to consider that this is not a natural state of affairs. We used to have that stuff all the time. You just don't see all the hard work that goes into making Yellow Fever something most Americans have never heard of. I have -- the zoologists, epidemiologists,physicians and veterinarians who provide this "non-essential service."

I've had this very same argument with a guy who was blase about losing one of our meteorological satellites. "Hurricanes don't kill many people," he said. I wanted to grab the blockhead by the collar and shake him. What would have happened if people only had two days notice with Sandy? Or with Katrina or Hurricane Andrew? Complacent idiot.

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Math is like love -- a simple idea but it can get complicated. -- R. Drabek