Category Archives: Featured

Machines vs People

When I was little, and I would hear people bemoan the loss of human jobs to automation, my immediate question was always: but don’t we need people to make the machines?

I have had time to think it over, and my opinion has developed from there, but not, fundamentally, changed.

The point is: machines do things. People decide what gets done. If a machine can cannibalise your job then trust me: it will. So find what makes you more than a machine. (I’ll give you a hint: t’s your brain). Machines, technology, these are tools we employ to make better products, improve our services, etc. But a person – a human – has to decide how to use it, how to improve it, and how to develop its use over time.

And the Weakonomics blog now also raises this point:

Toyota is learning that when you automate too much you lose a couple of things.  First, you lose the people that know how to make the item.  You’ve replaced masters of their craft with people that push a button on a machine.  Second, machines don’t really have the ability to make an item better.  So if no human is making your item, no one is figuring out how to make it better.  By bringing workers back to replace robots, Toyota is finding their human workers are making certain materials for their vehicles more efficiently than the robot ever could. Sometimes this is a limitation of the robot.  Other times it’s simply the fact that a robot doesn’t know how to make something better until someone tells it what to do.

Yes, he concludes, “machines do take our jobs. However we can always be one step ahead of them”.

Pride in the dismal science

Tim Harford responds to question as to whether the study of economics attracts, or creates, sociopaths. Because apparently it is one or the other.

I would also posit that students’ responses to hypothetical situations while in an academic environment are not necessarily an accurate reflection of real world behaviour, but in any case Harford is a few steps ahead of me:

“If there is a single foundational principle in economics it is that when you give people the chance to trade with each other, both of them tend to become better off. Maybe that’s naive but it’s all about “abundance” and is the precise opposite of a zero-sum mentality.

. . .

Economists may appear ethically impoverished on the question of co-operating in the prisoner’s dilemma but they seem to have a far more favourable attitude to immigration from poorer countries. To an economist, foreigners are people too.”

And don’t miss the last paragraph, in which he explains the “dismal” epithet.


Technology frees us

I re-post from Ocean’s blog here, and while this topic is not strictly about economics, the subject of disruptive technology is nonetheless of interest.

Bottom line: you are either bored in a museum or you are not. It is not the phone that makes you so.

Titled I’m getting fed up with people who are fed up, Ocean points out that just because a person is looking in to his or her phone does not mean that person is playing candy crush saga.

We wasted just as much time in past years as we do now. Before smartphones we had cell phones, before those we had tamagotchis, before those we had discmans and walkmans, and before those we still had trashy magazines, as so on and so forth. We always found a reason to be “anti-social”.

He continues:

In fact, I would venture to say that a greater sign of our dumbing-down times is how we recreate the same tired arguments every time a new disruptive type of technology appears. In comparison to the Phone, Telegraph or TV, the smartphone is a rather small step, all things considered, and yet we still believe it will be the downfall of society. Well, I believe cynicism will bring our society down far sooner than any smart phone.


Vodka Discrimination?

From Marginal Revolution:

What’s surprisingly affordable in hotel rooms across the globe is, however, vodka. It’s much cheaper than peanuts and, in some cases, even water.

That is the case for instance in Zurich, Helsinki, and Oslo.  (Where is the profitable cross-subsidy?  Or is this price discrimination?  Is vodka less likely to be claimed for reimbursement from third-party payment?)  In Toronto hotel minibars, a can of nuts costs on average $18.23, at least among the hotels sampled.



Ocean’s New Book

On this fine Friday, I add a shameless plug of Ocean’s latest publishing adventure.

Ocean runs the translation agency Acahi, working with a network of freelance translators. Freelance work in general is as exciting as it is intimidating, and in translations more so than in some fields, as you truly are on your own. Where do you start? How do you connect with the proper networks? How do you stand out? And logistics: connecting, communicating and most important of all: getting paid.

Well Acahi is here to help with their new book How to be a successful freelance translator: make translations work for you (see what he did there?)

Questions libertarians can answer

I remember when I was in college and so many conversations revolved around appropriate ways to save the world, most of my contemporaries were so sure they were right. As sure as I was when I was seventeen years old (which at 20 seems so far behind). My thought – though I confess occasional fear at expressing it so – was always that I don’t know if I am right, I’m not sure there is a “right”; rather this is the best I can propose with the knowledge at hand. The future can not be seen (though we can indeed learn much from the past).

The Skeptical Libertarian Blog brought me back to those thoughts with they post from a few months ago: “Questions Libertarians Can’t Answer? Let Me Google That For You“.

From the post:

There’s become something of a cottage industry recently of blogs listing “questions libertarians can’t answer” or “knockdown arguments” against libertarianism … Having read an impressive fraction of these articles, I’ve concluded that most of their authors do not have a clue what libertarianism actually is.

They assume libertarians are fools, who have not bothered to think about the most basic philosophical or practical implications of their ideas (“Oh. My. God. You’re right! Who would build the roads?! Why didn’t we think of that before?”)

And the clutch:

It may well be that our answers are factually wrong, morally confused, or illogical–far be it from me to suggest we have The One True Ideology™. But answers exist. Why not deal with them? Why, if you truly wanted to disprove libertarianism, wouldn’t you try to engage with what libertarians actually believe? Serious intellectual critiques of libertarian ideas exist, so what is gained by strawmanning them, other than to have a convenient icon to torch?