Wednesday 29 September, 2021

Quote of the Day

”Play Hemingway, be fierce.”

  • Gertrude Stein, talking to her dog

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Traveling Wilburys | Like A Ship


Long Read of the Day

 Why doesn’t rationality seem to matter anymore?

An excerpt from Steven Pinker’s latest book, *Rationality: What it is, Why it seems scarce, Why it Matters :

How should we think of human rationality? The cognitive wherewithal to understand the world and bend it to our advantage is not a trophy of Western civilization; it’s the patrimony of our species. The San of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa are one of the world’s oldest peoples, and their foraging lifestyle, maintained until recently, offers a glimpse of the ways in which humans spent most of their existence. Hunter-gatherers don’t just chuck spears at passing animals or help themselves to fruit and nuts growing around them. The tracking scientist Louis Liebenberg, who has worked with the San for decades, has described how they owe their survival to a scientific mindset. They reason their way from fragmentary data to remote conclusions with an intuitive grasp of logic, critical thinking, statistical reasoning, correlation and causation, and game theory.

You have to admire Pinker’s doughty perseverance in support of Enlightenment values. But sometimes he sounds like a prophet crying in the wilderness of the current, polarised, moment.

A failing state?

Umair Haque is — as usual — annoyed:

There are shortages of blood vials, which means that doctors can’t do blood tests. But doing blood tests is, of course, the most basic thing doctors can do. There are shortages of food — food of all kinds, and the shelves are often bare. The gas shortage is so bad that there’s widespread speculation people won’t have heating this winter. There are even shortages of carbon dioxide, which means, apart from no refrigerated meat and foods, that — get this, because Britain is famously a country of pubs and drinkers — there are beer shortages.

How ridiculous, ironic, and faintly funny is that? Britain’s running out of beer.

His point is that the explanation for this is simple, and what’s strange is that nobody in Whitehall — not even the official Opposition — dares to mention it.

It’s Brexit.

Let’s go through the list of shortages above. Blood vials? Imported, made by a company called Becton Dickinson, made in America, mostly. Carbon dioxide? Imported from Europe, vital to producing beer and soft drinks and refrigerating meat and whatnot. Food and milk? Imported, mostly from Europe — the UK’s a net importer. Gas? Obviously imported, natural gas from Europe, and petrol, again via Europe.

See the common thread here? It should be bleeding obvious. Trade between the UK and Europe used to be frictionless, as economists say. No red tape, no checks, nothing in the way. Now? There’s huge amounts of red tape and paperwork and so forth. An Irish smoked salmon producer says it’s now actually cheaper for him to send his products to America than to Britain, because of Brexit. What the? Another merchant noted that it now requires 71 pages of paperwork for one lorry of fish.

Gig workers are uncertain, scared, and barely scraping by

An interesting report on an international survey. It shows that management-by-algorithm (which is what the ‘gig economy’ is in reality) is reshaping entire economies, sectors, lifestyles, and livelihoods.

Digitally-mediated gig work has surged over the past decade. The International Labor Organization counted 489 active ride-hailing and delivery platforms worldwide in 2020, ten times the number that existed in 2010. The fluid nature of the workforce means there are few consistent estimates to how many people are now engaged in this kind of labor, but some researchers believe that as much as 10% of the global workforce now engages in some kind of gig work.

While the “sharing economy” model really began to take off in the U.S., gig work platforms are now global, adapting their models — or not — for wholly different contexts. To try to understand how this kind of work is experienced outside of the West, Rest of World spoke to platform workers around the world. Through a survey of more than 4,900 workers, conducted in partnership with the research company Premise, and interviews with dozens more workers, we have tried to capture their experiences. We found great commonalities: Gig work is stressful and fragile; it pays relatively well, but it also costs workers a lot in fuel, data, and insurance. Workers, whether driving a taxi in Ethiopia or a truck in Indonesia, don’t feel they can turn down gigs, meaning that it’s rarely as flexible as the companies make out.

And the findings?

Platform work is precarious by nature. Even though more than half of all gig workers rely on it for most of their income, 40% of them make less than minimum wage. But it’s not just about the money. It’s about fragility and insecurity. Day to day, gig workers worry about their health, their safety, and whether or not they’ll make enough to cover their costs. More than 60% want to quit within a year. Gig work is worse for women, who earn less on the platforms than men. Meanwhile, even though the biggest gig platforms are disrupting the global workforce, few of these companies have shown they can sustainably make a profit, relying instead on investors to fuel their growth.

Dave Eggers has a new book coming

Its title is The Every, and it’s going to go to independent bookshops first (which is a nice touch).

Here’s how Brad Stone summarised it on Bloomberg’s Fully Charged newsletter…

In the new novel The Every, a young idealist named Delaney joins the company as a customer service rep with the subversive idea that she can undermine the sprawling monopolist from the inside. She soon hits on a scheme to pitch a product so ridiculously invasive that the public will finally rebel and overthrow its tech overlord. As you can probably tell, the story is more belabored this time around, and if you’re familiar with The Circle’s ending, you may be able to guess how her plans turns out.

Still, you should read Eggers’s fictional take on technology’s impact, not for the grinding plot machinations but for his disquieting world-building and scathing observations about tech’s grip on our minds. In Eggers’s world, cameras and listening devices are mandated everywhere, conscientious objectors to the corporate-surveillance state are dubbed “trogs” and shunned, and a global hack known as “The Release” has exposed everyone’s email histories and led to a half-million suicides. But people keep blithely clicking. “The last vestige of freedom—the ability to move through the natural world unobserved—fell away on a Friday, and no one noticed,” he writes.

The book is also darn funny. An ultra-woke, environmentalist militancy has run amok, and now bananas are being banned and people need to sign “mutual contact agreements” to even shake hands. Toilets are outfitted with a chirpy artificial intelligence, so they know exactly how much water to expend with each use. In the best recurring joke, male employees at The Every all dress like Sergey Brin from his spandex-wearing, midlife-crisis phase, sporting wrestler unitards that showcase their anatomy.

I liked his novel The Circle which — despite Eggers’s protestations that he had spent no time in either Facebook or Google — displayed an amazingly insightful understanding of how evangelistic surveillance capitalists think. So I’ll be ordering this follow-up.

A Commonplace booklet

Incompetence on Stilts

Similar refrain from Jonty Bloom

Just listen to the message the Government is sending.

Its consistent theme has been for years “We want nothing to do with you, you are unskilled, undercut UK workers, take their jobs and we are free for ever from the obligation to let you come and work here.”

To now saying “We are desperately short of skilled workers like you, our logistics system is collapsing without you, but our policies are so ideologically driven that we will only let the bare minimum necessary in, for the shortest possible time and only to ensure that Christmas is not a disaster. Which is why you must leave on Christmas Eve and not a day later. Or you will be thrown out on your ear and by the way we will never need you again, you are now dead to us.“

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