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Sunday, 24 September 2017

Uber, London and Capitalism

I don't usually like to talk tech over here on my blog, because that's what I do for work, and I'd rather get paid for these things. On the other hand, my work doesn't directly involve talking about Uber, and I have a few questions that are a little beyond the scope of my job, so I might as well run them here.

To begin, I kind of love the idea of Uber. The thought of using a smartphone app to call a cab and have it pick you up wherever you are is quite neat, and a no-brainer. I take enough taxis whenever I'm in Las Vegas for CES that something like Uber or Lyft makes intuitive sense.

On the other hand, I hate Uber's implementation, so much so that I've only every taken a ride-share three times in my life, and paid for it myself only once (but even that was only with a coupon). If the idea of providing competition to taxis is good for the consumer, Uber's strategy of eliminating taxis and all other competition completely surely isn't. The company is the classic revolutionary, who takes down a corrupt system only to become just as bad as what it replaced.

Note that I'm not talking about the sexual assaults or other crimes committed by Uber drivers, because there's nothing stopping regular cab drivers from doing the same stuff. The difference is that theoretically regular cab drivers are vetted and licensed, rather than simply showing up one day, with or without a car to drive, and taking rides.

Uber's also worse than cabs, in a way, because it's long fought against classifying its drivers as employees. Providing benefits and decent wages would make it non-viable as a business, so it prefers to class them as independent contractors and drive their wages down as much as possible, to attract more users. More than that, research firm CB Insights has referred to Uber as a "Ponzi scheme of ambition", in which it keeps throwing out new ideas to attract investors without first establishing itself as a viable business in its existing activities. You have only to look at stuff like UberEats, its autonomous driving program or the flying cars idea to see that.

So when I see that London's stripped Uber of its license to operate, I actually approve, overall, with the caveat that what I want is for Uber to regain permission to operate there by becoming a more responsible company. Indeed, for all the scorn heaped on London mayor Sadiq Khan over this decision, I'm betting that this is the long-term strategy.

Before I continue, let me note that a lot of my thinking on Uber comes from this article in the Guardian, published last year. Let me also note that my complaints about Uber extend to Lyft and other gig-economy startups, which are creating a vast stratum of shitty jobs that cater to richer people and that will disappear once everyone figures out robots.

(BTW, another reason I decided to tackle the Uber thing here is that I wouldn't be allowed to swear on my work blog)

Former CEO Travis Kalanick - one of my most despised libertarian Silicon Valley douchebro figures - has gone on record as envisaging his ideal Uber ride as a never-ending service where multiple passengers are picked up and dropped off without breaks or interruptions. Ignoring that this is basically just public transportation, it also points to either a need to exploit drivers or to get rid of them altogether and use autonomous vehicles. It also ignores the simple physics of having to recharge or refuel the car from time to time.

If we look at the point about getting rid of drivers completely, I have to ask, why are businesses so keen to get rid of human employees? I understand removing the employees who aren't as productive as their colleagues, though even this can lead to suboptimal outcomes if you're grading on a curve and punishing employees for being just 1% less productive than their peers. But a lot of the discussion in tech and business circles seems to revolve around getting rid of as many employees as possible (or sometimes more).

Uber supporters have pointed to the 30,000 or more drivers who'll be jobless because of London's decision. But frankly, that's a decision that Uber's hoping to make as soon as it gets permission to run autonomous cars without drivers, so it's a little rich to see it defending its drivers' rights now.

We then also come to the question of who will be able to afford Uber or other services when everybody's been laid off, which inevitably leads to universal basic income, an idea that I would welcome if libertarians weren't tossing it out in lieu of actually considering the impact of their decisions.

First of all, we've seen some societies, like in Britain, that have multiple generations of families subsisting on welfare, which doesn't seem to be an ideal outcome. Second, there's the question of how governments will pay for UBI, since it will presumably not be taxed. Third, and as a corollary, governments are eventually going to want to reduce their spending, so what will those who receive UBI do when their checks stop coming?

I'm sure there are more arguments that I'm missing, but those will do to begin with. My point is that we seem to have blinded ourselves to the impact that certain technology is having on society. Rather than limiting the technology, which is as stupid an idea as forging ahead without any consideration of its effects, we need to be having a discussion about what it will mean that some jobs will disappear and rather than just pushing money at some classes of people to make them go away, thinking about how to direct them toward jobs that are useful and dignified.

Being a greeter at Walmart may be safer than coal-mining, but it doesn't seem any less exploitative. We need to be giving workers displaced by technology a third option, a fourth, or as many as it takes to them out of the house and feeling useful.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Haunted

Not sure I had much to write about/think about this week, as I've been running around between meetings and conferences for work since Tuesday. But the weekend is always a bit of an odd time for me, especially now that I live in Palo Alto and especially now that I work from home most of the week.

But this article, which I just read scant minutes ago, is haunting me to a certain extent. Loneliness is a thing I've been wrestling with a lot, since I've been pretty constantly single throughout my adulthood, and in a lot of ways I'm generally quite solitary. I make efforts to go out with friends - this is a big part of why I left London in the first place - but lately, especially since turning 38 earlier this year, the scope of my life alone has been hitting me harder, especially as more and more of my friends settle down, have kids, get divorced.

Hayley Campbell's article underlines an unpleasant dilemma - do you delve into what's bothering you with a mental health professional, or do you try to stave it off by getting out of your head in some fashion? That could be substances, experiences or wearing yourself out... but whichever you choose it feels shallow and not particularly helpful long term, at least as regards staving it off for more than a few minutes at a time.

I probably went looking for it this time, of course - I just got home after dinner with my family and was congratulating myself on feeling quite satisfied (we went up to Foothills Park, had dim sum and then ate ice cream!), but I have a look at social media, find the above article and suddenly I'm contemplating another evening that a therapist once called "deathly". That article underlines what the therapist probably meant, i.e. actually being around to watch the rest of the world go on without you.

The other thing that doesn't help is an email exchange I had recently with a published writer whose work I like, who seemed quite unhappy with the chain of causality that brought him or her to this point. It's fair to say that's been haunting me too, and for a bit longer - the question, which I've wrestled with before, of whether I can have both a satisfying career and a satisfying personal life. Given that I've had neither for so long, choosing only one is proving quite stressful.

It's not just my own oblivion I'm contemplating more frequently now, though - it's becoming more and more real to me that some family members are closer to the end than the beginning, and I can't expect them always to be there.

(By the way, the phrase above, "contemplating my own oblivion", doesn't mean I'm planning anything drastic. It just refers to the fact that the fact itself has come front and center to my thinking. It's gotten so that I can't take naps anymore in the afternoon without imagining my life ticking away by seconds)

What I'm afraid to ask is if anyone else thinks about it this way. It kind of sounds like some do, or at least that they have bad times at the same age that I have. For instance I just heard a podcast where Chris Hardwick talks about how 38 was a difficult year for him; that was somewhat heartening.

The idea of living each day as if it were your last has always bothered me, because I always feel like I wouldn't get anything done. But more podcast listening has me convinced that maybe the way to go about it is not to worry about leaving things complete, but rather to put my all into each of them, and go to bed satisfied that I did a good job.

Still. I wouldn't mind having this worry go away - potentially chased off by a flurry of attractive sexual partners, the attentions of literary agents and entertainment managers, and knowing that I won't starve in my old age. Despite what my published author acquaintance says, I have to believe all three are possible at the same time.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Getting Your Writing Unstuck

Just put the finishing touches on a first/rough draft of a new short story yesterday, and to celebrate I thought I'd talk about my process and how it's changed over the last couple of years.

This wouldn't be such a big thing ordinarily, but up until this year I haven't written much in the way of short stories, as I've been more focused on novels and screenplays. In fact, of the stories I've got on deck that I'm submitting, the newest was, for a long time, something I'd originally written in 2011.

It's hard to say why, other than that novels represented a lot more potential to be busy writing, and because all of the ideas I seemed to be having at the time lent themselves better to longer stories. I did have an idea for a steampunk-type story back in 2013, after reading Lavie Tidhar's Bookman series, and while I finished that, I've never revisited it, as I don't think I achieved what I wanted to (and it broke a rule Lavie Tidhar himself told me, which is that a steampunk story needs to be about more than being steampunk).

What helped this year is a concept that I got from Chris Hardwick's The Nerdist Way, just for a change. Specifically he talks about doing something really hacky when you're stuck, just as a way to get your creative juices flowing. This isn't too different from Tim Ferriss's thing about doing the absolute minimum, but I see this more as a way to attack something like writer's block.

Another thing that helped was seeing Adam Roberts's short story collection, Adam Robots, in which he effectively did his spin on every type of science fiction story out there. I don't know if it was the result of his own attempts to beat writer's block, as I never read it (though frankly I probably ought to, as he's a damn good writer), but it got me thinking in those same terms.

So the story I just finished is, essentially, my robot story, as I've already written my clones story (called I Just Don't Know You Anymore, and which earned me a cool £50 from Spinetinglers.co.uk back in 2013). The beauty of starting from something really hacky is that it can turn into something good, because the creative juices have started flowing. The robot thing might need a lot of work, of course - as I said, I just finished the first draft - but it does feel like something I want to share with beta readers and such, and it does manage to touch on some important themes.

The other thing that got me unstuck on the short story front was writing in other formats. I may have mentioned a screenplay I was working on with a friend over the last couple of years. That project died a death, as the story didn't quite come together and because he sort of gave up writing for lawyering, but I decided (with his blessing, as he came up with the original idea) to repurpose it as a short story. And the happy ending part is that I came out with something I feel quite proud of, which also means it's started going out to markets.

So the upshot is that if you find yourself stuck, try writing something really cheesy and cliched, just as a way to get moving; or raid other ideas that haven't gelled in other formats.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Glad the Football's Back

In my ongoing quest to blog about something other than the car wreck merged with dumpster fire merged with shit show that is national politics in the US, I spent a good five minutes casting around for ideas about what to post today. Do I talk about Dunkirk, which I saw last night? Do I discuss my initial thoughts on the Defenders on Netflix?

Or I can go with the other old standby, which is football, and which is what I'm doing today. I'm about a week late to talk about the return of the Premier League, but given that the start of a season is a bit irrelevant and not always indicative of what's going to happen at the end, I feel like it's still worthwhile to chat about what I've seen so far.

Because I'm a statto, I've started putting together a spreadsheet to draw trends from the previous 25 seasons of the Premier League. I think I mentioned at around the time that Leicester City was driving toward its title that this would be the first time since the start of the EPL that the winner would come from outside the top three. What I didn't mention, but what is undoubtedly true, is that it happened again last season, when Chelsea won the league after placing tenth the previous year.

More interestingly, I saw an article this week that suggested how hard it's been for title-winning managers to keep their jobs. Claudio Ranieri got the sack at Leicester partway through last season, after presiding over a terrible run of form and some uninspired signings, while Jose Mourinho was out of a job midway through the season before after guiding Chelsea to a win.

Obviously people started measuring Antonio Conte's coffin after last week's loss to Burnley, but that talk should die down after today's result, where Chelsea beat Spurs. But if things go south for Chelsea this season, and he gets the sack, then we can point to it as a full-blown trend.

What makes a giant?

Another thought I had while watching the Spurs-Chelsea match at the gym this morning was about Bayern Munich, and why people call them "European giants". They're undoubtedly a great team, and ridiculously dominant in their home league, but I saw someone call them giants recently and had to dispute that.

Bayern occupies a similar role in the Bundesliga that Real Madrid and Barcelona have held in Spain, namely the onrushing juggernaut that just keeps winning championships. They are, in fact, so dominant that no other team has won the Bundesliga since 2012.

But success in Europe has been harder to come by, even when they were being managed by Pep Guardiola before he decamped for Manchester City. Sure, they won in 2013 against Borussia Dortmund, and lost against Chelsea in 2012, but haven't even gotten to the final since then.

I am aware of my standing as a Juventus fan, given that my team is notoriously bad at winning the Champions League, but I think it's worth delving deeper into why I think Bayern's maybe a smidgen overrated. One key thing is probably the players - undoubtedly a talented bunch, but I feel that it's more of a selling club than a buying club, and that the guys who've pitched up there are frequently misfits who didn't really fill their potential elsewhere.

I'm thinking of Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben, which may be a little harsh, given how many leagues they've won between them. But Ribéry is tainted by his association with France's off-pitch collapse in 2010, and has never really won major trophies away from Munich. Robben, meanwhile, has bounced around a number of clubs and won championships in every league that he played, but I have to admit that I'd completely forgotten he was at Chelsea back at the start of the Abramovich era.

Again, my assessment of misfits may be harsh, because Ribéry and Robben are undoubtedly talented, and there are also a number of great players, like Robert Lewandowski or Thomas Müller, who just go from strength to strength there. But on the other hand, James Rodríguez and Arturo Vidal pitching up in Munich when they've been deemed surplus to requirements at Real Madrid and Juventus proves my point, especially given how well their previous teams have done without them.

Maybe I'm being mean, and maybe it's easy to see everything as being a little skewed when Spanish teams have been so dominant in Europe since 2013. But it's probably fair to say that Bayern aren't really performing at the level they should be, given the talent they have - even if they'll probably romp to the title again this year.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

That Old Northern European Social Democracy Fetish Thing

Over the past few years I've noticed a new sub-genre of travel and history books popping up on UK bookshelves. These books are kind of an explainer of other northern European countries, typically written by British men who have met a partner and decided to elucidate on the quirks of their partner's home country. Their grasp of the local language isn't usually perfect, but they make up for it by their enthusiasm in detailing how much better the Germans/Dutch/Danes/whoever do the big stuff than the Brits.

Though I've been reading these books for quite a while - since at least 2012 - I've only thought to write about them now, having just finished the latest example last night. It's called Why the Dutch Are Different, and was written by Ben Coates, a former political whatever for the UK Conservative Party who met a Dutch girl on holiday and ended up moving to Rotterdam.

It's a fairly interesting book, not least because I'm currently learning Dutch on Duolingo. It also takes a fairly contrarian view about a couple of aspects of life in the Netherlands, in part because of Coates's background as a Tory and his experience as a middle-class, white immigrant, compared with the experience of those who've come from Turkey or Morocco. Which isn't to say that he's particularly right-wing (in the negative connotations of that term), just that it makes for an interesting contrast with the books written by, for example, Guardian journalists.

As I said, the authors of the books tend to revert to a type - white, middle-class, current or former journalists - but so, in a way, do the themes. Comparing and contrasting the different brands of Protestantism is common, as is noting the similarities in British and (for instance) German food. There's also the intense interest in these other countries' welfare states, and the question of whether they're sustainable.

I noticed these books popping up in the final couple of years I lived in London, spurred no doubt by the popularity of Danish and Swedish crime TV (which is touched on in Patrick Kingsley's How to Be Danish). I wouldn't say loads of my group of friends was particularly into northern Europe - one friend admitted to internalizing his grandfather's view of the Germans - but there was definitely something in the air that suggested the Brits were getting more interested in how the Dutch, the Danes or the Germans organized their societies.

The trend seems to have started with Germany, as a number of authors sought to present a rehabilitated view of the country. There was Ben Donald's Springtime for Germany, which I didn't read but that seems to acknowledge that it's a little odd to be persuading people to visit or learn more about Germany. The one I did read was Simon Winder's Germania, which is more of a history than a travel essay or memoir, but does the admirable job of talking about German history before World War II. There were a number of others, each touching on different aspects of German history, but all aimed at reintroducing Germany to the Brits (a phrase that caused a friend of mine to yell at me for how down I always was on British people).

Given some other blog posts I've written about Germany and the dearth of German-speakers in the Anglo-American world, I was intrigued by this trend, and read more than a few examples. My favorite is probably Philip Oltermann's Keeping Up With the Germans, which is actually kind of a reversal of the formula, as it's by a German who moved to the UK as a kid.

Others started appearing around that time, such as Swiss Watching, by Diccon Bewes, and the aforementioned How to Be Danish. I suspect that geopolitics had something to do with this efflorescence, in a number of ways. For one thing, the financial crisis that started in 2007-08 may have made the southern European countries seem more chaotic; alternately the free movement among EU countries was starting to throw up more of these couples, causing more books to be written about what the authors were finding when they ventured north or east, rather than south.

It's also not hard to see the hand of the market, as Provence and Tuscany are pretty played out as destinations for authors to "find themselves". On a personal note, I've always found those types of books - Bella Tuscany, A Year in Provence, Driving over Lemons, etc - to be faintly patronizing, as an Italian. As if the appeal were precisely that the author's new neighbors were "fierce" and "full of life" and there explicitly to teach the author to appreciate the simpler things in life, similar to the "Magical Negro" trope in fantasy fiction.

I also suspect that the chaos at home influenced the popularity of these books about northern Europe. In addition to austerity caused by the financial crash, Britain saw a lot more polarization in its politics, along with a head-long rush to privatize everything. In those circumstances, it makes sense that authors (particularly Guardian journalists) would want to look abroad and ask how other countries were still able to offer a social safety net. More baldly, people dissatisfied with what's happening at home are more likely to look at places that they perceive to be stable and functional.

Predictably, there are excesses caused by this trend, and the inevitable backlash. Every time I'm back in London I marvel at the popularity of Tiger, a sort of Danish version of Woolworth's filled with cutesy but well-designed crap. And Michael Booth, who's written a number of food travelogues and lives in Denmark with a Danish wife, also took it upon himself to deflate this love for all things Nordic in his book The Almost Nearly Perfect People. I haven't read it, so can't comment, but the back-cover copy always seems more dyspeptic than affectionate, and so I keep not buying it when I'm in the UK.

Overall, whether you think the Nordics or Germany are overrated, I have to appreciate this interest in that part of Europe. For one thing, it's nice to see a color scheme other than black and red on the German shelves in the history section of bookstores - without wanting to excuse or downplay the Second World War, I feel it's worth understanding German history both before and after the Nazi era.

The other admirable thing about these books is that they are genuinely aimed at providing some context. Britain has long held this opinion that everything from the continent is suspect, an idea that was reinforced by WWII. Now, however, with inequality ramping up people seem genuinely interested in seeing what they can learn from neighboring countries. Paradoxically, as Brexit gains speed, I suspect we'll see more of this comparison (notably, each of the books I've read was written before the Brexit vote last year), even as it becomes more difficult for British people and continentals to mingle.

What I'd like to see is more American authors doing the same. Where the Brits are finally starting to get over calling Germans Fritz or Jerry and not mentioning the war (at least some of them), Americans still don't have a sense of how interesting Germany or the rest of northern Europe can be. In fairness, most Americans don't have any sense of the value of anything beyond their borders - and I'm including a lot of the more "cosmopolitan" Americans here - but with the amount of crap that isn't functioning in this country, I think it'd be nice for us to learn how societies that are actually safe and egalitarian have managed the feat.

I suspect I may be waiting for a long time, but as an optimist I live in eternal hope.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Reconnecting with the Palo Alto Obon Festival

Spent part of today at the local Buddhist temple, for day 2 of their Obon Festival. I remembered it from when I was a kid, when we'd go as a family (given that for about ten years we lived within walking distance of the place), and it struck me as I headed over this afternoon that those previous visits must have informed my appreciation for Japanese food.

I have hazy memories of beef and chicken teriyaki or yakitori, and carnival games, music, dancing, etc. All of those things were on show today, as well as a recital of traditional koto music and a demonstration of judo by the judo club that practices at the temple every week.

What's funny to me is that this is the first time I've gone in the nearly four years I've been back. My longer running routes usually take me past the temple, so it's not like it isn't on my radar, but I've just never gone looking for it. I probably wouldn't have gone this year, either, if I hadn't seen the Mountain View Obon Festival, which took place a couple of weekends ago - that's what made me look up when the one for Palo Alto was taking place.

In terms of the food, it was pretty good, though leaning toward ball-park prices to build a full meal. I had some cold soba noodles (which I haven't had before) and a single strip of teriyaki beef short rib, which was nice but costly for what they gave you, and had to supplement with a teriyaki chicken thigh and leg, which was a bit more like it.

What was notably not ball-park priced was the small bottle of sake that I picked up for a fiver. I'd expected to be bilked outrageously, but I'm willing to make certain sacrifices in my pursuit of the imagined ideal of Japanese living. So imagine my surprise when the bottle they gave me turned out to contain way more than I could safely drink before driving home. I had a single thimble-full - enough to let me know I'd had some sake - and transported the rest home, where it's now safely in my fridge.

As far as the entertainment, beyond what I listed above I also caught one of the three taiko recitals they were hosting today, played by the temple's youth group. Of the three it was probably my favorite, because I really like the sonics of taiko drumming, and because it was impressive to watch the drummers' athleticism and coordination. I remember seeing Michael Palin hanging around with some taiko drummers in Japan for his Full Circle series, which entailed ten-mile runs in the morning and all kinds of privation. The group here in Palo Alto probably doesn't get to those levels, but it does strike me as a good way to get in shape, so I might check that out...

The other notable thing was the community. There were a lot of multi-generational families, with grandparents, parents and grandkids (which makes sense, as it's a festival to honor ancestors), and they seemed heavily Japanese-American, which also makes sense as the festival is specifically Japanese, though China and Korea have their own variants. What struck me was that these were clearly yonsei, or fourth-generation Japanese, so people with deeper roots in the area than I've got. The woman who led the koto recital, in fact, called herself yonsei and said her son was gosei, or fifth-generation, which is nice as it shows that the community is still going strong.

In the end it was fun to get out to a local event, sample some delicious food and enjoy some Japanese culture leavened with local influences. One of my favorite things about the US in general, and California in particular, is that at its best the melting pot of cultures and languages leads to new and unique expressions of much older traditions around the world. And it's nice to be able to enjoy an aspect of Japanese culture that's open to non-Japanese and non-Buddhists.

I just have to remember to catch the festival again next year...

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Don't Just Write

I've been thinking about feel-good mantras a lot recently, and this was catalyzed a bit by a recent Tim Ferriss podcast where he talked to a bunch of previous guests about when it's time to quit something. A lot of the advice - or even all of it - was good, and very little of it had anything to do with writing fiction, but it got me thinking about the advice that beginning/aspiring writers get a lot.

The main one is, "Just write!" I think it should be obvious from my use of an exclamation point what I think of this advice. I've gotten it myself, many times, and the hell of it is that it's good advice. But it's not enough - necessary but not sufficient.

Thing is, writing's the easy part. The hard part is submitting it places, and getting it into shape to submit to magazines, contests, and literary agents. The one I prefer is Robert Heinlein's "Read a lot, write a lot, and send away what you write." But even that one kind of obscures the amount of work needed to get something into shape.

The platonic ideal is to write a story, send it off, and get started on the very next one. What I'm finding hard these days is balancing creating new stuff with editing the old stuff that I've "finished". I've got a screenplay I spent last year writing, and have spent some time since tinkering with it, getting it back in shape, etc. I have a short novel I wrote in 2015, which I've also been tinkering with since I wrote it. Just got back some beta reader comments on it that indicate how much more work I have to do on it.

But what do I prioritize? Writing new stuff (like this short story idea I've had) or fixing up the old stuff? The other complicating factor is that short stories are easier to submit than novels or screenplays, but less lucrative.

As an aside: yes, I'd like to make money at writing; doesn't mean I don't take it seriously - on the contrary, wanting to make money at it seems like even more reason to learn to do it well.

Obviously I need to do all of it. But to come back to my original thesis here, I can't only do the writing - to be successful at it (however you define success) you have to do the editing, the research and the submitting.

It's a good way to learn to deal with rejection!