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


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 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.