A flaw in the way smart people think about robots and job loss


People talk about robots coming for their jobs quite a bit. It’s a big topic, and I have thoughts about a few different aspects of it. But, for today, I want to focus on a particular logical error I see smart people making all the time.

Thinking about robots replacing people one at a time

Consider this quote from Matt Levine:

If you are a human employed at an investment bank and worried that robots are coming for your job, I recommend that story about UBS AG’s forays into artificial intelligence, which I found extremely soothing. There are two products involved. One is a boring office-automation thingy, which “scans for emails sent by clients detailing how they want to divide large block trades up between funds” and then does the dividing, “doing a task that would normally take a person about 45 minutes in only about two minutes.” Yeah look no one is losing their job over that; that is a pure win for the junior person who would otherwise have been doing that allocating.

Now, Matt Levine is a smart guy, and his posts are often very insightful (seriously, read his blog). But this last sentence is a perfect example of the flawed thinking I have in mind. The implied claim is that if a robot can’t replace 100% of a particular job (or at least a very large fraction of that job), then “no one is losing their job” because of that robot.

And that’s just not how it works. Continue reading “A flaw in the way smart people think about robots and job loss”

Meta-Contrarian Typography, part 2

I hope that my last post convinced you to use two spaces after periods in your finished work product—which aids in clarity and makes your writing much more skimmable. But in case you aren’t convinced, I want to make a weaker point—and one that I feel more strongly about.

Even if you don’t think your finished product should use wide sentence spacing, you should still draft with two spaces between your sentences.

Why should you draft with a different number of spaces than you ultimately display? For two reasons: First, there’s a good chance that you should be writing in a plaintext editor. For one thing, separation of presentation and content is a basic principle of visual design, especially on the web. Even for print media, there are real advantages to using a plaintext editor that separates your content from presentation (like LaTex) instead of a What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get editor (like Word).

The full argument for plaintext editors could easily be its own post (or several different posts), but here’s the short version: First, it lets you write in a distraction-free writing environment, including one of the many minimalist text editors. All of these editors keep the presentation and styling elements entirely out of the way, letting you focus entirely on the content when you’re first writing. And then they make it easy to go back and apply powerful styling techniques later on.

That segues nicely into the second advantage of writing in a plaintext editor. When you do turn to formatting your text, you can apply more powerful formatting techniques, without the constraints imposed by Word or other word processors. Word tends to be “opinionated”—that is, it imposes lots of views about how your text should be presented. If you agree with those views, fine, but if you don’t … well, it can be hard or impossible to change them.

Finally, first drafting your writing in a plaintext editor makes your writing more flexible and modular. As anyone who’s ever written a document in Word, and then tried to convert that document into a Pages file, a PDF, an email, or an HTML file can tell you, formatting can easily be lost or garbled in the conversion process. (And let’s not even get started on the bad-old-days problem of Word versus WordPerfect.) But with plaintext, you can easily export the text to whatever format you want, and then apply format-appropriate styling once you’ve exported the text.

Let’s take writing a resume as an example. Continue reading “Meta-Contrarian Typography, part 2”

Meta-Contrarian Typography

Have you heard of meta-contrarians? The idea is that in many different areas, there’s a boring, old-fashioned, “common-sense” position. And a popular contrarian rejection of that position. And then a meta-contrarian rejection-of-that-rejection—a rejection that can end up looking a lot like the original position.

The theory is that some people will be strongly drawn to the meta-contrarian position, as a way of countersignalling.FN 1 I don’t know how true this is in general, but it’s an accurate description of me—I feel a strong urge towards meta-contrarianism. Whenever there’s a dominant contrarian position, I feel powerfully drawn to the meta-contrarian position on the other side.

And thus, I have meta-contrarian tendencies in typography.

I. A Typographic Typology

Typography provides fertile soil for meta-contrarianism, because it has so many orthodox contrarian positions. That is, there are many, many common “mistakes” (using hyphens instead of dashes, using the default font, use of too little whitespace, and on and on). This creates an opportunity for contrarians to rush in and correct those errors—which, in turn, presents an opportunity for meta-contrarians to show up and challenge the contrarian orthodoxy.

And, heretic that I am, that’s exactly what I intend to do.

So, what contrarian dogma do I intend to challenge? Continue reading “Meta-Contrarian Typography”

College tuition: On net, not so gross

I think I’ve found my nominee for the most important chart no one talks about: The difference between sticker price of college and average price net of financial aid. Over the last 20 years, tuition at a private college has shot up by almost $15,000—and everyone talks about that. What doesn’t get anywhere near as much attention is that financial aid has shot up almost as much. So, for the average student, the actual cost of private college has only increased by less than $2,500. Put another way: well over four-fifths of the tuition increases in the last 20 years have gone to increases in financial aid.

The story for public colleges is broadly similar, though all the numbers are lower. Sticker tuition has gone up about $5,000, while average tuition has barely increased at all.

This data puts changes in tuition in an entirely different light: as with a store that doubles its prices and then announces that everything is 60% off, the change in tuition has not been as dramatic as it appears.

However, this view is a bit incomplete; the difference—the crucial difference—is that everyone gets the 60% off at the store while the question of who gets the financial aid is much more complex. Indeed, the better analogy is to Barnes & Noble doubling their prices but then announcing much larger discounts for those with loyalty cards: the average price paid may remain similar, but the shift in who is paying what has changed dramatically.

So, in college who is paying what, and why should we care?

Continue reading “College tuition: On net, not so gross”

Will Rogers, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump

I’ve been thinking for a while about why anger is so politically popular right now, on both the left (Sanders) and the right (Trump etc.)—even though the country as a whole seems to be doing pretty well (low unemployment, low inflation, low crime, not really at war …). It almost seems like most people think that, despite those good numbers, the group they’re part of is at real risk of being left behind. There wouldn’t be any mystery if just a few groups felt that way, but the weird part is that pretty much all groups seem to feel that way at the same time.

After putting in some thought, I’ve got an answer. I’m sure it’s not the whole explanation, but it’s one I hadn’t heard before, so I thought I’d share. It’s related to the Will Rogers phenomenon, which is based on the quote “When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, they raised the average intelligence level in both states.” That is, Will Rogers was (jokingly) suggesting that the Okies were dumber than average for Oklahoma, but smarter than average for California, and thus when they moved they inceased the average intengence in both states. (This statistical quirk also explains stage migration in medical testing.)

I’m wondering if a similar phenomenon has happened in a bunch of areas in America lately. Let’s start with college.
Continue reading “Will Rogers, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump”

Contracts-vs-legal-briefs — Part 2: the implications for blogging

Last time, we were talking about how clear legal briefs are and how confusing contracts are in comparison. This is odd, since legal briefs are written to be read by experts (other lawyers), while (many) contracts are written to be read by regular Joes. At the end of the post, I promised that the answer to that question isn’t just important for legal writing. Instead, it has a real impact on something much closer to home: blogging.

Blogs as briefs, blogs as contracts

A blog can be more like a brief, or it can be more like a contract. That is, a blog can be written with the goal of being understood, or written with the goal of writing something that no one can misconstrue.

(Or it can have both those goals, but my point is that they trade off against each other. The more energy a blogger puts into pursuing one objective, the worse they’ll do on the other. It’s a spectrum, not a binary choice. But there’s still a tradeoff.)

I believe too many blogs are written too much like contracts—even those written by the best of bloggers.

What does it mean for a blog to be written like a contract? After all, no one writes a blog in the unreadable format of a credit-card agreement—at least not a blog that people read for long.FN 1

But there is a blog equivalent to writing an unreadable contract. Remember my theory: contracts are unreadable because they aren’t written just for the readers, they’re also written defensively. They’re written to defend against the attacks of the other lawyers who might come along and aggressively/intentionally misread it.

Bloggers aren’t really worried about being sued (for the most part, anyway). So what does it mean for a blogger to write defensively? Who are they defending against?
Continue reading “Contracts-vs-legal-briefs — Part 2: the implications for blogging”

Why are contracts gibberish but legal briefs are eloquent?

Why are contracts gibberish but legal briefs are eloquent? Back in May, Shamus Young wrote

Having signed my share of legal documents, I know how impenetrable legalese can get. I assumed court briefs – documents aimed specifically at lawyers and other experts – would be even more baffling than the mortgages and NDAs I’ve dealt with, which are ostensibly intended to be read and understood by laypeople. But as it turns out, some of this court stuff can get pretty informal and it’s not particularly dense with jargon.

Shamus’ “assumption” makes sense—legal briefs are written for experts, so why aren’t the full of jargon? And why are contracts—intended to be read by non-lawyers—so comparatively confusing?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the answer lately because, in an odd way, it sums up my blogging philosophy. Continue reading “Why are contracts gibberish but legal briefs are eloquent?”

Announcing programming projects & blog commitments

I have just added two new sections to the blog: a Programming Projects page and a Blog Commitments page. Check out those pages for the full details, but the short version is that I am in the process of learning to program, and the projects page will keep a record of my initial attempts. I’ll be posting both the code I write and the apps I produce to that section for the foreseeable future as I make progress towards mastering a new skill. (Which is part of the mission of this blog, after all.)

My first project is a Pomodoro Timer (app; code). If you’re not familiar with the Pomodoro Method, it’s a very useful time-management system that involves alternating 25-minute periods of intense focus with 5-minute rest periods. And it’s very helpful for getting large amounts of mentally taxing work done quickly. Hopefully, my timer will help me use this technique more often.

The Blog Commitments project chronicles all the public commitments I’ve made. The commitment that is most relevant to the blog is that I’m committing to upload at least two posts to the blog every week. I use Beeminder to track and enforce these public commitments, and more details are available on their site. In addition to committing to blogging every week, I also have commitments about meditating, avoiding distracting websites at work, and coming home from work at a reasonable time. Again, full details on the respective pages.

For now, please feel free to use this page for any comments you have on the blog commitments or on my programming projects. I’ll have a substantive/analytical post up later this week (as required by my new Beeminder commitment).

Was Piracy a Good Thing — The Answers

If you read my last post, then you know we’re solving a mystery: Why is it that low-cost competition caused a brutal race to the bottom in service in the airline industry, but yet Steam and Netflix seuccessfully competed with low-cost (free) from piracy.

In this post, I’m going to go through a few ways that airlines and Steam are distinct, and ask if each difference explains the different outcome. I’m going to start with some distinction that I think don’t explain the different outcomes, and then turn to the ones that do.

Continue reading “Was Piracy a Good Thing — The Answers”

Was Piracy a Good Thing?

I’ve been thinking a lot about video game piracy and that time United Airlines beat up a guy. I’m guessing the connection isn’t that obvious, so let me explain.

Piracy as low-cost competition

There’s an argument that I take pretty seriously that runs something like this: Companies have mostly won the battle against piracy in the last few years by offering better customer service. The Forbes article I linked gave the recent high-profile release of Orange Is The New Black on torrent sites as an example. Sure, after it was released, you could get OItNB for free through the torrent sites. But it’d be annoying. Take it away, Forbes article:

If you wanted to download this leak now you have to:

  • Endure 720p quality episodes with some audio errors and color-correction issue
  • Use a torrent site/client, the likes of which are often rife with viruses
  • Risk a letter from your ISP given the hugely high-profile nature of this leak
  • Download what appears to be only the first 10 episodes of the 13 episode season

In contrast, if you just wait a few weeks, Netflix will offer the full season instantly in 4K HDR, readily available on any device you own that has a Netflix app (which is probably all of them).

Sure, Netflix can’t compete on price, but it can win hands down on service. And thus many, many people will choose to pay for Netflix even though they could get this show for free. The same article added that Gabe Newell has made this point in the video game context:

The most-referenced quote about online piracy comes from Valve’s Gabe Newell, who said “Piracy is a service problem.” He created Steam, the online portal for PC games, and while it didn’t outright eliminate game piracy, it made many games so cheap and easy to access, piracy often seemed like the worse alternative.

So, if this argument is right (and I tend to think it is), piracy has basically served as low-cost, low-quality competition. By providing better customer service, paid content providers (Netflix/Steam) are able to make money selling a premium product that outcompetes the free alternative for many customers.

Does this mean piracy was good?

So hold up—does this mean that piracy had a good effect on the video game industry (/whatever Netflix is)? I think maybe, yeah. Continue reading “Was Piracy a Good Thing?”