Creeping automation

Automation is everywhere, but most of us don’t notice it. Every product we buy, every service we use has been touched by automation, some more than others. Think about the products you buy about the grocery store? Come in a package? Packed by machine!

I’ve had some interesting emails from regular followers/readers about automation. I don’t think people quite understand how invasive and creeping automation is.

Here is a perfectly simple example. I live on a new development in Colorado. Some 70 single family homes, and now they are moving into the multi-family condo and town homes. They’ve built two condo buildings, and a 3rd 12-plex is going up now, literally right across the street.

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Pressed Siding, Floor and Ceiling Boards from Canada
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Crane lifts pre-constructed parts into place

First, let’s be clear, this isn’t a pre-fabricated building. It’s a unique design to this location, that most would consider “traditional construction”. Only it isn’t, it’s massively labor free, and largely “skilled-labor” free.

The construction is typical timber frame, in the old days, there would have been an army of craftsmen working on site, the continuous sound of saws and hammers. While there are some professional craftsmen on site, the bulk of the construction is being done by “nail gun jockeys” using pre-cut, assembled panels and components. They just nailed them into place.

Of course, walking pass this, you’d never normally take a second look. Since it’s directly opposite my home office, everytime I look out the window I see it. What do I see?

Creeping factory assembly and automation. All the major parts arrive pre-cut to size; the joists and all the boards for the side that need holes for windows and door arrive pre-cut. The original boards come from Canada and Mexico. Anyone who has seen the home improvement shows knows that the boards are not cut by craftsmen and craftswomen, but simply cut by operator assisted laser cutting machines. What do all these things have in common? Automation.

It would be easy to simple, let’s at least bring back the board creation, prep and the component assembly to the USA. Indeed easy to say. That assumes we have the raw material, and that the factories exist that can manage the increased workload. If they can’t then let’s assume they can be built.

What happens then? Well, the businesses that do the manufacturing either produce the same goods at the same price as they are available overseas, which will be hard. The US no longer has the same wealth of natural resources. Those that we do have are harder to extract, or come with environmental, planning or development restrictions. Even if these were lifted, they would still come with a price tag.

Those costs, plus any for plant construction, or increased raw material cost would be passed onto us. Effectively doing a “Carrier” and raising prices to cover their increased costs.

Automation is everywhere, but most of us don’t notice it. Every product we buy, every service we use has been touched by automation, some more than others. Think about the products you buy about the grocery store? Come in a package? Packed by machine! Ready made meals, the whole production line from animal slaughter to food prep and cooking are all now largely automated. It’s invisible, invasive and all encompassing.

Government US style

It’s clear that many Americans view “Big government” as a bad thing, it seems though that they are OK with lots of branches of small government, that is ineffective, costly and open to misuse, and often technology challenged.

Given the size of the USA, any government is going to be a big government. With over nearly 320-million people, and almost the largest country in geography in the world, most people clearly are clueless about the scale and the challenges of delivering services in what was the worlds most advanced country. Listen to this 10-second clip from NPR’s Morning Edition today, a piece by Frank Morris of KCUR on the FBI and Apple privacy debate.

Seems to be a pretty widely held view. I heard it on the way back from going to trade-in my state of Texas Drivers License for a state of Colorado Drivers License. I had to drive some 12-miles to Longmont CO, wait in line outside for 30-mins until it opened at 8a.m.; go in and explain to a clerk/assistant/helper what I was there to do, exchange my drivers license and trade-in my state of Texas car plates and register my vehicle with the State of Colorado.

I was helpfully told that I was in the wrong office to register my vehicle, and asked for the relevant ID etc. in order  to get my license. I was given a number of told to wait. When I was called, I spoke with a clerk who was helpful and polite, I glanced over at the desks of the other clerks, you could see from the windows on the PC terminals that they were using dated text mode applications. Credit card processing had to be done by hand, typing numbers in. Questions had to be spoken in English and answered in English, there were no touchpad or tablet interactions. I had to say, outloud, with little privacy my social security number, and after checking my eye sight, and paying I was told to go and wait again.

After a short wait, I was shown a printed version of the questions I was asked, the information I had given, and ask to sign “wholly” within a box at the bottom. If the signature wasn’t entirely in the box it would “invalidate” the application as it couldn’t be scanned in. That done, I went through the take a picture exercise, was given my documents back and told the new license would show up in the mail in 7-10 days.

I left some 70-minutes after arriving. Not bad I guess.

Compare that though to many other Western countries, and many emerging economies, and you get a different picture. Change address in the UK? It’s done online and free. Pictures, signatures and details are held securely centrally.

In the clip above, it’s claimed that the government can’t run USPS, healthcare or anything else. Yet, despite being severely constrained in the services it offers, the US Postal Service is actually pretty dam good, reasonably efficient and pretty cheap. Anyone who thinks that private companies, like FedEx, or UPS and some magic form of new state regulated and/or run service would do better simply isn’t thinking about or is clueless when it comes to understand that scale problem, and the investment needed.

The US Government doesn’t run Healthcare, it never has. It it funds the medicare and medicaid programs. Yes, the US dept. of Veterans Affairs does run medical care and benefits for veterans, given the US has been in a constant state of war of one form or another since 1940, and given the physically size and scale, it is again a pretty decent operation. A good friend of mine, Lee, actually is looking forward to the veterans benefits and healthcare  for the rest of his life. Yes, the VA has its’ problems.

But still, most Americans seem to think it’s better to deal with things “locally” even if that does mean inefficiency, a mistake prone system, lack of privacy, time wasting, out of date technology, duplication, cost and more.

Meanwhile, later this week I’ll be heading to Boulder County to office to register my car; right before I start looking for State of Colorado healthcare market place, trying to resolve the naming error on my City waste management account; filling my taxes with the US Revenue Services and the property taxes with a county in Texas…. and yeah, most Americans have the least amount of vacation time, work the longest hours, and get fewest paid benefits, and things like paid maternity leave. So, no problem waiting online then?

In stark contrast

texasWhile a lot of todays action in the Texas Capital, as covered by social media, is about the “open carry”  bill being sent back for procedural reasons, given we still have a full 7-weeks of the Legge before they remount their horses and get out of dodge for the next 1.5 years(I know, how weird is that?), there is no doubt the bill make to it the Governors desk, where Governor Abbott has said he’ll sign it.

I’m left feeling pretty empty and hollow about Texas today though. I heard the news today on the Texas Standard about SB 204. I don’t know anything about this subject, but when I saw the justification

that the state could “no longer afford” the cost of operating all of its 13 state-supported living centers.

I was left wondering how. in what universe can Texas not afford to run these? Neither the Texas Tribune or the Texas Standard had any details on how the some 3,000 beneficiaries of these State Institutions would be cared for.

A few minutes later the Texas Standard went on to cover this story, about Sex trafficking and human slavery. The article makes a number of claims, all of which are appalling and repugnant.

the Polaris Project says 100,000 children are trafficked a year for sex in this country. The Polaris Project maintains the national human trafficking hotline. Texas ranks second in the number of calls to that hotline.

It seriously makes you ask, why are we not focusing on this as a problem, are there State programs, State hospice care, State rehab centers?

But most of all, what kinda of Men are the “buyers” and facilitate this in Texas? It’s just disgusting.

Almost as bad though is that the Legge is busy debating open carry, meaningless tax cuts, and closing State institutions because it can’t afford  them. A fine example of “you get what you vote for”.

Austin Traffic: Congestion

Irrespective of f the rail bond passes today, this is where I’d be spending money in the next few years, make a serious attempt of creating an inclusive, flexible work hours business environment and it won’t cost $1.4 billion.

So, Austin traffic is terrible, lots of reports hightlight Austin as having the 4th worst traffic in America, especially those advocating for the road/rail on being voted on today.

Austin traffic among worst in hemisphere, study shows

However, if you sit down and do the numbers, what you’ll see is apart from I35, which I’ll come back to in a later post, almost none of the roads are at or near capacity. What Austin has, in a commuter traffic problem. This matches exactly my anecdotal experiences.

Traffic on S 1st
Traffic on S 1st

I took this picture this morning after my run. The traffic wasn’t there at 7:15 a.m. an it was gone a 9:15 a.m. South 1st was blocked all the way from City Hall, to up past W Oltorf. I’m sure the same would have been true on North and South Lamar; South Congress, Mopac, I35, East Riverside et al.

This is key when it comes to today’s vote on the rail and road bond. If you vote for the bond, what you are in essence be approving is a route that is a hail mary pass where we have to see significant growth to give the trains any real passengers outside of commute time. Even at commute time it’s not entirely clear that the ridership will meet the targets that Project Connect have claimed will be achieved.

This is why route selection is vital. On Sunday I was cycling up on Parmer Lane. I had to stop where the Red Line aka Metrorail crosses Parmer just west of R620. As the train passed, I strained to see the passengers, there were none. Even if the current proposal passes, this is likely to be a regular scene, since for the most part, apart from the medical buildings, the train doesn’t go where anyone will want to go during the day, unless the growth comes with the train.

If the route doesn’t get the riders, isn’t seen as a viable benefit to the city for the cost, it is highly unlikely that other bonds will be approved off the back of what will be seen as another expensive rail project.

The route isn’t going to reduce congestion at commute time, it will simply encourage more growth and more sprawl. Julio Gonzalez Altamirano has a great summary of all the issues, but even he, along with both the proponents and  critics have not discussed or talked about is the cultural issue of commuting at the same time.

Austin, Texas embodies an almost macho, work at all costs, be in early culture. It may not represent Texas, but it’s much worse here than almost anywhere else that I’ve worked(London, New York, Moscow, Berlin, Beijing). We are in the middle of the country, so we have timezone drift from both the east coast and the west coast. It’s not unusual to have calls at 7 a.m., meetings regularly start at 8 a.m. That has a massive impact on families, getting kids to school, getting to work.

Lately I’ve been tracking my commute times. I live in the central downtown and work in Round Rock, a 20-mile drive. I try to work at home Fridays, and every now and again I bike home from work and then the next day, bike back.

automaticOver the past month, whenever I can I’ve been leaving my drive to work until after 9:30 a.m. I have been using the AUTOMATIC driving app for a year or so, it makes it easy to look at your driving, trips, times and speed etc.

Trying to get out of my road anytime after 7:30 a.m. gets difficult, the traffic is streaming 2-lanes north towards downtown. It stays that way until 9 a.m. or so. The reverse is true in the evening.

Getting through downtown, a distance of just 2-miles can add 8-minutes to my commute time. However, if I leave outside the peak commute times, I can easily make it to work in less than 30-minutes, because apart from the downtown commute there really isn’t any traffic, even on I35, unless you are coming south from Pfllugerville, Round Rock and further afield.

It would seem to me, tackling this wouldn’t be free, but encouraging flexible working would be a great start. Sure, lots of businesses like schools, restaurants and other service based organizations need to have set hours staffed, and can’t have everyone show up at 9:15, but even they can be more flexible at setting roster times.

Flexible working has a large number of direct benefits, but also avoids the roads becoming clogged up all the time, with the noise, smell and cost associated with that. Even if you could extend the commute by just 45-minutes it would significantly reduce the actual congestion.

For the individual, it comes with a load of benefits, with flexible work schedules, employers also get a significant benefit. But when it come down to it, flexible working is about trust. Are Austin businesses ready to trust and encourage employees? And are Austinites prepared to shift their schedules?

Irrespective of f the rail bond passes today, this is where I’d be spending money in the next few years, make a serious attempt of creating an inclusive, flexible work hours business environment and it won’t cost $1.4 billion.

Why Nations Fail, does this apply to Texas?

Why Nations Fail is a fascinating book, by Acemoglu of MIT and political scientist, James Robinson. They posit that economies that have abundant natural resources can be easily captured by groups that become politically powerful. The authors view is that an abundance of natural resources, which may seem like a blessing, often turns out to be a blessing for a select few and, for the rest of a country’s citizens, a curse. It’s called the natural-resource curse.

east-texas-oil-field[1]The natural-resource curse is well understood economic equation, there are a number of papers on it, this one by Sachs and Warner, the show that countries with great natural resource wealth tend nevertheless to grow more slowly than resource-poor countries. Resource-abundant countries tended to be high-price economies and, benefited by the few.

With the media here in Texas, and especially Austin, currently focused, on prices, the tax burden; the impact of the thousands of people moving  Texas;  and John Stewart Daily lampooning Texas, from inside Austin itself; and an increasing sense of conflict among ordinary people, I wonder if Texas, through it’s natural abundance of land, oil, shale oil isn’t in fact setting itself up to fail?

Certainly ahead of next weeks mid-term elections, the 10/1 Austin City Council election, the vote on Prop-1. all the signs are there. While the abundance of natural-resources has lulled people into a false sense of security, allowing various groups to drive conflict in order to gain control of the State Institutions. Classic theory in practice.

While this would normally be something you’d expect in 3rd world countries such as Sierra Leone, Angola, Venezuela and Nigeria, is it so impossible that it could happen here?

The signs are that it is. Texas is increasingly dropping in national ranking, and internationally worse still. Despite the abundant wealth garnered from the Oil boom, and the more recent Gas/Shale boom, the bulk of that money resides indeed in the hands of the few. Texas has

Oxfam has a solution paper to the natural-resource curse. It starts by saying “get your hands on the money”. In this case, I think rather than get our hands on the money, it would be better to follow Norways lead and create a world leading Sovereign Wealth fund and use that to improve the State, and services that Texas itself has. What are we currently doing?  Raiding the rainy day fund to improve the roads, the rainy day fund aka The Economic Stabilization Fund, or the Texas version of a sovereign Wealth Fund, nice.

Travelling for your job: Survival Tips

I wasn’t sure which blog to post this on, in fact I thought I’d already posted in to my more work related blog, turns out I hadn’t. I’ll be heading back to Texas A&M again next month to give a talk on career and personal development, and these were the slides I used to guide the talk last time.

Anyone that hasn’t traveled much for business, when you list the countries you’ve been too, think it’s something like Matt Harding, I doubt this represents his real travel experience.

If I remember this time, I’ll record the talk and transcribe the points into something more consumable. In the past I’ve had my talks video recorded, but I think being able to post in here text format would be useful. During the talk, which is mostly focussed on the pluses and minuses of corporate travel, I also discuss, How to handle person life issues (family leave, eldercare, illness, accidents, reoccurring illness) professionally; Thinking about and preparing for mid-career and long-term career prospects; The joys and expectations of working in a large company.

If you are interested in a more technical presentation, you can see the slide and lecture notes from when I gave the distinguished lecture at Texas A&M, 2011, here.

The Great American Ripoff: The High Cost of Low Taxes

Americans pay almost four times as much as the citizens of other wealthy countries for things such as retirement security and health care on the private market – 10.6 percent of our economic output versus an average of just 2.7 percent among OECD member states.

via The Great American Ripoff: The High Cost of Low Taxes | Connecting the Dots, What Matters Today | BillMoyers.com.

Bill Moyers website has a great perspective on the whole state vs private industry, tax vs pay debate. It shows that Americans for the most part want what the government provides, well-maintained infrastructure, safe food and clean water, efficient firefighting and policing, Medicare and Social Security and virtually every other government-provided service you can name. Most Americans though think that a lower tax bill – especially for federal taxes — The article shows, with figures, that those low taxes actually work against the economic interests of most Americans.

That’s because we pay ridiculously high out-of-pocket costs for things that are provided by the public sector in other developed countries. The difference is quite dramatic.