Thoughts on Occupy and the State of the Global Economy

Advance Warning: I have no formal background in economics. I have a master’s degree in sociology and a lot of experience working on the topic of knowledge economies, but that’s about the short of it.

Time for my $0.02. 🙂 Comments/criticism encouraged – I’m always interested in improving my understanding of the world.

I’ve been following the Occupy Wall St. movement and the associated #Occupy movement worldwide for a few weeks now with a fair amount of interest. I’m trying to make sense of it, as is everyone else. As anybody who’s been following the mainstream news is undoubtedly aware, we’ve been cycling in and out of economic crisis mode now for the last four or five years, and we seem to be poised at a “make or break” point yet again with regards to global markets and more than a few national economies, with the global economy at stake. It makes sense to me that people would be upset and looking for solutions when the rich are getting exponentially richer at the expense of everyone else, even getting away with outright fraud in multiple instances (robosigning, etc.).

Part of the beauty of the Occupy movement is that it has steadfastly refused to produce any concrete list of demands that would allow it to be easily categorized and then demonized or dismissed. That said, a lot of the discourse is still framed from an approach informed by capitalism and the global economy we’ve worked and lived with for most of the last hundred years (I realize I’m horribly generalizing, but to address this properly is more writing than I can do as a quick first commentary). This bothers me, because I believe that the underlying premises that we derive our systems of resource distribution from have changed fairly abruptly in a way that is not yet appreciated.

In short, there will never be enough jobs again.^

Globally, the stats I can find (ILO’s Global Employment Trends 2011) indicate:
* 3.1 billion workers globally out of a population that has recently crossed 7 billion.
* 660+ million in industry (slightly declining).
* 1.06 billion in agriculture (declining).
* 1.3 billion in services (increasing).
* 220 million unemployed (increasing).

As globalization continues to break down the barriers for access to these labor markets, Western countries have increasingly found themselves competing directly with this global pool of labor, resulting in cries for increased protectionism and spawning anti-globalization movements from people of all political colors. This is an implicit recognition of the fact that there will never be enough jobs again^ – these calls seek to artificially prop up labor markets by limiting the competition to labor pools inside national borders, but the internet has reduced the relevance of national borders to the average citizen in almost every area besides employment and nationalist emotion.

It’s hard to get an exact figure, but the estimates I’ve found (google “how many people can one farmer feed” – I’ll try to find some easy-click sources later) indicate that somewhere between 100 and 1000 people (150-ish being a more common estimate) can be fed per farmer using modern farming techniques. I presume this refers to grain and livestock and probably not to more obscure types of farming (saffron, anyone?:P), but in terms of simply providing a base amount of food, the number of people working in agriculture can only be expected to drop massively as technological improvements and increased education hit the rest of the developing world. By today’s “modern” standard, at a low number of even 75 per farmer (a number more in line with the 1970s), we actually need less than 100 million, or one-tenth, the number of agricultural workers that actually exist. This suggests that, in agriculture alone, approximately 900 million jobs currently only exist due to massive systemic inefficiency (I won’t even go into market factors that result in outright waste, farmers destroying crops because they can’t afford to transport them to markets, etc.).

I haven’t even tried to find numbers for industry, but I’m presuming that at least a couple hundred million people working in modern industry are employed making “widgets,” textiles, etc. These are currently things that are impractical or impossible to produce easily at home – but with home fabrication under intensive development and the price of both open-source and consumer fabrication devices falling rapidly, I don’t think I’m out of line in predicting that the upcoming revolution in personal-scale manufacturing by simply downloading designs and “printing” real objects at home a la RepRap is going to utterly decimate jobs in both manufacturing and service which are related to the design, manufacturing, and delivery of these types of objects.

A conservative guess is that maybe half of the global workforce is currently necessary to maintain current levels of production if obstacles to efficiency were removed (patents, lack of access to capital, etc.). It’s not inconceivable to think that in 20-30 years, we could be facing an extra billion “unemployed” workers from technological improvements in agriculture and industry as well as from simple population growth, and the number of “necessary” workers could drop to a tenth of the available pool. And the truth is, we don’t need everyone to work to produce enough for everyone.

I realize that a lot of people believe in the magical free market fairy that “creates” wealth and jobs out of thin air (yes, improvements in resource use and efficiency do result in improved standards of living, a sort of wealth-by-adding-energy-to-the-system that is still subject to degradation like every other form of order in the universe), but short of utterly useless service jobs like everyone having a personal hairdresser or a maid, I don’t really foresee there being enough jobs ever again. And to further complicate matters, artificial intelligence and robotics are increasingly proving more efficient at a lot of previously service-oriented tasks as well, so I think that even this segment of the global workforce will ultimately see decimation.

The short of it is, we’ve reached a point where our collective technological advancement has outpaced our ability to know what to do with ourselves as a species. “Liberals” think that “conservatives” are keeping them poor. “Conservatives” believe liberals are lazy hippies who just need to get a job. Communists say that communism will save the world, and the Ayn Rand fans wave the banner of individualism and capitalism as some sort of cure-all. All of them, I think, are wrong.

The debate must be reframed in terms of a world where we no longer need everyone to work and there will never again be enough jobs.^ What sort of world do we want that to be? While I believe that not everyone needs to work, I believe most people are happier if they are being productive members of society in some way, so we need to refashion our economic realities to provide them an opportunity to do so and to have a basic standard of living. I don’t know what this world will look like. I don’t know if we will ever get there. I don’t believe capitalism is the answer, nor do I believe that communism is. Humans have a competitive instinct that must have an outlet, but must also be channeled for the greater good. All I know is that we – all of us, not just the Occupy movement – have to put our thinking caps on now because time is running out, and forgiving student loans, making the rich pay an extra percent in taxes, and/or building more Starbucks for barista jobs will not solve a damn thing.

^ I keep marking this statement because there are a couple of ways that there could actually be more jobs, only one of which is really currently feasible, and that’s simply annihilating large percentages of the working population so that there is suddenly sufficient demand for the remaining labor pool again. I don’t think anyone thinks this is a good solution, but historically humans have resorted to war when resource distribution goes out of whack, and we are naive if we believe that it will not happen again. The other is finding some magical way to colonize the oceans/space/whatever that isn’t outrageously resource-intensive, since that would provide a lot of work for a lot of people. Pure fantasy, at least in the foreseeable future.:)

Quick Update

I’ve been making slow progress at various projects, primarily trying to fix some bugs in my Brainsucking Mutants game and contemplating a paper doll system (pixel art) for it. I’m not sure if I’ll manage, but I have a few random (not very good, as you’ll see) pixel art doodles to prove that I haven’t been wasting all of my spare time playing Civilization… >_>



Browser-based MMO Update

So I’ve been working on getting my little browser-based MMO up and running again. I seem to have gotten the basic engine working on this server, so if you want to check it out in all of its pre-alpha glory, it’s at brainsuckingmutants.com – there are a lot of bugs to fix, be warned. Anyway, the basic idea is wandering around a city collecting items, beating up other players, and drawing things — so far. My plan is to get it much more playable and add a lot of content over the next few weeks.:)

ActionScript 2 Tip Of The Day

This info is available elsewhere on the web, but it was hard to find, so maybe reposting it here will make it easier (and if I need it again, I’ll be able to find it myself!).

If you are trying to use BitmapData.draw() to create BitmapData based on some file that you loaded from a remote server, e.g., via loadMovie(), and your output BitmapData is blank/empty/all white space, there is a good chance that you need to force your AS2 code to load the crossdomain.xml file from the remote server via System.security.loadPolicyFile() in order for it to work. Without this, Flash decides that it doesn’t have permissions to write the image to a new BitmapData object, even if it’s already happily displaying the loaded image to you on the screen. Makes no sense to me, but this is the workaround.:)

Hope this helps someone else who hasn’t made the move to AS3 yet.

Kindle Experiment Update (And What I’ve Been Up To In September)

Well, September isn’t over, but my experiment with pricing my biopunk novel, Fourwar, on Amazon Kindle at $0.99 is. I reduced the price at the beginning of September, made the requisite announcements on Twitter and my other social networks, and pressed on with my (admittedly light) marketing efforts. Net result? Zero sales, no change from August.

To further my experiment, I’ve decided to go the other way and try a month priced at $4.99 instead. I suspect the price doesn’t really matter if you’re an “unknown” author. I also suspect that, like Robert Sawyer hints on his blog, self publishing is hard in SF generally – whether you take that as “speculative fiction” or “science fiction,” it seems like this stuff is just not going to fly off “virtual” shelves in the same way that a titillating romance novel or a traditional whodunit would. So, more work on marketing for me.:) Unfortunately, I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to spam the fuck out of every blog and forum in existence, so trying to find more organic ways of advertising has been challenging.

In terms of measuring general interest and exposure, I get somewhat confusing results comparing awstats reports to Google Analytics reports on my blog, and the latter can’t track certain things. What I do know is that my own website stats claim that, in September to date, the free PDF version of Fourwar was downloaded 19 times, and my first novel, Alice [free PDF], 10 times. Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, Amazon doesn’t show Kindle page traffic to authors, so you’re out of luck trying to figure out if you’re even being noticed on Amazon if you aren’t actively making sales.

Anyway, the experiment will press on. My third novel, a sort of urban sci-fantasy tale, is sitting at about 50,000 unedited words now, so small progress! I’m hoping to have a finished draft by the end of the year (but I know I said that before). I’m also working on yet-another-edit of Alice, which I’ll then place on the Amazon Kindle store as well as leaving it available under a CC license here.

I’ll close with a couple of very rough-draft thumbnails of images I’m working on – more things that I hope to finish by the end of the year.:)

Social Network Annoyances

So today, we find out that Facebook changed everything on us yet again. Although I don’t use Facebook anymore, I have a “fakebook” account that I haven’t yet deactivated, so I note firsthand the utter impossibility now of finding out what any of your “friends” are up to since Facebook now decides for you what you should see instead of allowing chronology to do the job for you.:P

Secondly, my old MySpace band page has been, for some time, auto-accepting friends requests thanks to some old change they made that was supposed to help bands who have to manually approve hundreds or thousands of friends requests per day. But that has lately turned into the auto-accept-spamming-bands feature, where bands I’ve never heard of in genres I’m completely uninterested in befriend me and send me self-promotional messages in gangsta-ese or some other brand of English butchered for the sake of “cool.” Thanks, MySpace.

Finally, Google Plus has utterly failed to..well, do anything new at all since they added the games. One-sided API access is something, I guess, but not that interesting since it’s read-only. Ah well, at least they haven’t made it more annoying to use. Go Google+!

Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Spoiler-free Review

I just finished playing through Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and as a long-time fan of the series, I want to post my thoughts on the overall experience here. I should forewarn you that I actually liked playing Invisible War, although the original was still by far the best, so perhaps you’ll consider my taste suspect, but in any case…

Overall, the game was exceedingly well-done. I finish about one in ten video games that I play, maybe less, so the fact that I bothered to finish it in the first place is a testament to the degree to which I enjoyed it. (Other story-based game series that I’ve actually finished are Mass Effect, Halo, Uncharted, and Assassin’s Creed, for the record.) The experience was much closer to the original Deus Ex in terms of the depth of story and the room for improvisation in gameplay than Deus Ex 2, and visually superior to both. I tend to play stealthily and generally non-lethally, and this game actively rewarded exploration (I’m pretty sure you get enough XP to earn a couple of augmentation upgrades just from Explorer bonuses alone) of its more-or-less open world, which was nice.

Things that I didn’t like: the fact that only one energy cell actively recharges, ever. Many of your augmentations require energy, but most specifically, a hand-to-hand takedown or kill requires one full cell of energy. So you can have up to five cells through upgrades, but only the first one will recharge; the other four will stay depleted if you don’t find the stupid granola/protein/whatever-the-hell-they-are bars in order to recharge. This is pretty irritating when you are going through long sections without finding any of them (especially near the end of the game). Generally, I found the non-lethal approach increasingly hard to maintain as the end of the game neared, mostly due to lack of ammunition and energy (takedowns require energy), and by the end of the game, I was forced to extreme improvisation in order to take down the last boss without killing (I literally used a stray EMP grenade that I found after running around the entire map dodging enemy fire, since I’d previously depleted all of my tranquilizer/stun ammo and gas/EMP grenades). The game shoved literally stacks of heavy rifle ammo in my face, but I could not find freaking stun ammo for the life of me. And, of course, my one remaining energy bar was useless, since I couldn’t use a physical takedown on the boss (the option would not pop up when I was standing right next to the boss, not that they ever seemed to work on any of the bosses).

Speaking of bosses, I agree with reviewers generally saying that it didn’t suit the tone of the game to have it force you to kill the bosses even if you didn’t intend to. It would have been nice to have a way around it, but there simply wasn’t any choice in the matter. It wasn’t game-ruining, but it was a minor irritation.

The only thing about the game that actually sucked were the “Asian” accents. Argh. I can’t stress how horrible they were, although I guess 20 years from now, maybe it’s possible that Asians will have that accent…yeah, right.

The hacking minigame was okay, but got repetitive near the end (and was still worth doing for the experience points, so I spent a lot of time doing it even though I didn’t really need to – boring). I found myself wishing for melee weapons other than the built-in takedown kill weapons – Deus Ex had swords, and everybody knows swords are awesome.;)

Otherwise, the game was awesome. Tons of weapons, tons of detail in the world (books, emails, conversations between people on the streets, etc.), lots of hidden paths around pretty much every map, some nifty abilities (wall-smashing is lots of fun), and that nice Deus Ex-specific vibe of paranoia everywhere. The music was great. Yay for Final Fantasy 27 posters on the walls! If you are into biopunk and/or cyberpunk and you want a good story (besides my FourWar novel *wink wink*), this is a must-play game. 5/5!

(Note to self: in about six months, after people have had time to play the game, I’d like to post again about the storyline with a spoiler-laden review/commentary. Lots of thoughts about it, I just don’t want to ruin the game for anyone.)

Nate’s Trogdor

In case you ever wondered about why I have a sort of strange dragon (maybe a sea-dragon or sea serpent?) as my “avatar” here and there, a few years ago I stumbled over this Strong Bad email (flash video with sound, SFW) and decided I could handle drawing an S with a more bigger S.;) One day I found myself a bit bored and had scrap paper and a pencil lying around, so I sketched it out.

Click below to see the original sketch, in all of its messy glory. But definitely watch the video first!
Trogdor

Thought on Commercial Blogging

It’s not really a surprise to anyone that I’m a giant geek, and like many giant geeks, I follow a number of tech websites via RSS in order to stay on top of the mountain of news that piles up in the tech world every day. My RSS list includes a number of major tech sites – Slashdot, Engadget, Ars Technica, TechCrunch, etc. Until today, I also followed Gizmodo, but have done so with increasing distaste, so I’ve finally gone ahead and removed it from the list of sites I follow.

I don’t really know what happened, but in addition to Gizmodo’s widely-hated site redesign earlier this year, it seems like the writing quality has rapidly degenerated into the tech blogger equivalent of some little boys in a schoolyard trying to play “look at me.” Much of the language in any given article is now less about technology and more about trying to come up with clever one-liners, usually snarky ones, that don’t really add anything to the conversation – this is 1) annoying as a transparent cry for attention and 2) actively irritating as it takes me longer to sift through articles looking for the news. I suppose specific Gizmodo writers are more to blame than others – Jesus Diaz and Sam Biddle spring to mind as the foremost examples – but there are also an increasing number of articles coming through on topics that are only tangentially related to technology at all.

I realize that blogging companies exist to make money first and foremost, but I guess the purist in me still wishes people would write about subjects with some degree of concision rather than the verbal gaudiness that seems to occur. Technical people are often busy above all, so wasting our time is not really usually appreciated.

I think part of this phenomenon can be attributed to the fact that, increasingly, bloggers and online writers are being paid ridiculously tiny amounts of money for their work, so they have to compensate by deliberately over-writing, and/or writing tons of not-really-useful articles in order to make a useful amount of money. A look at any freelance site for writing work will show you that most companies are not willing to pay more than a couple of dollars for an article, at most; most of that work is writing articles basically padded with keywords for search engines (SEO “optimized” articles) to drive ad traffic, or just wanting people to write “exciting” things to do the same. From what I can tell, Gawker is ad-driven, so its child sites (including Gizmodo) seem to be sliding into that sort of black hole at an increasing pace. I suspect that their full-time writers are paid more than a couple of dollars an article — but with bonuses for traffic, it pays for them to be flashy and overwritten instead of simply writing what needs to be said.

With consumers mostly unwilling to pay for content, and companies short-changing writers, I don’t really see commercial blogging going anywhere but down in terms of quality. Long-term, independent bloggers will be producing more useful content because they actually care about what they write — only, without aggregation, it’s harder to find them.

I’m still following Lifehacker, which is another Gawker blog. If I’m right, though, it’s only a matter of time before that, too, turns into an unreadable mess. Anyone know of any DIY blogs that are decent competition?

eBook Publishing Experiment – Month One

Just over a month ago, I put my biopunk novel FourWar onto the Amazon Kindle store as an experiment in eBooks. Sad to say, I don’t appear to be the next John Locke or Amanda Hocking selling a million ebooks on Amazon. In fact, I’ve sold a mere two copies, both in the first week, and none at all since.

It would be nice if Amazon’s reporting would let me see how many people have actually looked at my novel and passed it up, but unfortunately they don’t make such information available to us lowly authors. I can only speculate that it isn’t very many yet. Far from being depressed about it, this has led me to reconsider my entire online presence.

As a first step, I installed Google Analytics tracking on this blog. I’ve always ran awstats in the background, and it claims I have something on the order of 300 unique users per day, but I’ve long suspected that the majority of those users were spammers trying to post comments on various articles I’ve written through the years (one in particular that was a popular rant with webmasters frustrated with the SORBS email blacklist). So Google Analytics has enabled me to sift some of that noise from my stats, and now I’m aware that I probably get more on the order of 5-10 visitors on a good day, sometimes only 3 or 4.

So, why is this relevant? Well, obviously I’m failing at the self-promotion game, and have been for a while. I’ve done all of the usual things people advise would-be eBook sellers to do: I have a Twitter account, a GoodReads profile where I’ve been posting a number of reviews, various accounts here and there that I microblog under, all back-linked here. But I’ve realized that I’ve been somewhat reclusive online for the last few years, and I think it’s coming back to bite me now that I’m actively seeking a certain amount of engagement. I certainly take self-blame for the atrophied readership.

That said, I’ve been looking at various ways of increasing FourWar’s exposure in the last month. I submitted it to Google Books in hopes of getting it onto the Android “Google Books” market, but that was excruciatingly painful. I’m aware that there are third-party services like Smashwords that will submit your books into multiple markets for you, but I’ve been more interested in understanding the process from the ground up, so I’ve been doing it all manually. All I can say is…seriously, Google, make it easier to do this! It took at least a week before FourWar left “processing,” and I’m still unclear on whether or not it’s actually on any Google markets now. The whole process is horribly opaque and unfriendly. I know that you can see a preview of FourWar on Google Books now, and it does have some cool features like showing related novels (presumably FourWar will show up as a book related to other books as well? Another very unclear thing…) and the word cloud that is a nice glimpse of “interesting” words and phrases from the book. I did briefly look at getting books into the Apple market as well, but it looks to be about as painful as the Google experience. I’m not sure why Amazon is the only company that makes it easy, but it’s obvious to me why Kindle is ahead as a publishing platform.

Anyway, on to month two. I have my fingers crossed.:)