Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Of Clouds, PCs, and zEC12s

Earlier this week I read about the, like, serious arrival of The Cloud in computing—meaning that someone maintains computers and memories that we just access from afar—yesterday came news of IBM’s unveiling of a new mainframe computer, zEnterprice EC 12 (zEC12). One of its uses, of course, is to host lots of lots of clouds. With that we have once more closed a circle—because what goes around, comes around. Almost as if to put a seal on that, HP stock was turning squeeshy because, in crude summary, the PC is dead.

To be sure, the PC market is still vast, but the sex-appeal is gone. PCs have turned into commodities. But we still need them to talk to The Cloud. It’s sort of analogous to saying that when we pray we pray to God, not to the prayer rug—and the PC has turned into a mere rug.

Meanwhile I had begun to fear for the future of the Smartphone. Now that these little smaller-than-your big ham palm devices have more power than my HP Pavilion 6647c PC, smartphones have nowhere to go. Here comes zEC12 to give them a new challenge. “Miniaturize me!” says the zEC12 proudly—“do that and you’ll be a real telephone.”

The name of my computer, by the way, does sound rather grand: HP Pavilion on and on and on PC. Reminds me of aristocracies that have come down in stature—some Russian Princess living in penury in Paris handing out towels at up-scale public toilets. I am sad for you, dear Pavilion; but the lineage of nobility is still visible on your careworn features—while in the small, sturdy, abstract black cabinet of the zEC12 I detect its lineage too—the great monsters that used to take up most of a floor in office buildings.

Yes. What goes around. One of these days even the humble abacus will be back in place of honor, but that might take a little longer.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Contorted Commerce

My entrance into the world now generally called “technology” began with an Apple IIe. I was a rank beginner, and it took me some time to discover that Apple’s general strategy was to obsolete its products on what seemed to be a schedule. This irritated me enough to abandon Apple for IBM; I never bought another Apple product since. The other day our cell phone finally failed. I thought it might be fixable, so naively I took it to a shop. They looked at it and laughed. I ended up with a Samsung product. Satisfying, that. Apple at least temporarily prevailed over Samsung yesterday—and it pleased me that I was helping Apple’s opponent.

I belong to what might be a silent majority—people who treat tools as tools. Especially in the “technology” category—until it too gets absorbed into ordinary reality—the corporate impulse is to exploit the customer by obsolescing product at regular intervals. Microsoft is working on yet another bloody version of Windows. Facebook is terror-ridden because it can’t as yet put ads on smartphones. I’m in the majority that only needs a stupidphone—and I get those free with a wireless telephone contract. Never bought a car except to get some transportation. My ego is big enough without a $50,000 emblem that spends virtually all of its time waiting to be used.

But what about progress? Well, where are you progressing to? The funeral home is a pretty good guess. Back before “technology” appeared, I’m thinking of the Egyptians, the big egos in that day had themselves embalmed. Call it the terminal technology. I’m waiting for the Market to launch LaZer-Cremation as the Baby Boom finally reaches its collective apotheosis. After that we might actually return to normalcy again. It’s coming. It’s coming.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Dust Bowl Remembered

Click to enlarge; Esc returns to post.

We are experiencing a significant drought this year. It prompted me to look back to the Dust Bowl days, 1934 and 1936. The maps above show the conditions that prevailed in July of 1934 and July of 2012. It tells me that conditions in 1934 were a whole lot worse. Agricultural practices put in place after the Dust Bowl days, to prevent future recurrence, were still in the future. The over-farmed regions turned into dust. We were also in the midst of the Great Depression.

The 2012 map, above, is instructive. I learned today that in the nineteenth century people called the region now known as the Great Plains (a map of that is shown as well) “the Great American Desert.” The land in those regions was considered very poor. But it was developed for agriculture nonetheless. On the 2012 map that is the region exhibiting the worst drought. The patterns between the two periods are very similar. The inset image is from Wikipedia’s article on The Great Plains.

No. This is not an attempt to question Global Warming. What the maps reveal is the fundamental geological characteristic of the North American continent. With masses of oil available, much water can be pumped—and poor soil can be made to yield crops by artificial fertilization. Changes in climate, whether temporary or permanent, can test marginal regions to the limit. This is happening now—but that test in 2012 is relatively mild. It was a whole lot worse in 1934.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Signs of Unraveling

This morning a story in the New York Times informs me that services exist that sell the eager buyer Twitter followers, Facebook likes, and YouTube views. The story (“Buying Their Way To Twitter Fame”) suggests that we can prove this to ourselves by doing a Google search on the phrase “buy Twitter followers.” Celebrity for Sale.

It seems to me that the rapid spread of social media—with just about every corporation with some meaningful footprint on the web attempting to create its own—arose from a false premise—namely that the Internet had revealed a hidden human proclivity for forming networks. But there was nothing hidden about it. We’re social animals. The convulsive attempts I’d noted, two or three years ago already, reminded me of the years leading up to the bust when people talked about a new paradigms in business (“profits do not matter”) and with hyped excitement that “the new price is Free.” We used to collect such statements at our own enterprise in anticipation of what would come later. And it’s not over yet. In today’s issue of the Wall Street Journal comes a story titled “When Freemium Falls Short.” It points to cases where the strategy of building a business by giving the product away is the straight road to bankruptcy.

Such careless thought on the positive side had its parallel in the massive growth of spamming on the negative side of the Internet’s development. Free and easy access, praised to the skies, has its heavy downside. The numbers can’t be trusted. It used to interest me to know how many people read my blogs—until I discovered that the numbers are diluted by masses of people hoping to garner visits by causing bots to click on my site. Visitors are recorded by Google. At first I was amazed by having ninety visits, say, from some to me obscure url—and would follow it home. Only to discover that it was really spam—wanting me to do just that—so that its site would gain “hits.” This is yet another version of a little known method of faking followers, interest, and lifting numbers entirely illegitimately. Knowing that my numbers are “cooked,” I no longer have an interest. But some people publicize these numbers for self-glorification or use them to attract advertisers.

A third aspect of the Internet mirage is the belief that the number of eager advertisers out there is infinite. With “freemium” still the accepted model for new enterprises (at least for now), the only hope of getting revenue is by advertising. But some advertisers are now beginning to realize that they may be looking at a bridge to their customers built mostly of vapor.

This subject has its parallel in another institution of much greater age—but going in the same direction. That institution is Democracy. In that case the mirage arises from thinking that the ignorant and careless deserve the same power as the responsible and thoughtful. Over time the coherence of the commonwealth is lost as Truth becomes what the majority favors. Or the majority, in effect, disappears in deadlock.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Abstract Rises, the Physical Sinks

Another way to put this is to ask: Where Have Jobs Grown? They have grown in those sectors farthest removed from the production of physical goods and energy. The best explanation of that is that energy slaves and their machines are getting ever better at satisfying our physical needs. Therefore, to employ the population, we have to do something else.

I illustrate this with a chart, using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Employment Statistics program (link), showing job growth from 1972 to 2011, a forty-year period:

In this arrangement, the curves show cumulative percentage growth in jobs created from a 1972 base. The listing of sectors on the right is in order of growth rank. Manufacturing is at the bottom. Utilities also had negative growth, thus employing fewer people than the sectors did in 1972. Construction began to tank even before the housing bubble burst in 2008.

When the economy no longer needs people to mine minerals or to harvest wood, to transform raw materials into products, to supply fuels or to build things, what remains is services of all kinds.

Under Services here I combined Professional and Business Services, Health and Private Education Services, Information, and Leisure and Hospitality. Government education (state universities and local schools) I show separately. The Trade and Transportation category is made up of Wholesale, Retail, and Transportation and Warehousing. Of these, Retail had more growth than Wholesale, and Wholesale grew at a higher rate than Transportation and Warehousing. Data on farm employment are not collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics—but that category has been shrinking, not growing.

A closer look at Services is provided by the next graphic. It shows that the biggest growth has been achieved by Health and Education Services (which is mostly health services). Thanks for aging, Baby Boom. Leisure and Hospitality includes entertainment. Information includes television and radio along with other communications media.

The menu for detaching from the physical dimension? Discover fossil fuels, get some leisure. Cultivate ingenuity and create machines to use the fossil fuels. While the oil lasts we can keep ourselves entertained without worrying too much about rain, sun, drought, floods, and so on. Afterwards these charts will be redrawn again.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Reading Tea Leaves

Some notes here on the last release of employment numbers. First, my habit is to contrast employment gains (2010-current) with employment losses (2009-2008). Doing so we have recovered 45.3 percent of jobs lost. But, as I pointed out a short while ago (link), we should also count growth in the labor force—in addition.  I showed there than we need to generate 87,300 jobs every month just to account for the increasing labor force. In the 2010-current period, that totals to 2.7 million jobs (31 months’ worth). These have to be added to the 8.7 million jobs lost in the Great Recession. This means that we have to produce 11.4 million jobs—and we have actually recovered 4.7 million. Therefore our recovery, thus far is at 41.2 percent, not 45.3.

As the period of the “recovery” extends—it is more than 2.5 years old—and no even perceptible upward thrust is present in the numbers, this phenomenon appears to signal something new. Our habit is to view recessions are recurring cycles of brief decline followed by resumption of growth. That isn’t happening this time.

Reading tea leaves is difficult. Suppose we see recessions as occasional hangovers from too much boozing. If that’s the case, the last recession was certainly a hum-dinger. Are we to see this sluggish response of the economy as something more than just getting back to normal? As, perhaps, a kind of wide-spread reform? It would be ironic indeed if the public has decided to come to its senses and stay off the bottle, this time. It would be interesting to look at “recovery” not as the resumption of our spendthrift ways but as a genuine recovery from them. In that case, and in due time, other changes will necessarily evolve. Among them? Well, we do have to employ the population. Will we, of necessity, accept lower compensation in the future? And will “insourcing” replace outsourcing as a new trend—in due time echoed by legislation and incentives to make it happen faster? The longer this lasts the more I will wonder.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Employment Update: July 2012

At present the Employment Situation numbers releases by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (link) are the occasion of dueling announcements by the two candidates for the presidency. Hence the numbers are widely known early on the first Friday of every month. My role has devolved to being a record keeper. Mitt Romney saw the July numbers as yet more proof that President Obama has failed; President Obama welcomed added jobs but deplored that they were not greater in number. The stock markets evidently saw the numbers as good news and stocks rose in response.

So what were the numbers? The economy gained 163,000 jobs in July. If we add the effect of net changes made to numbers for May and June by BLS updates, another 4,000 were added to total jobs gained in the year. Every private sector gained jobs except Mining and Logging (a loss of 1,000). Government lost 9,000. As it delights me to point out every month, that’s the sector where the politicians are themselves responsible. They talk the talk but do not walk the walk.

Herewith a graphical presentation:

In the 2008 and 2009 period we lost 8.7 million jobs. In the 2010-2012 period to date, we have recovered 4.7 million jobs—thus a 45.3 percent recovery in 31 months. Assuming that this rate continues into the future, we shall need three years and 2 months more to arrive at the point in employment we had reached in December 2007.

I’ll comment on this further in the next post.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Straws in the Wind

The two massive power-outages in northern India, last Monday and Tuesday, initially affecting 300, then 600, and yesterday 680 million people for a day, ought to be seen as straws in the wind; and in this day and age, repeating that in other words, thus saying that these are “signs of things to come,” seems appropriate.

People like me are labeled Chicken Little, the chick famed for crying that the sky is falling. But the point is not so much to engage in doom and gloom but, rather, to suggest how the global and local environments are shaping. Aesop has a fable that applies with equal force. It is about the Grasshopper and the Ant. Now I looked high and low in folk tale archives, and I cannot there discover any allegory about the King Who Was Too Fat to Die—nor one about a deeply caring Mother Nature who sheltered darling little Capitalism under her shielding wing.

India is the second-largest nation in the world—and only partially developed. When things fail there, vast masses are involved. When Chicken Little grows up, it worries about physical maintenance, alternative forms of energy, and ways of husbanding what fuel resources remain. An example of that is to replace, to the extent possible, private with public transportation. Which reminds me to look up some data about railroads.

Okay. So people sat about in trains with gloomy faces. Okay. Some barbers cut hair by candle light. These two events lasted about, say, 30 hours in the aggregate. From the peaks of the United States of Grasshopper, the Indians are far away and tiny. Useful outsourcing targets, they, especially those in the big cities. Don’t worry your little feathery head, Chicken Little. Mighty Technology will come to rescue us—and them. When, finally, they get with the program and cut those evil taxes.