What happens when the robots come?

On Saturday I was at a party and got chatting to a nice French chap who was involved somehow in environmental management. We had good fun bickering over climate change and pollution, but there was something else we discussed which is worth expanding on. He raised the question that many others are asking, which is what we’ll all do for work as technology makes jobs obsolete and there isn’t enough work to go around. What was interesting is he, like others, spoke as though this was something coming in the future whereas I replied that I can answer his question because the situation has already arisen.

Rather than look to a future in which robots do all the work, we can look backwards to the closure of the factories and mills and the decline of labour-intensive industries and blue-collar jobs and see what happened. From what I can tell, we’ve simply replaced those jobs with mass bureaucracy. Governments everywhere have made it central policy to get more women into the professional workforce, and for more people to go to university. Vast numbers of these new graduates entered jobs in government created largely to provide work for otherwise unemployable people, and they set about creating more work for themselves, i.e. expanding government. One method of doing this was to dramatically increase regulations with which private businesses and individuals must comply, thus forcing them to create their own bureaucracies in order to avoid non-conformity and prosecution. Thankfully, companies had no problem filling these positions thanks to hordes of new graduates with soft-skill degrees seeking cushy process-driven roles in air-conditioned metropolitan offices.

Every year the government bureaucracies grow, the number and complexity of regulations increase, and companies respond by employing ever-more people in roles related to “compliance”. This has been going on so long that it’s obvious many departments in large organisations – public, private, or third sector – exist purely to provide jobs for middle-class graduates. In other words, they’re part of a giant welfare system that few seem willing to recognise. I’d love to know, as a percentage, how many overhead jobs in modern organisations didn’t exist thirty years ago. You’d expect some jobs to change – especially those related to new technologies – but I’d be willing to bet most of these new positions are a result of ballooning government departments and whole armies of people necessary to navigate the current thicket of rules, regulations, and requirements.

It beats me why people are currently wringing their hands at the prospect of robots taking all the jobs, and worrying over how the work will be shared around when we’ve already found the answer: we’ll invent jobs, and pretend it’s real work.

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Cowardly Communication

Last night a story broke about a Google employee circulating an email to his colleagues regarding the company’s diversity policies. From skimming it, the email seemed reasonable, i.e. it wasn’t deliberately offensive or insulting. However, some people are appalled that someone working in Google holds such opinions, let alone shares them, and are calling for him to be sacked. Others are urging people not to read the email, as if it were a gorgon’s head.

This is wholly unsurprising. The immediate response from many people when faced with opinions they don’t like is to try, using fair means or foul, to silence that person. This has been going on for years, and the latest weapon in the censors’ arsenal is to try to get the person sacked, and to deprive them of their livelihood.

This situation is likely a natural progression from what these people got used to on a personal basis. Some years ago, everybody moved their online presence from forums, blogs, and message boards to Facebook, and then Twitter. It’s taken me a while to realise this, but the shift was quite fundamental. When you read a blog or join a forum, you have no way of filtering out content you might not like. Similarly, there’s no way of restricting the audience of what gets published, aside from a requirement to register. Everything you write can be accessed by anyone, and there is no restriction on what you might read.

Facebook is quite different, and you can select what you see and who gets to read your posts. This is understandable because it initially started out as a social networking site, but quickly became a platform for (supposedly) public content: Facebook has been used for campaigning, promoting events and businesses, and politicking almost since the beginning. Then came Twitter, which was never about keeping friends and family updated on your life, it was always supposed to be a platform for sharing your views with the big wide world and connecting with like-minded people. Only they included an option to block people. Now I can perhaps see the value of being able to block people you don’t like from contacting you, but from seeing what you are writing? What’s the point of that, especially on Twitter? It’s like an author publishing a book and placing restrictions on who can buy it, or standing on a rooftop and yelling but asking half the people on the ground to cover their ears.

This makes no sense to me whatsoever. I’ve been blocked from reading Louise Mensch’s Twitter feed. If she doesn’t want people reading it, why the hell is she writing it? The answer is obvious: she only wants certain people to read what she’s writing. We used to call this “private correspondence”, but nowadays people try doing it on the most public, open forum the world has ever seen. In other words, they want the prestige and attention that comes with being a public voice, only keeping the benefits of private correspondence. For me, this is a cop out, and one of the reasons I don’t like the blocking functions on Twitter. When I write this blog I assume everyone who knows me, including friends, family, and employers, might read it. This sharpens the mind somewhat, and keeps me from writing bollocks I can’t defend. If your public thoughts need to be hidden from certain people, perhaps your thoughts are the problem, not them.

Hence we have the Twitter generation who, at the click of a button, can stop people communicating with them and stop them seeing their public pronouncements. Little wonder they think the entire world can be made to run like this as well, hence the calls for the Google employee to be sacked and Charles Murray to be denied a platform to speak at American universities.

And you see this spilling over into people’s personal lives. Like a public blog forces you to think about what you write, so interacting with people in the real world forces you to think about how you behave. Before online dating, you’d have to find a partner among your friends or social peers. Even if you met in a bar or club, chances are you’d be mixing in the same circles and not living too far apart. Whatever the case, you had to approach them (men), or wait for them to approach you (women). The way of filtering out the riff-raff was to mix in the sort of circles you’d want to find a partner in, i.e. if you’re a student you’d normally hang out with fellow students and go to student bars, not down in some biker bar the wrong side of the railway tracks. To stay in that social circle, you’d have to adopt acceptable behaviours. Those behaviours might seem pretty ugly, especially where students are concerned, but nevertheless you had to conform to some sort of socially acceptable behaviour when interacting with others. If you didn’t, you’d face a negative response, be it criticism, nasty remarks, ridicule, or rejection from those around you. In short, in the absence of a method to block all negative responses, you had to think a little about your behaviour.

Young men are often cads and young women are often loose, but one of the main things which modify such behaviours is the social opprobrium that follows. I know guys who went out of their way to dump a girl gently because they didn’t want a huge negative reaction from her and her friends which would leave him feeling like a heel. Ending a relationship is never nice or easy, but it’s part of life and – like so many other things – it’s something one must learn to do as an adult.

The mobile phone probably changed that, initially. If you had to finish with a partner, you’d normally have to do it face-to-face, therefore she would have the opportunity to respond. If you did it by rotary phone, she could call you back. If you did it by letter, she could write a response. Then mobile phones came along and you could block her number and any response, and with texting the whole process became much simpler and cleaner: “Were dun luv, lol xxx” followed by a block and that’s that. In the age of internet and fragmented communities, you’d probably not even see them again: gone are the days of dating a girl in the village.

I’ve had girls hurl abuse at me or cry down the phone or via text message or email when I’ve split up from them, and I’ve probably done the same thing in return. Unless things start getting really psychotic, and they never have, I feel obliged to listen and soak it up. An emotional response is by definition irrational, and if one’s aim is to end up down the road with both parties reasonably happy and free of hated and humiliation and having kept face, then the emotional period must be dealt with properly.

A few years back I had a good friend come out of an appalling relationship, which she ended leaving the man (rather justifiably on some measures) absolutely livid. She had her reasons, but he had reason to feel rather aggrieved. He didn’t take it well, and she complained to me that he had sent her a flurry of nasty text messages when he was drunk a couple of weeks later. My response was something like this:

“Yes, he’s upset, understandably so. It’s not an excuse, but it’s a reason. What he’s said to you is awful, but there are reasons for it: he’s not saying it in isolation. My advice is to ignore it, because it’s angry correspondence. Respond to him when he’s nice, ignore him when he’s not, and be willing to communicate provided you remain firm that you’re not getting back together and he understand that. He needs to save face, and he needs time. If he’s still doing this in six months or a year, that’s a different matter. But right now…well, it’s to be expected.”

My friend took my advice and things became more civil. Eventually the guy moved on and she stopped hearing from him, both with their heads held (reasonably) high. Had she ignored him completely or responded in kind, things could have escalated. At best, he would have felt permanently aggrieved, and this is never a good thing. Of course, the modern advice is ignore, ignore, ignore – as if the whole thing happened in isolation. I suppose it depends on who you are, but I’m the sort of guy who thinks a woman who you’ve been in a relationship with deserves a period after the breakup of being pissed off, and she has a right to communicate with you. Guys who say “it’s best just to cut them off completely” are usually saying so for their own benefit (although they’ll say it’s for the girl’s) and it calls into question how serious the relationship was anyway. They’re hurting, and most of the time they want to save face, not get back together. If you won’t help them do that, then yes, the relationship should have ended – at her hand.

The Twitter generation are having none of it, though. These days I hear guys laughingly saying how they blocked some girl they recently dumped, because she kept texting him. What did they expect? I have seen women go running to the police complaining of harassment because some guy who they utterly humiliated had the temerity to her them know via email exactly what he thought of her. Unsurprisingly, Plod leaped into action and started issuing blanket threats of arrest and prosecution without even getting the guy’s name right, as is their wont. Modern men and women want to enter into something as complicated as a relationship but expect to be able to exit at the push of a button as if it never happened. I’ve seen women declaring love and talking earnestly with a man about long-term plans and then a few days later end the relationship by phone and block all communication saying “it’s best we both move on”, like some toad of a politician who’s been caught breaking the law. Men do the same thing, and it puts a serious question mark over anything which happened prior to that: if you’re prepared to pull the plug and run away like that, it was probably never serious in the first place – and he or she is certainly not ready for the give-and-take of a proper relationship. I’ve always seen a refusal to talk as simple cowardice.

Last year I wrote this:

Communication is everything in a relationship. When things are going well, communication tends to go well. But when things go wrong it often suffers, and you can quickly see who is in it for the partnership and who is in it for themselves.

Whatever the issue is, no matter how bad, keep the lines of communication open. Sure, take a ten minute break, or take a couple of hours to reply to a message. But tell the other person you’re doing that, and let them know when you’ll reply. The moment one party or the other decides they’re going to fall silent for a period of more than a few hours, or (worse) a few days, or (even worse) an indefinite period; or they’re going to completely ignore a message or an email; the relationship is over. Dead. It won’t recover.

Sure, I get people say nasty things, and if a situation breaks down into a slanging match of hate-filled invective and insults then it is wise to take a step back and have some time off. But the lines of communication must stay open: clearly say you’re having a break, and that you’ll be ready to talk again the next day at the latest. Get back to talking as soon as possible. Stomping off into indefinite silence and dragging it out over days will result in only one thing: a failed relationship. If one party doesn’t want to talk then better to just end the whole thing right there and then, because the outcome is inevitable.

The same is true at the end of a relationship:

Your partner might not be your greatest ever love, but if they’re your friend they’ll not fuck you over and will keep talking to you no matter what. If he or she stops communicating, they’re not your friend, they don’t have your interests at heart, and they’re in it for themselves: walk away.

The irony is that, in the age of unprecedented means of communication, many people have forgotten how to do it. It’s far easier to block, filter, ban, and silence than to talk, read, and listen as the latter requires effort on your part.

I don’t actually think it is iPhones and Twitter that have caused this: I think they’re merely responses to what people want. I have my opinions on why people have become like this, and I’ll write about them shortly. Doing so is likely to make me quite unpopular with some people, so I will have to tread carefully. No block function, see?

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Laurie Penny’s Authorial Fantasy

Everybody’s favourite feminist Laurie Penny engages in a spot of authorial fantasy where she envisages a world where robots have taken all the men’s jobs, forcing them to become more like women.

ROBOTS ARE COMING for our jobs—but not all of our jobs. They’re coming, in ever increasing numbers, for a certain kind of work. For farm and factory labor. For construction. For haulage. In other words, blue-collar jobs traditionally done by men.

Perhaps Laurie is unaware of the Industrial Revolution which saw huge swathes of farm work move from man to machine. She also appears to have missed the de-industrialisation of the west as the factory jobs moved to Asia, which is strange for somebody who places all the world’s ills at the feet of Thatcher. The changes she is describing have been happening for decades, if not centuries.

Millions of men around the world are staring into the lacquered teeth of obsolescence, terrified of losing not only their security but also their source of meaning and dignity in a world that tells them that if they’re not rich, they’d better be doing something quintessentially manly for money.

Oh, I don’t know. I see plenty of men mincing around with useless degrees working useless jobs.

Otherwise they’re about as much use as a wooden coach-and-four on the freeway.

You said it, sister!

Some political rhetoric blames outsourcing and immigration for the decline in “men’s work,” but automation is a greater threat to these kinds of jobs—and technological progress cannot be stopped at any border.

Right, but that process has been going on for quite some time and, for men working blue-collar jobs, the worst is probably over.

A recent Oxford study predicted that 70 percent of US construction jobs will disappear in the coming decades;

Unless construction itself is going to come to a halt, it’s hard to see how. Robots aren’t going to be building things any time soon, even if there is one that can lay bricks.

97 percent of those jobs are held by men, and so are 95 percent of the 3.5 million transport and trucking jobs that robots are presently eyeing.

Oh right. Self-driving vehicles will put millions of men out of business. Presumably the fusion-powered jet-packs will make airlines obsolete, too?

That’s scary, and it’s one reason so many men are expressing their anger and anxiety at home, in the streets, and at the polls.

You can almost smell the glee.

While all of this is going on, though, there’s a counter­phenomenon playing out. As society panics about bricklaying worker droids and self-driving 18-wheelers, jobs traditionally performed by women—in the so-called pink-collar industries, as well as unpaid labor—are still relatively safe, and some are even on the rise.

Firstly, how many of these pink-collar jobs are absolutely necessary, and only exist due to government policies looking for ways to keep women occupied now the washing machine, fridge, and tractor have been invented, paid for in their entirety by the surplus wealth – taxes – generated by those blue-collar men you despise so much?

Secondly, a lot of these pink-collar jobs exist in order to “manage”, administrate, and generally get in the way of those men doing the work. Will we really need sprawling HR, diversity, and compliance departments if robots are doing everything? Who will pay for them?

Thirdly, Laurie seems to think a lot of this pink-collar stuff can’t be offshored to the Philippines where ladies called Cherry will deal with your pointless HR paperwork.

These include childcare. And service. And nursing, which the US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts will need a million­-plus more workers in the next decade.

Which might be why the Japanese are working on a Care-Bot. But is this what our womenfolk with English degrees from Oxford and law degrees from Harvard have in mind for the sisterhood? Caring and nursing? Somebody ought to tell them.

According to the logic of the free market, when jobs are destroyed in one area of the economy, people will shift to new areas of productivity, acquiring new skills as they travel. So you might imagine that factory workers are becoming nannies. Not exactly. That’s because we’re talking about “women’s work.” Women’s work is low paid and low status, and men are conditioned to expect better.

The reason these nannies are needed is because the mothers have all decided they’d rather work than look after their own children. Now some say this is forced on them, but if robots are doing all the work, why can’t mothers look after their own kids? And the main reason factory workers won’t become nannies is because mothers who hire nannies generally prefer cheap brown women to do the job rather than white men – at any cost.

Whether or not you believe men are about to go the way of the portable CD player depends entirely on how you define manhood itself.

I’d say so, yes.

A great many men have been trained over countless generations to associate their self-worth with the performance of tasks that are, in a very real sense, robotic—predictable, repetitive, and emotionless.

But nevertheless a job that needs doing.

The trouble is that machines are far better at being predictable, repetitive, and emotionless than human beings.

It amuses me she thinks this applies more to craftsmen and technicians than women in process-driven roles in a giant bureaucracy.

What human beings do better are all the other things: We are better at being adaptable, compassionate, and intuitive; better at doing work that involves actually touching and thinking about one another; better at making art and music that elevates us above the animals—better, in short, at keeping each other alive. We have walled off all that work and declared it mostly women’s business,

Sorry, what? Art and music are the preserve of women? And what about sales, management, even engineering – all require adaptability, compassion, and intuition. Methinks Laurie – having been a freelance writer since she left university – hasn’t the faintest idea what various jobs actually entail.

even as exhausted women have begged men to join them.

Oh please! Sure, women are just crying out for more men to take up primary-school teaching, psychology, and nursing!

Feminists have, in fact, been arguing for a basic income for decades as compensation for unpaid domestic labor.

Women want to be paid to keep their own house clean.

Now that men might find themselves with more time to perform household tasks, they’re finally starting to listen.

What decade is Laurie living in? Most men I know can cook, clean, and iron as well as their partners, if not better. None of them has yet asked to be paid for this.

Work is work, and as men come to realize that, society as a whole might start valuing pink-collar and unpaid labor more highly and—as men take these jobs and join the call for increased wages—compensating it more fairly. Benefits only multiply.

Cleaning your house is work, just like building a bridge. Uh-huh.

No longer forced to choose between work and family life, more women can remain and thrive in, say, fast-growing STEM fields, increasing the pool of talent and expertise.

If I’m reading this right, Laurie thinks robots will make men redundant, meaning they will campaign for a universal basic income, which will in turn mean women can thrive in STEM fields instead of being forced to look after their kids. Like all good ideas, it’s obvious when pointed out.

Automation doesn’t have to make men obsolete, not if they’re willing to change their mindset. As long as men aspire to be cogs in an outdated machine, robots may well replace them.

The irony here is that it is women who stand to lose the most from robots: if sex-bots ever become realistic enough to replace a woman in bed, real women are going to have a hard time of it. We’ve already seen the effect Tinder has had, providing men with a means of getting laid without all the bother of a relationship.

But if they have the courage to imagine different lives of service and dignity, and then demand that those lives be made feasible in terms of both hours and pay, automation can help all of us be more human.

So if only men become wetter than a weekend in Wales and emasculate themselves such that legions of feminists can rule the roost, they will be permitted a role in Laurie’s Brave New World.

Well, how generous!

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Politics, Technology, and Electric Cars

I suppose this is what passes for leadership these days:

France is set to ban the sale of any car that uses petrol or diesel fuel by 2040, in what the ecology minister called a “revolution”.

Nicolas Hulot announced the planned ban on fossil fuel vehicles as part of a renewed commitment to the Paris climate deal.

He said France planned to become carbon neutral by 2050.

Hybrid cars make up about 3.5% of the French market, with pure electric vehicles accounting for just 1.2%.

Firstly, a policy that will only come into force years after the government has left office should be ignored as a matter of course: it’s posturing, nothing more. It’s akin to the schoolkid who boasts he can do a double back-flip but not today, and tomorrow is a Saturday.

Secondly, the announcement implies that everything is on course for electric cars to eventually replace petrol or diesel cars, and all that’s needed is a government push to fund the infrastructure and overcome the inertia. Indeed, that’s what most people seem to think, that electric cars are inevitable and the only thing standing in the way of a wholesale switchover is the mindset of the public, hence the government should intervene to forcibly change it.

Nothing could be further from the truth. There are several massive hurdles to be overcome before electric cars will become widespread.

1. Where is the electricity going to come from? Charging a few thousand cars is one thing, millions is something else. Whatever energy is currently being expended by burning petrol will have to be generated as electricity, minus any efficiency gains. The current grid is woefully undersized to meet such a demand, probably by an order of magnitude when you consider peak loadings. We could build lots of nuclear plants, but the people who want electric cars don’t like them. Wind is never, ever going to generate much useful power and dependence on solar power requires a step-change in technology which I think will come, but we’re not there yet. Will we be there in 2040? I don’t know, and nor does anyone. Otherwise, we’ll have to build more gas-driven power stations. Will this be better or worse for the environment than the internal combustion engine? Nobody knows.

2. As I wrote here, the problem with electric cars is not so much their range but the charging times. Nobody is going to want to sit around for more than ten minutes waiting for their car to charge unless it’s overnight or while at work, but that seriously restricts the car’s use to regular, short journeys. To overcome this we need a step-change in battery or energy storage technology which isn’t even on the horizon yet. So that’s two technological step-changes we need by 2040.

3. Nobody has really looked at the environmental and economic costs of tens of millions of electric cars. The batteries are big, heavy, and expensive and contain nasty substances. They don’t last long, so how will they be disposed of? How much will they cost to replace? What effect will this have on the used value of the car? Electric cars require nickel, copper, and cobalt. Where do we get this from? Where are the mines? All these issues can be solved but only once the real costs and externalities are known and compared with the situation today. Right now nobody has a clue, but governments have picked a winner anyway. That rarely works out well. In their efforts to improve the quality of air in western cities, politicians might well be make the environment in the developing world worse, especially around the mines. Also, the upgrade of infrastructure to handle mass car charging is enormous. Thousands of miles of new copper cabling will have to be installed, but at what cost – both in cash and environmental terms? Apparently this is something governments think they can do – the same governments that can’t manage to install proper cladding on apartment blocks.

Some humility wouldn’t go amiss, would it? Slim chance of seeing any, though:

Mr Hulot, a veteran environmental campaigner, was appointed by new French President Emmanuel Macron. Mr Macron has openly criticised US environmental policy, urging Donald Trump to “make our planet great again”.

I don’t know if today’s politicians are so thick they believe the bullshit they come out with, or they’re simply adept at saying whatever their core voters want to hear. What amuses me is so many people think this immature posturing is leadership, and cheer it loudly.

Norway, which is the leader in the use of electric cars in Europe, wants to move to electric-only vehicles by 2025, as does the Netherlands. Both Germany and India have proposed similar measures with a target of 2030.

None of this will happen. The idiots who proposed it will either start lying about what they promised, or they’ll be turfed out of office.

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Droning On

From Reuters, via Twitter:

General Electric Co has begun testing autonomous drones and robotic “crawlers” to inspect refineries, factories, railroads and other industrial equipment with an eye on capturing a bigger slice of the $40 billion (31.6 billion pounds) companies around the globe spend annually on inspections.

In trials with customers, aerial drones and robots are able to move around and inside remote or dangerous facilities while photographing corrosion or taking temperature, vibration or gas readings that can be analysed by computer algorithms and artificial intelligence, Alex Tepper, head of business development at Avitas Systems, a startup GE formed for this business, told Reuters.

Hmmmm. I think somebody might be overselling something to impress a journalist here. I have heard of drones being used to scope pipeline routes and to look for leaks, which makes perfect sense. Normally this is done by helicopter, so a drone is simply a cheaper and easier way of doing the same thing. And the insides of pipelines are inspected by a sort of robot called an “intelligent pig”, which detects corrosion among other things. This is an evolving technology, but it has been around a long time. I have also seen remote control helicopters used to inspect flares.

But carrying out inspections of refineries and factories? No such facility is that remote, they are all manned to some degree. Why not just send an inspector? And a dangerous facility? Okay, I get that drones and crawlers could be useful in assessing the damage done to a plant that has just blown itself to smithereens or leaked poisonous gas everywhere, but is this their target customer? One that can’t operate its facilities safely?

This looks to me like a solution in search of a problem. The throwaway line about artificial intelligence points in that direction. Photos from a drone might give an inspection team some useful idea on the condition of something that is hard to reach, as will temperature readings, but they’ll not be analysed using artificial intelligence or even an algorithm. If and when drones are used on refineries and in factories, they’ll not be autonomous.

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Bit of a risk for a few bitcoins

I am reading from various reports that the Wannacry ransomware attack that has laid bare the deficiencies in the IT security of the NHS has also affected many Russian companies, not least Sberbank and the Russian railways.

Sberbank is a state-owned company. A lot of the most skilled and prolific hackers and IT security experts are Russian, many of whom will be living in Russia. Depending on whose toes have been trodden on at Sberbank or the other affected companies, some nasty people might well be deploying considerable resources in trying to find out the origins of this software. If so, don’t be surprised if those responsible are found. And then found again, some months later, badly decomposed in a shallow grave in a forest.

I doubt anyone will have much sympathy.

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VOIP in the UAE

Further to yesterday’s post on Uber, there’s an interesting analogy with governments banning the service: the UAE government’s ban on VOIP calls.

The reason for this ban is succinctly explained in a comment on this forum:

In Dubai there are only two telecom service providers which are Du and Etisalat, Du has monopoly in Dubai and Etisalat has monopoly in Abu Dhabi, both of these service providers managed to convince government to stop Skype,facetime and whatsapp calling giving security reasons but in actual these service providers want to mint money because in UAE around 80% population is expat so they need ISD service and if these services can be availed through internet then these telecom providers would not be able to mint money.

In Simple terms to mint money they banned these services.

Naturally, as the commenter above says, the UAE government cited security concerns as a justification for the ban, claiming the VOIP services provided by the likes of Skype, WhatsApp and Facetime are not “secure” and don’t comply with the national telecoms regulations. This is why when you buy an Apple product in the UAE it doesn’t have the Facetime app loaded and it’s not accessible from the Apple store. I don’t know how they block users who already have it loaded, but they managed to block Skype over the fixed-line connections by detecting when it was in use. Most people I knew who lived there simply signed up to a VPN which bypassed all these restrictions.

As far as I can tell the ban is still in place but it’s becoming increasingly embarrassing for a country that is trying to present itself as ultra-modern and forward-thinking:

Internet restrictions in the UAE, especially banning video and voice calling through social networks such as Snapchat and Whatsapp has not only reportedly angered users living across the country, but also pushed Saeed Al Remeithi, the UAE Federal National Council’s (FNC) youngest member to query the country’s internet restrictions.

Remeithi voiced his opinion openly during an FNC session yesterday, saying that the UAE representatives were “embarrassed in the international federation by this issue,” citing the United Nations declaration that internet use is a human right.

However, Hamad Al Mansouri, the head of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority attributed these restrictions to state security and cyber-terrorism concerns saying: “The security factor is important in the country. If we neglect it, online calling will impose risks.”

And put a huge dent in the revenues of those with vested interests in the status quo, much like taxi drivers the world over.

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Hotel Internet and Uber

Via Samizdata (and others), it appears Italy has banned Uber:

An Italian court banned the Uber app across the country on Friday ruling that it contributed unfair competition to traditional taxis. In a court ruling, a Rome judge upheld a complaint filed by Italy’s major traditional taxi associations, preventing Uber from using its Black, Lux, Suv, XL, Select and Van services from operating within the country.

In my recent post on Budapest I said:

I think in a few years we’ll be at a stage where a city not having Uber will start to cost it dearly in terms of visitor numbers.

I remember back in 2004-2006 when I did lots of business travel one would have to check in advance whether a hotel would have internet in the rooms. In those days this meant an ADSL connection in the wall and (sometimes) a cable, and not all hotels had them. In December 2005 I went to Korea and found the (wonderful) hotel had a 100mbs ADSL connection in the room that required no login or faffing about whatsoever, and they didn’t even bother to advertise it. When I went back to Seoul a couple of years later I said:

When I booked the hotel, I couldn’t see whether it had internet connections in the rooms or not.  It mentioned kettles, ironing boards, and hairdryers, but no internet connection.  So I called them up, and I was told they had one in every room.  I seem to remember when I last stayed in Seoul they didn’t advertise the internet connections in the rooms, and this place seems to be no different.  Clearly internet connections in Korean hotel rooms are as standard as doors, windows, and beds.  Sure enough, this place, like my last hotel, has a 100Mbps connection which costs absolutely nothing and works as soon as you hook the cable up to your computer.  No ringing the front desk for usernames, no messing about with passwords, simply plug in and off you go.

I cite this passage because it shows how unusual it was back then to find a functional internet connection in a hotel room even as late as 2007. Within a few years an internet connection became standard everywhere, and shortly afterwards this transformed into a WiFi option which eventually became standard. It may be the case that some hotels still charge for it, some require fiddly logon procedures, and the quality can vary but it is almost unheard of nowadays to find a hotel without WiFi, and it is usually free and often good. I suspect in the age of iPads and WhatsApp, any hotel that didn’t offer WiFi both in the rooms and common areas would quickly go out of business: people simply don’t use the telephone or even wired internet these days.

I reckon in a few years we’ll be seeing the same thing with Uber, or at least a very similar service that works in much the same way. If Uber can survive a little longer, we will soon have a demographic that has only used Uber and is completely unfamiliar with the archaic practices and unwanted delights of a traditional taxi service, and will not contemplate using the latter any more than they would accept having no internet in a hotel room and instead have to use the single desktop in the hotel “business centre” with a broken mouse and an AZERTY keyboard left in Cantonese mode by the last user.

I give it five years, ten at the most, before cities where Uber is banned and no similar alternative exists start to see a serious reduction in visitor numbers. Like having a decent internet connection, being able to use an Uber-like service will soon become a key requirement of a holiday.

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Amazon Go

There has been a lot of talk in the media recently about Amazon Go.  This is a supposedly groundbreaking new concept whereby people walk into a supermarket, take what they want, and then simply walk out again without stopping at a checkout.

Personally I don’t see what all the fuss is about: I used to see chavs in Adidas tracksuits and Rockport boots doing precisely that in Manchester stores as far back as the late ’90s.

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The Paris Motor Show

I can’t say I’m a huge fan of cars, but I like them enough.  So when I heard the Paris Motor Show was on this week, I thought I’d take a day off work, stump up 16 Euros for a ticket, and go along and take a look.  I also thought it would be a good opportunity to practice taking photos indoors, which I’ve not done much of.

As things turned out I was a bit disappointed.  Firstly, there was a huge emphasis on electric cars which I think are complete waste of time as I explained here.  Although some of the BMW electric cars undoubtedly look nice.  Secondly, the cars that were not exotic you could see in a showroom and the cars that were you couldn’t get near.  The high-end Porsches, BMWs, Audis, and Ferraris were cordoned off and you needed to persuade a bloke in a suit to let you close to them.  In other words, I found going to the motor show to be a bit like paying to go to a car showroom and then asking permission to look at the cars.  When I grumbled about this to a colleague over WhatsApp he said “Sounds like a typical motor show, mate!”  So it’s probably going to be my first and last.  I think you have to be really into cars to go, and whereas I’d maybe like to sit in a few Porsches I’m not prepared to fight my way through a crowd to do so.

Regarding the photography, I kind of lost interest due to the number of people and the subject matter which I discovered I wasn’t really into: if I want a photo of a Porsche 911 I can find professional quality ones on the Porsche website.  So I don’t think these photos are much good and I’ll not put them on Flickr, but I’ll post some of them here.  For anyone that’s interested, there is more than enough lighting on most of the cars that you don’t need a flash, let alone an external one.  Push the ISO up into the low hundreds and you’ll be fine.  And bring a wide-angle lens, I shot with a 17-40mm on a full-frame camera.  The pre-set white balance options are rubbish on my camera for indoor work, and so I set it manually.

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