Random finds (2017, week 3) — On Trump’s manufacturing jobs, Obama’s farewell, and Moontopia

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Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States from 2009 to 2017.

On Fridays, I run through last week’s tweets to select the ones that have kept me pondering.

On Trump’s manufacturing jobs

According to The Economist, politicians cannot bring back old-fashioned factory jobs.

“Manufacturing exerts a powerful grip on politicians and policymakers in the rich world. It is central to what they want for their countries, they say; it needs to be brought home from abroad; it must be given renewed primacy at home. This is because it used to provide good jobs of a particular sort — jobs that offered decent and dependable wages for people, particularly men, with modest skills, and would do so throughout their working lives. Such jobs are much more scarce than once they were, and people suffer from the lack of them. In their suffering, they turn to politicians — and can also turn against them.”

Hence Donald Trump’s promise to create “millions of manufacturing jobs.”

Industrial manufacturing was never as simple as those far from the shop floor imagined it to be. Today it has become more complex still.

“The problem with such rhetoric is that manufacturing has not really gone away. But nor has it held still. The vice has gone unreplaced, but in almost everything else there has been change aplenty. Some processes that used to be tightly held together are now strung out across the world; some processes that used to be quite separate are now as close as the workers and designers who share the shop floor. Assembling parts into cars, washing machines or aircraft adds less value than once it did; design, supply-chain management, aftercare, servicing and the like add much more.

Once you understand what manufacturing now looks like, you come to see that the way it is represented in official statistics understates its health, and that the sector’s apparent decline in the rich world is overstated. But that does not solve the politicians’ problem. The innovations behind the sector’s resilience have changed the number, nature and location of the jobs that it offers. There are still a lot of them; but many of the good jobs for the less skilled are never to return.”

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Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936).

“In terms of the perception that manufacturing moved to poor countries lock stock and barrel, it hasn’t helped that the low-value work which did go overseas often involved the final stages of assembly. Putting the components that make up a product together looks like the essence of the manufacturing process. But it often adds little to the finished product’s value. Even for as complex and pricey a machine as a passenger jet, assembly is a low-value proposition compared with making the parts that go into it. By some estimates, putting together Airbus airliners in Toulouse accounts for just 5% of the added value of their manufacture — even if ensuring the aircraft were put together in France has been a non-negotiable point of national pride for the French government. Similarly, assembly in China accounted for just 1.6% of the retail cost of early Apple iPads.”

Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936).

“[…], the potential for new jobs in manufacturing is not quite the boon politicians would like. Advanced manufacturing provides very good jobs but they are the jobs of the future, not the past; they need skill and adaptability. They will change a lot over the lifetimes of those who hold them, and they will never provide anything quite like the mass employment of the past.

Governments should ‘start with modest expectations’ for manufacturing, says James Manyika of the McKinsey Global Institute, a think-tank. The policies that might help are mostly fairly obvious. Improve education to ensure that engineers and techies are in good supply. Provide more vocational training, along the lines that Germany uses to support its Mittelstand. And develop retraining programmes to refurbish the skills of current or former workers.”

A study published in 2015 by the Brookings Institute, an American think-tank, reckoned that the 11.5m American jobs counted as manufacturing work in 2010 were outnumbered almost two to one by jobs in manufacturing-related services, bringing the total to 32.9m.

Helping people find work in and around manufacturing could undoubtedly do good. This however, requires a real commitment. “Simply threatening companies that seek to move jobs overseas and the countries keen to host them, as Mr Trump has, will not. Disrupting the complex cross-border supply chains on which manufacturers rely with tariffs would damage the very sector he purports to champion. Clamping down on migrants with skills that manufacturers cannot find at home will do harm, not good. Policies that favour production-line workers over investment in automation will end up making American industry less competitive.”

On Obama’s farewell

“Obama’s farewell address from Chicago last week was one of the very best speeches of his Presidency,” says George Packer in President Obama’s Memorable Parting Words.

“He had one overriding message: that American democracy is threatened — by economic inequality, by racial division, and, above all, by the erosion of democratic habits and institutions. Its urgency gave the speech an unusual rhetorical punch: ‘If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life’; ‘If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves’; ‘We sit back and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.’ Lines like these might not prove deathless, but because of their bluntness, and because the times are desperate, they hit hard.”

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“Obama was more candid than most [politicians], reminding Americans that the quality of our democracy depends on us — on our capacity to reason and to empathize, our attachment to facts, our willingness to get our hands dirty even when the political game seems sordid or futile. The key word of the speech was ‘citizen,’ which Obama called ‘the most important office in a democracy,’ one that he’ll embrace in his post-Presidency.”

Politicians are always letting the public off the hook — it might be the most unforgivably dishonest thing they do. Obama was more candid.

“This is the last week of the Obama Presidency. Historians will argue over its meaning and its merits. But, for democratic integrity, there’s no argument, no contest. Obama’s final speech wasn’t just a warning — it will stand as an emblem of what we have been and perhaps can be.”

A bit more …

Nine space-age designs have been revealed as the winners of the Moontopia competition, which asked architects and designers to visualise life on the moon. Entrants to the Moontopia competition were asked to draw up plans for a self-sufficient lunar colony for living, working, researching and space tourism. One winner and eight runners up were selected by a jury of NASA designers, space-architects, academics and architecture and design magazine Eleven’s editorial team from hundreds of proposals.

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Test Lab by Monika Lipinska, Laura Nadine Olivier and Inci Lize Ogun

The winning project, Test Lab by Monika Lipinska, Laura Nadine Olivier and Inci Lize Ogun, involves the gradual colonisation of the moon through 3D printing and self assembly. Carbon-fibre structures, based on origami, would be assembled by astronauts in the projects initial stages, with the chance for space tourism as the colony becomes more established. (Source: dezeen)

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One of the eight runners up, Platinum City by Sean Thomas Allen.

“A mindset ‘revolution’ sweeping Britain’s classrooms may be based on shaky science,” writes Tom Chivers, a science writer for BuzzFeed. The concept is largely based on the research of Stanford professor Carol Dweck, whose book Mindset has sold over a million copies.

“Dweck says that people with a fixed mindset ‘are so concerned with being and looking talented that they never realise their full potential’ and ‘when faced with setbacks, run away … make excuses, they blame others, they make themselves feel better by looking down on those who have done worse.’ By contrast, a growth mindset ‘fosters a healthier attitude toward practice and learning, a hunger for feedback, a greater ability to deal with setbacks.’

[…] some statisticians and psychologists are increasingly worried that mindset theory is not all it claims to be. The findings of Dweck’s key study have never been replicated in a published paper, which is noteworthy in so high-profile a work. One scientist told BuzzFeed News that his attempt to reproduce the findings has so far failed. An investigation found several small but revealing errors in the study that may require a correction.”

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Google has included mindset thinking in its hiring practices. (Photograph: Mark Blinch / Reuters)

Dweck told BuzzFeed News that attempts to replicate can fail because the scientists haven’t created the right conditions. Nick Brown, a PhD student in psychology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, is sceptical of this: “The question I have is: If your effect is so fragile that it can only be reproduced [under strictly controlled conditions], then why do you think it can be reproduced by schoolteachers?”

“If it’s not real, it’s a problem,” Timothy Bates, a professor of psychology at the University of Edinburgh, said. “It’s affected teaching behaviour massively. If you google it you’ll find hundreds of schools around our country, and around the world, where they are giving kids mindset lessons.”

In a recent interview in The Guardian, the novelist Paul Auster described himself “on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” Trump’s message of ‘Make America Great Again’ was, he argued, “really Make America White Again. I’ve never been in more despair about who we are and where we’re going.”

“I feel utterly astonished that we could have come to this,” Auster says in the wake of Trump’s victory. “I find his election the most appalling thing I’ve seen in politics in my life. […] I’ve been struggling ever since Trump won to work out how to live my life in the years ahead.”

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Paul Auster during his reading in Green-Wood’s Historic Chapel, Brooklyn, New York, 2011. (Photograph courtesy of Andrea Vasgko)

“I have come to the conclusion to accept something that has been offered to me again and again over the years — to become president of PEN America. I have been vice-president, and secretary, but I’ve never wanted to take on the full burden. I’ll start early in 2018. I’m going to speak out as often as I can, otherwise I don’t think I can live with myself.”

In The Prophecies of Jane Jacobs, Josh Cochran argues that, although Jacobs is renowned for championing urban diversity, her real prescience lay in her fears about the fragility of democracy.

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Jane Jacobs. (Illustration by Josh Cochran)

“In her comparative study of fallen empires, Jacobs identifies common early indicators of decline: ‘cultural xenophobia,’ ‘self-imposed isolation,’ and ‘a shift from faith in logos, reason, with its future-oriented spirit … to mythos, meaning conservatism that looks backwards to fundamentalist beliefs for guidance and a worldview.’

She warns of the profligate use of plausible denial in American politics, the idea that ‘a presentable image makes substance immaterial,’ allowing political campaigns ‘to construct new reality.’ She finds further evidence of our hardening cultural sclerosis in the rise of the prison-industrial complex, the prioritization of credentials over critical thinking in the educational system, low voter turnout, and the reluctance to develop renewable forms of energy in the face of global ecological collapse.”

“There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.” ― Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

“In the foreword to the 1992 Modern Library edition of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs likens cities to natural ecosystems. ‘Both types of ecosystems,’ she writes, ‘require much diversity to sustain themselves […] and because of their complex interdependencies of components, both kinds of ecosystems are vulnerable and fragile, easily disrupted or destroyed.’

Dark Age Ahead reminds us how many powerful, technologically advanced cities — and empires — have come before us, only to fade to dust. When they fall, they do not recover. The vanished way of life ‘slides into an abyss of forgetfulness, almost as decisively as if it had not existed.’ Karl Marx, who spent his life studying the subject, observed that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. This topsy-turvy election year makes one wonder whether he might have gotten that backwards. We’ve had farce, that much is certain. What will the next time bring?”

Attention is a muscle. It must be exercised,” Graig Mod writes in How I Got My Attention Back. “Though, attention is duplicitous — it doesn’t feel like a muscle. And exercising it doesn’t result in an appreciably healthier looking body. But it does result in a sense of grounding, feeling rational, control of your emotions — a healthy mind. Our measuring sticks for life tend to be optimized for material things, things easy to count. Houses, cars, husbands, babies, dollar bills. Attention is immaterial, difficult to track.

We deserve our attention.

Disconnection helped me remember what the mind felt like before I had lost my attention. Reminded me how it felt to wash off that funereal glaze that seemed to coat us all, and to return to the world — however thick the gloom — with clarity and purpose, able to help out in far better ways than I could have had I stayed online.

I wanted my attention back, and I’ve got it … for now.”

Produced by the Indian government-run Films Division in 1966, this vintage short explores the North Indian Hindustani and South Indian Carnatic styles of Indian classical music, which diverged around the 15th and 16th centuries but share common roots in Hindu musical traditions and ancient texts.

Accompanied by performances from top Indian classical musicians of the time, Music of India examines the form’s essential elements, including its deeply spiritual character, and the concepts of ‘raga’ — a musical piece’s central, often partially improvised, melodic form — and ‘tala’ — its recurring rhythmic pattern. (Source: Aeon Magazine)

Fans of Danish functionalist architecture can now visit a comprehensively refurbished house designed by renowned architect and industrial designer Poul Henningsen. The property, just outside Copenhagen, was designed by Henningsen in 1937 for his own family.

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Having remained unoccupied for many years, the house had been ravaged by water damage, mould, asbestos, rust and general issues resulting from its lack of modernisation. In 2014, it was bought by Realdania, a philanthropic organisation, which engaged Drachmann Arkitekter to oversee the property’s conservation and refurbishment. (Source: dezeen)

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“Always on the outside of whatever side there was. When they asked him why it had to be that way, ‘Well,’ he answered, ‘just because.’” — Bob Dylan in Joey.

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