Unintended Consequences

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I have just read a depressing article by Chris McGreal in the Guardian Weekly.  It’s headed ‘Beattyville: abandoned by coal, swallowed by drugs’ and describes the state of impoverishment and demoralisation that followed the closure of coal mines and other industries in Kentucky.

My stroppiness index rose when I read about the ‘pop’ scam, which works as follows. Supermarkets sell discounted cola to poor people, often for food stamps. The poor people sell the cola to smaller shops, cheaply enough to allow for resale at normal prices, and use the money to buy drugs – in particular an addictive pain-reliever called OxyContin that is supposed to be available only on prescription.

Here is a classic case of unintended consequences, though I’m not sure how anyone administering the food stamps programme could have confused fizzy drinks with food.  I’m not sure what conclusion to draw.  Perhaps it’s that no matter how well-intentioned a policy may be, and no matter how carefully it is crafted, people will find a way to subvert it, turn good to bad, and make poor people poorer still.

As it happens much of my recently published opus, The Eeks Trilogy, is about unintended consequences in the realms of robotics, human relationships and space colonisation.

Carols

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During the past week Mrs SG and I have attended two carol-singing events organised by local councils. People of all ages brought folding chairs and picnics and sang along with some very talented choirs and bands.  Santa Claus found time to drop in on both occasions.

I am an atheist, but brought up in a Christian cultural environment. I don’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God, any more than I believe in the existence of God, but I was moved nonetheless by The Christmas Story and even felt my eyes moisten during Good King Wenceslas.

The same moistening happened when I read the last chapter of Watership Down, when the Black Rabbit of Inlé came for Hazel.  I was on a Liverpool-bound train to visit my mother for the first time since my father died.  And I was shedding tears for a dead fictional rabbit.

It also happened every time I read the last chapter of The House at Pooh Corner to our elder son – the chapter where Christopher Robin tries to explain to Pooh that he’s going off to school and things won’t be the same.  It’s the end of childhood, the end of innocence.

So I sort of understand people who have been brought up in other religious and literary traditions for whom the stories they heard when they were very young resonate deep within throughout their lives. Sometimes that resonance cause them to do irrational and even – in my eyes – wicked things.

 

Disruptive Technology

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Disruptive technologies are scary.  Uber is one of the scariest, in Australia anyway, because many people have invested 6-figure sums in taxi licences on the assumption that their value can only go up.  Airbnb is another one.  People have invested millions in hotels, meeting all the health, safety, traffic management and other government requirements, only to find that anyone with a spare room is a potential competitor.

My view is simple. In the long run the most efficient way of doing something will always displace the other ways.  Vested interests will howl in pain and rage, and for a while they will hold back the incoming tide.  But eventually, as King Canute found out, they will have to yield.

I remember attending a conference 20+ years ago at which the late James Strong, then CEO of Qantas, argued for a lifting of the ban on Qantas carrying passengers between Australian airports.  The purpose of the ban was to protect the Ansett/TAA duopoly of domestic routes, and it meant that Qantas was flying half-empty ’planes around.  It couldn’t go on forever and it didn’t.  Economic and commercial rationality prevailed – as it must in the taxi and accommodation sectors.

Instead of emulating King Canute, governments should:

  • Create sensible regulatory frameworks for the new technologies, to ensure public safety and payment of taxes.
  • Review the rules and taxes that make it hard for established businesses to compete on equal terms with the disruptors.
  • Ease the pain for the people whose lives and businesses are unexpectedly disrupted, eg by buying back taxi licences.

 

Bombing DAESH

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The news has just come through – the UK Parliament has voted in favour of bombing DAESH in Syria as well as Iraq.  This is a victory for common sense as well as a boost for British self-respect.  The civilised world is confronting the closest thing to pure evil that we are likely to see in my lifetime.  For a nation with such a proud military history – not always a glorious one in moral terms, I concede – to stand back while others are stepping forward would have been a disgrace.

By the way, for the sake of balance, here’s a link to an article asserting that using the term ‘DAESH’ or ‘Daesh’ is silly.

Howlers

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I have not yet heard anything as egregious as, “Me went to the theatre last night; a friend gave I the ticket.”  But it will happen.  It is already as common to hear an assertion that something “cannot be underestimated” (when stressing the importance of something) as it is to hear the correct usage.

If this sort of thing makes you stroppy too, I recommend the list of 51 commonly misused words that I found in the Sydney Morning Herald.