Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Amazon in DC-area is bad... for America

I'm not a NIMBY.

I don’t want Amazon to come to the DC area. But this isn’t personal. It will probably make traffic worse and it will drive up real estate prices – but I already own a home, so I can cash out. (And I don't have a particular problem with Amazon or any of the technorati - they aren't as smart as they think they are, but really, who is?)

My issue is that if Amazon comes to the DC area (three of the final twenty locations for its new second HQ are in the Capital Region) it will have ripple effects on the U.S. government and the country.
Amazon could turn DC into a jungle!

DC area real estate prices are high, not as high as the Bay Area, but high. Amazon, with its infusion of high-paying jobs, both from direct hires and the attendant businesses that will start or expand in its wake, will push real estate prices much higher. The backbone of the greater DC area is civil servants, government workers. They are compensated well, but not extravagantly. Even the very, very top-level government salaries (with some specific exceptions)are well below $200,000 – certainly enough to be comfortable, but not remarkable by tech world standards. A steep rise in real estate prices will make it difficult for government professionals – civil servants who have valuable skills and could find alternative employment – to get by. They will find more lucrative professions, exacerbating the existing brain drain of experienced civil servants. Of course, these rising real estate prices will also be bad for the less well-compensated – mid and lower level civil servants, teachers, and, well, everyone else. This broader effect will be bad for the region, but for the nation as a whole, losing talented civil servants could be devastating. Further, young people may be further dissuaded from entering public service.

At the same time, one area where the U.S. government faces ongoing and severe challenges is attracting tech talent. Having Amazon in the neighborhood will create extremely lucrative opportunities that talented tech workers will find difficult to ignore. But government needs for computer science talent, from programming to theory to data science are significant. National security is one particular field that will suffer, but they are not alone. Managing and processing complex networks and enormous amounts of data is critical for agencies to serve the American people. But anyone who shows much talent – particularly if real estate prices are rising – will find the siren song of Amazon tough to resist.

Finally, the DC area, on the whole is already wealthy. The stability of government work insulated the region from some of the worst fallout of the great recession. This isn't to say there aren't wealth gaps and problems, but frankly Amazon might make them worse - not better. Anyway, the DC area does not need this – lots of other places in America do.

I don't blame local politicians for pursuing Amazon, and the online shopping behemoth will probably not factor the good of the country in its decision. But here's hoping...

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Robots are coming, but maybe not to consumers

Reading coverage of the Consumer Electronics Show, it does not appear that the robots left anyone terribly impressed. We all have images of Rosie the Robot from The Jetsons, which effortlessly and with little instruction just does all the housework. The reality is that this is not coming any time soon. Folding laundry turns out to be really, really hard. So the Consumer Electronics Show features a lot of wonky systems that don't work very well. Gadget junkies may be entranced, but regular consumers don't need an expensive toy that will take longer to get to do a task than it would take to just do the task. (If we enjoy that kind of frustration we can just try to get our kids to do their chores.)

Rosie won't be coming today.
Consumers want devices that, with limited set-up, work. Robots, autonomous systems, are run by machine learning algorithms - that means they have to learn. Learning means they have to be taught, it also means they will make mistakes. Who the hell has time for this kind of thing?

For some applications, this can work. Smart thermostats are an example. Preferences are not that hard to learn and mistakes are not catastrophic. But think about a smart refrigerator that could inventory your food, recommend meals, and order necessities. This sounds great, but then consider the problems in implementation. For starters, in a typical home there might be a dozen places where food is stored - not just the refrigerator. Now you need smart pantries and spice cabinets, etc.

Let's imagine that this smart home can monitor your food supply, make recipe recommendations, identify when items are needed and then order them. This would actually be pretty great. There would be hiccups of course, plus the system would have a lot of pretty personal information. There might be a time consuming learning curve as you taught it what recipes you liked and what kind of food you wanted to have around. But it could work. It might even be fun.

But here's the ugly secret. The thinking is relatively easy. The sensing is very hard. Presumably all of the food going into your smart home has some sort of electronic marker allowing your kitchen to record it. Then there will be a bevy of sensors to follow the consumption path of each item. This is a lot of sensors and a lot of opportunities for things to go wrong. Then you would need to teach it what was a priority. (Order pasta when we are down to one box etc.)

It is all theoretically possible, but there are so many things that can go wrong and working with it might be more trouble than it's worth. You can just scan your fridge and pantry and make a shopping list in a lot less time.

But that doesn't mean robots aren't coming.

Serious Users
This smart refrigerator or kitchen is not worth your time. But a hospital refrigeration system for storing blood and medicine is a different story. The hospital already has a staff and systems for monitoring these things. The value of the items in question are very high - both in cost but also in consequence (you need to have the right supplies on hand and usable.)

If a hospital recognizes that there will be significant gains in efficiency using a smart refrigeration system, they can make the investment both in money and time to learn the systems and blend their existing processes in with the system's functionality. Hotels, restaurants, and a vast range of other organizations might also be willing to make this investment. Managing food inventory is a huge issue for the hospitality industry.

One can imagine lots of other smart systems that might not be worth the effort for a home, but would be for a large-scale enterprise. This will lead to an iterative process. The first enterprises to purchase the smart refrigeration system would probably be larger (maybe not the biggest) and have some experience integrating new technology. In turn the vendors would also learn what it took to meet customer needs and be better positions to market their systems to more conservative buyers. In time the technology would become commonplace, lowering costs (again both financial but also in the time required to learn the system) and - at some point - maybe becoming a consumer product.

At this point the autonomous systems in questions are not there. The models will need to learn, but at the same time we need to learn the models.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Trumpest in a Teapot: On the new U.S. Embassy in London

In typical "presidential" fashion, that man in the White House tweeted that he would not go to London to open the U.S. Embassy, because we got a bad deal on the Embassy.

Maybe if it had more gold? New U.S. Embassy in London
Now this does little for State Department morale or Anglo-American relations. It is entirely possible that the "bad deal" is a convenient excuse for skipping a trip in which the president would be greeted by large, loud, unhappy crowds and unpleasant meetings with frosty British counterparts. Although he does fawn over royalty, this trip would probably not feature golden orbs and the queen would not be gauche and let him fondle the royal sceptre.

But let's take the president at his word, he thinks we got a bad deal on the Embassy. That does not mean that we did (the details are not public.) It is also an open question as to whether or not the president's judgment on what constitutes a good deal -- even in real estate, where he is supposedly an expert -- is very good. Consider this snippet from a profile of Trump confidant Tom Barrack:

But let's pretend the U.S. got a bad deal on selling its old Embassy and building the new one. Does it matter? Is it an issue worth the president's time and energy?

I chided candidate Barack Obama for promising to go over the budget line-by-line. It is a waste of time. Spending a day to kill some minor initiative and save a little money is not a terrific use of the president's most valuable and limited resource - time.

Of course the president could delegate this to the Secretary of State, that just eats up the Secretary of State's time and energy - which is also in short supply.

(No doubt at this point readers - should I have any - are asking why this is in TerrorWonk about national security rather than VeepCritique, where I talk about presidents and stuff. We're coming to that.)

But there is something else going on. If Embassy construction issues are raised at the presidential or even secretarial level that will engage their counterparts in the other country - who will not appreciate having this relatively minor issue on their desk. But, if the U.S. insists, they will consider it, but now it becomes another card in their hand. If they help the United States on this issue, they will expect certain things in return. 

Most importantly, however, U.S. relationships with other countries exist in time and space. Our relationship with any given country is not a one-off, it continues. A thing done in the past affects what happens in the future. At the same time, what the U.S. does in its relations with one country shapes how other countries see the U.S. So if the U.S. is seen as nickel and diming its closest ally over an embassy, to save maybe a few hundred million dollars (which in the context of a multi-trillion dollar budget is chump change) that will have a cost. The U.K. will see us differently (we have a special relationship, but we dare not take that for granted - it can fray.) Other countries too will see us differently, and change their behaviors accordingly.

On the other hand, given this president's penchant for impulsive actions in highly volatile situations that could have disastrous consequences - maybe it would be for the best if he focused real estate deals.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Balancing Pakistan...with Iran?

The illustrious Christine Fair has an article in Foreign Policy discussing what's going on between the U.S. and Pakistan entitled Pakistan Has All the Leverage Over Trump. The title pretty much tells you what you need to know. If you are going to fight a war in Afghanistan you have to get there (it's landlocked.) For us, right now, Pakistan is the way to get there. Unfortunately their priorities do not match ours. Fair writes:

One can argue that the United States lost the war in Afghanistan when it went to war with Pakistan, one of the states most committed to undermining U.S. efforts there. Whereas the United States wants a stable Afghan government that can resist its predatory neighbors and keep Islamist militants out of the government and prevent these militants from using Afghanistan as a sanctuary to train, recruit, and plan terrorist attacks in the region and beyond, this is precisely the Afghanistan that Pakistan wants.
Fair (who, full disclosure, I know, like, and admire) notes that Obama ran into this reality as well and - as Trump is doing now - tried to use U.S. aid as leverage over Pakistan. Obama went further, threatening, and to a limited extent carrying out military strikes on Pakistan. Unfortunately, Pakistani behavior has not really changed. Hanging over this, Fair observes, and I've thought about it as well, is that Pakistan also threatens us through its very fragility. That is, if we don't support Pakistan financially it could become a nuclear armed-failed state awash in Islamist terrorists. (Nightmares anyone?)

Fair points out, as she has for years, that there is an alternative to our logistic dependence on Pakistan, a route into Afghanistan starting at the Iranian port of Chabahar. Fair notes that Iran was willing to work with us after 9/11 but we rebuffed them. But now things may have changed:
But most Americans recoil at the suggestion of cooperating with Iran, arguing that Tehran is a potential nuclear-proliferating sponsor of terrorism. Needless to say, Pakistan is an actual nuclear-proliferating sponsor of terrorism. Moreover, Pakistan is actually more dangerous than Iran: Tehran’s terrorist proxies are regional menaces rather than the international, hydra-headed scourges cultivated by Islamabad.
Under the Obama administration, the United States made unprecedented progress in thawing relations with Iran with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, which opened up at least the possibility of exploring the idea of moving supplies from the port in Chabahar.
I am not as sanguine as Fair about Iran's behavior. Their record as supporters of terrorism is pretty extensive and their activities across the Middle East represent a strategic problem. Even if we did recognize Iran as the lesser evil to Pakistan there are formidable domestic constituencies heavily opposed to this opening. Further, a number of our allies in the Middle East really, really do not like Iran. Would we want to upend our relations with them so we could fight in Afghanistan? Tough call.

Do we even want to be fighting in Afghanistan. There is a strong argument that our continued presence there is a case of the sunk costs fallacy - we can't quite because we've already invested so much. There is the concern that if leave and the Taliban take over (as seems likely), Afghanistan will again become a locus for international terrorism. I'm actually less worried about that. 9/11 happened, in part, but global attention was not on international terrorism. Now it is and while various counter-terror capabilities might need to be expanded, that's way cheaper than fighting in Afghanistan.

My argument for staying in Afghanistan would be the humanitarian one. The people of Afghanistan did not ask to be the crucible on which the Cold War ended or for their own resulting decades of civil war. Things there are very bad now, but there have also been remarkable gains (at least in some parts of the country).

There is another reason, besides enabling the fight in Afghanistan, to turn to Iran. That is Pakistan itself. It is, as I've written, an international basket-case. Without serious reforms it is difficult to see how it can face its multi-pronged economic, social, and environmental challenges. If we don't need Pakistan for other foreign policy goals, we are in better shape to try to influence Pakistan itself, we change who has leverage. For Pakistan the core issue, from the very founding of the state, has been its conflict with India. This obsession helped enable the Pakistani military to dominate the state, making vast claims on the nation's resources - leading to or exacerbating the various structural deficits threatening the state itself. Can we push and prod Pakistan into new directions? Maybe, probably not - but unless we decouple them from our Afghanistan policy moves in that direction don't stand a chance.

And what of Iran? There is stuff doing there, I don't claim to have any insight whatsoever. Can they lead to new opportunities? Not really soon. We don't know where this will lead. Could we get a new Iran that can become a close ally and utterly changes and recounces its past behavior? Maybe, probably not. Can we get an Iran that we can do pragmatically do business with? That seems more likely, but working with them will require adroit diplomacy both with Iran, other players in the region, and domestically.

Time will tell.