What Day Is It?

Time is funny. To quote Lenin: “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”

As we find ourselves in the intra-pandemic state of COVID-19, the perception of time seems to ebb and flow. No longer is the clock the timekeeper. Instead, events of non-uniform length and subjective importance seem to be measuring time. Our strange, new normal may be exacerbating these divergences (ever present, though often unobserved). I’ve seen many comments on Twitter about time and conflicting reactions to its pace.

Depending on our familiarity with what is happening in our lives, time perception shifts. “We gauge time by memorable events and fewer new things occur as we age to remember, making it seem like childhood lasted longer,” Dr. Santosh Kesari, neurologist and neuro-oncologist says. The pandemic of COVID-19 is a new type of event for children and adults alike (save the rare super-centenarians who were alive during the Spanish Influenza), requiring that our brains update our mental models. Bombarded with unfamiliar terms — like COVID-19, coronavirus, flatten the curve, and social distancing — our brains play catch-up, processing these novelties and integrating previously unknown behaviors into daily life. As a result, it seems like life has come to a screeching halt. At the same time, non-stop news reports, ever-changing predictions of the spread of infection, concerns about survival, and sudden loss of family and friends make life feel like it is flying by faster than we can process its events. It’s almost like time is moving at multiple speeds simultaneously.

I find it curious how time passes at an uneven pace now, depending on where my hours are spent. My outdoor hours consist of running miles through NYC or photographing its rather empty streets, while indoors I am occupied with machine-learning and time-series data analysis. Whether indoors or out, I am engaged in some activity. And yet, the speed of time fluctuates. 

In the vein of social distancing, how does the pace of time feel now that relationships with anyone outside our immediate living space is noticeably more distanced and disconnected? As we physically distance from other humans, does time slow down or speed up? Perhaps it does both. It might feel like time has slowed to a near-stop while we wait to hug family and friends, wondering when we will next see them in person. And when we do meet again, it might feel like time has flown by so quickly (nieces and nephews growing taller, parents looking a bit more aged than when we were last together). 

If events govern the measurement of time, COVID-19 has demonstrated the various ways that time can move and bend, revealing its non-linear and non-sequential attributes. Will we be able to keep account of all that has happened and when and how, or will it all just blur together into an event collectively known as COVID, stripped of its details? While forgetting may be the path of least resistance (and can even be beneficial for our mental health), it will be important to recall our COVID experiences in order to proactively address similar situations. History does not necessarily repeat, but it does rhyme. And yes, there will be a next time.

from Cuomo’s PowerPoints are all of us right now

Post-COVID Innovation

Never let a good crisis go to waste

– Anonymous

There are plenty of studies and books examining how rates of innovation and small-to-medium sized business (SMB) creation have plummeted in the US over the past several decades. Regardless of whether you take them at face value, and what the causes of the declines may be, the US and other countries are going to have a cavernous hole where SMBs used to be.

The coronavirus seems to have infected and warped our sense of time, leaving us in a liminal place. It’s difficult to delineate where “here” is and when “there” will arrive. Regardless of when the chronological murk clears, it may be useful to ask: how can we prepare for “there” in a way that will help the SMB ecosystem so that it comes out more robust than it was before?

I have many friends working at startups in the Bay Area, and I myself work at one that’s pivoted to help SMBs access the Paycheck Protection Program. So the question hits close to WFH.

The Opportunities 

The pandemic will desiccate SMBs, but it also creates opportunities. For example:

  • Swaths of the world just got a taste in entrepreneurship; ranging from re-tooling machines into ventilators to boosting robotics and drones innovations. They just experienced, firsthand, the very real “why” behind why any society needs to build robustly.
  • Many jobs have been lost and are not coming back. This means a portion of the workforce will (1) be forced to re-skill and (2) switch industries and potentially cross-pollinate ideas.
  • Many people are (1) experiencing self-directed, virtual education at home, and/or (2) watching their kids learn virtually. The result is a world that is much more amenable to virtual education and skill development. 
  • Regulation had been slow to change. Now Congress and state politicians have been forced to acknowledge the necessity of removing regulatory drag. Like how telemedicine regulation has advanced more in the prior weeks than in the previous years. 

How can we best feed these opportunities so that our SMB ecosystem doesn’t just survive but gains from this downturn?

Photo by Louis Velazquez on Unsplash

New Policy Norms = Part of Our New Normal

Our policy norms have been puréed in a food processor. As a simple example, consider how discussions of UBI, for most Americans, were far outside the Overton Window prior to February. 

Below are some of the most interesting tools I’ve come across for stimulating the SMB ecosystem, which could form the basis of our new view of “normal” policy: 

  • WPA – Many paths out of our current circumstances seem like they may need a new New Deal. Much of the country’s digital infrastructure is woefully out-of-date. E.g., the SBA’s digital infrastructure was nowhere near capable of doling out PPP loans. Let’s subsidize coding and similar boot camps that feed into jobs updating national, state and municipal digital infrastructure that’s woefully out-of-date. On the other side of this, we’d have a much more technologically literate workforce, poised to fill the tech skills gap.
  • Matching Investments – One of the contributors to Israel’s thriving SMB environment is Yozma, a program through which the government matches VC investments and offers tax incentives for foreign VC money. And Singapore has similar government matching. These programs seem to work well by supercharging private market incentives. 
  • Social Safety Net – We’ll need to correct for the risk-aversion that younger generations will have after experiencing the Great Recession and/or COVID-19. One way is through stronger social safety nets. This could take the form of universal basic income or nationalized healthcare. Sweden’s nationalized healthcare system, for example, is a likely contributor to the country’s high entrepreneurship rates.
    • A tragically large number of people have found themselves relying on social safety nets like unemployment and $1,200 living expense checks. This means a large number of voters are experiencing the white swan reasons that it’s wise to have safety nets. And such measures can be seen as investments. For a perfect example of why, just look at the J.K. Rowling Effect: give a single mother a safety net, and she won’t shift her citizenship for tax purposes when she later experiences outlying success.
  • Student Debt – The unprecedented student debt situation in the US is an obvious source of risk-aversion, and expanding debt forgiveness is an increasingly acceptable political topic. One option to promote entrepreneurship is to expand loan forgiveness programs to include SMB founders that, say, employ 5+ people for more than two years.
  • Immigration – Immigration could easily fill its own post or book. TL;DR: immigrants create SMBs at higher rates than native populations. We should be opening our borders much more to skilled immigrants.

What are your thoughts on how we can mend our SMB ecosystem to be stronger than before COVID-19?

Let’s Break Up With China

Saving People & The Planet

Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

China’s Role in Covid-19

I’m not really known for mincing words and I have a tendency to be pretty direct with what I want to say. This may be good or bad depending on the perspective. However, there is one area where I have no qualms expressing my opinion and that is the area regarding my views on China.

China’s CCP has helped bring the world’s economies to their knees through its oppression of free speech of heroes in China who tried warning the world of a dangerous outbreak called COVID-19.

We witnessed doctors and journalists in China being rounded-up, punished, disappeared, even dying from the illness they tried warning the world about. To China’s CCP, the appearance of stability and control was more important than the threat of a deadly pathogen that it tried to cover-up. Keeping up appearances prevented international health experts from the CDC and WHO from studying to help prevent an outbreak.

On top of that, China’s CCP has repeatedly lied about their infection rates and death rates while minimizing its actual blame and role in this whole tragedy. Instead, they launched a propaganda campaign of sending aid to European nations. Later which, those nations found the medical protective gear donated to them was counterfeit and offered no protection along with antibody tests failing to work at all.

China’s CCP lied and we must all hold them accountable. It’s time to examine our relationship with this regime. I think it’s time for the world to cut China out of the loop and repatriate or localize supply chains after this disaster. We will all need it for economic recovery in the end. The CCP will only continue to smile while it tries stabbing us in the back.

Photo by wu yi on Unsplash

What is the CCP?

China’s government is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and it is NOT the Chinese people. The CCP has spent generations brainwashing the populace with propaganda about how they have been wronged by others and that they can only survive through the CCP. China’s citizens are told that they must sacrifice their own goals for the CCP’s agenda and that they will be outcasts and enemies of the state if they have more children than their draconian restrictions describe as acceptable by the party.

The CCP has done this through the government-controlled national media outlets, continually feeding the people of China with social engineering to sway them towards outcomes the party favors. They’ve imbedded government proctors into companies to monitor how they behave or what they produce in efforts to control messaging, and they have created a large police state through a massive surveillance program along with technology/app integration.

Through this surveillance program, the CCP monitors, tracks, shames, reprimands, punishes, or abducts its citizens. This has grave implications on the civil liberties and human rights of the people of China and everyone who visits this nation. We have seen this play out with videos posted online of civilians walking across roads between lights and immediately having that individual’s I.D. plastered onto an nearby billboard and, presumably, being fined through text and having their “social credit score” docked points for being shamed while jay walking.

(Here is video from Daily Mail showing jaywalking tracking)

We have also seen the darker side of this where more than an estimated one million Uighurs have been imprisoned for practicing Islam. They are being sent to concentration camps in Western China to be “reëducated” to not have a higher belief other than the communist party. Uighur wives are being left with Han men who are CCP members. There are reports that the Uighur women are being forced to sleep in the same bed as the men from the Communist party, and being raped, for them to assimilate into the CCP “family.”

Photo by JC Gellidon on Unsplash

Aside from the Uighurs, the practitioners of Falun Gong are being imprisoned for following their beliefs. Both of these groups have suffered unimaginable treatment and are being used as Guinea pigs for the CCP’s organ harvesting program. These political prisoners have had their organs involuntarily harvested to supply a $1Billion+ Chinese secondary market. Foreign nationals are allowed to schedule an organ transplant and fly-in to receive organs from nearby concentration camps of Uighurs and Falun Gong.

What was their crime to warrant having their organs and lives take from them? Threatening the agenda and undermining the messaging of the CCP itself. The CCP sees any free-thinking or outside thought contrary to its stance as a threat to its stability and a crime against the people of China. So, do you find yourself not supporting oppression and lack of free speech? Then you’re a criminal and you’re subject to die in a concentration camp.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

China’s CCP is also practicing predatory infrastructure loan traps to expand its influential reach across the globe. It has created a predatory program called the “Belts & Roads Initiative”(BRI) where they enter into agreements with nations, mostly poor and under-developed, where they bring in Chinese labor to build highway and railway systems to connect cities for commerce. The problem is that these expenses are massive and the nations have no way of paying off the debt. The debt represents 15% of many nations’ GDP and some of those nations, such as Kenya, owe 72%+ of its debt to China through these sorts of programs or even upwards of 70% of a nation’s GDP.

Is the CCP just super generous and wanting to give out $5Trillion worth of free money? No, absolutely not. The CCP is playing the long game where it is waiting for those nations to default or take out more loans to pay the interest on their older debts. With this, China is buying exclusive mining rights for hundreds of years in poor nations where it can exploit them for their natural resources to pay off a previous debt from building roads. In other places, they’ve trapped island and port nations so that China can cancel the debt owed in exchange for waterway access and ports for hundreds of years. This is a game of dominance, much like the board game “Risk,” and the world is largely ignoring this predatory behavior.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

However, it doesn’t end there. China’s CCP has stolen the Intellectual Property of the world’s tech and telecom companies to roll out analogues to then sell back to nations in Europe. Chinese theft of I.P. is at an all-time high with 25% of companies reporting that China has stolen from them in the last year alone. That’s where Huawei comes into play. It is trying to sell its 5G communication networks across Europe and the world. Is the CCP wanting to connect people and improve lives? No. The CCP is wanting to control data and have access to communications across the globe where they can continue to expand its theft of I.P. and control what the world sees about China’s actions through pressuring freedom of expression in nations that still have civil liberties. Why? Because that’s what China’s CCP does domestically in China. It controls through fear and through suppressing the free speech of dissenting voices.

This is the CCP. This is what we are empowering and supporting with our trade dollars. This is one of the many reasons that we need to stop enriching the Chinese government and have it die on the vine from economic collapse.\

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

International Trade

We, as Americans, have turned a blind eye to China’s atrocities for the last thirty years. Offshore manufacturing has settled into China and caused a huge economic boom there, under the auspice of “Special Economic Zones”(SEZ) through the concessions that the CCP has made, by allowing for foreign entities to have manufacturing facilities operate for export using Chinese labor.

These changes have given easy access to American companies to produce their goods without the constraints and obligations of labor requirements domestically. In the short-term, it helped boost companies’ stock values and returns by trying to position them to as “service industry” while manufacturing is offloaded overseas. In the long-term, this represents a threat to the companies doing business in China through state-sponsored Intellectual Property theft of their products, it’s a threat to globalized dependence on supply chains, it’s a threat by enriching a dangerous regime to export its oppressive ideology, it’s a threat by empowering the CCP’s flagrant digital abuses with state-sponsored hacking efforts, it’s a moral hazard that the companies are complicit in the human rights and civil rights abuses that their efforts finance, and it’s an existential threat to the globe through both building up a totalitarian regime’s adversarial military forces while also contributing to out-of-control maritime transportation pollution.

Aside from the threat of the totalitarian efforts of China’s CCP, the pollution caused by supporting its export economy is helping to destroy our planet. Approximately 20% of the atmospheric pollution on our planet comes from the oceanic transport industry.

Localizing Supply Chains

After we stabilize our workforce and financial footing, America and other nations need to focus on helping their people and nearby neighbors.  We can do this by refocusing how our commercial supply chains are organized and through modernizing our transport infrastructure.

While off-loading manufacturing, we’ve neglected our domestic infrastructure, treating it more as a relic of our past industrial might from a post-war era where the future was full of amazing promise that we could only dream up for a sci-fi film. Instead, that capital was sent to China they have built the modern cities that America began dreaming of in the 1950s.

According to information compiled by Statista,there are approximately 34,000 General Cargo Ships, Bulk Carrier Ships, and Container Ships cruising our oceans at any given moment. This is how we largely obtain goods from China, through oceanic transport.

Photo by Roger Hoyles on Unsplash

Cargo ships don’t use regular fuel to move their goods. They use the cheapest and most filthy sludge that money can buy, and it’s called “Bunker Fuel.” Bunker Fuel is a byproduct of oil refining where the thick tar-like sludge is left over. That is what ships use for fuel. It’s one of the most awful forms of petroleum used in our modern era as it emits horrendous amounts of sulfur and pollutants into the atmosphere. This pollution is largely overlooked and unregulated because those ships are out in the open ocean and out of view of everyday citizens. Out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

According to a report by iNews UK, it’s estimated that each cargo ship creates the same amount of pollution as 50 Million passenger cars. They also state that a mere 15 of the large container ships create more pollution than all of the passenger cars on the planet combined. If that doesn’t make you think about our supply chains and the implications of offshore dependence, then I don’t know what will. On average, it takes around 12 days for a cargo ship leaving Shenzhen, China to arrive in Los Angeles, CA. During that time, it will burn on average 63,000 gallons of the Bunker Fuel sludge every day for a total of approximately 750,000 gallons during the voyage.

We are polluting our planet for cheap plastic crap from China and I hope that everyone can take this down time to think about the unintended consequences of our doing business with the CCP.

Photo by Jorge Aguilar on Unsplash

A Solution Could Be Mexico

I have thought a lot about what we could do to both create jobs in America, reduce dependency on an adversary like China’s CCP, and lift-up our neighbors.

If American companies would both repatriate manufacturing and relocate supply chains to nearby neighbors, then we could both have a wonderfully vibrant economy and social stability. I think Mexico would appreciate it. I went to school with many international students and I had one sharp classmate, who is from Mexico, explain very succinctly how our economies are intertwined. He said, “If America sneezes, Mexico gets a cold.” If our economy slows down, then Mexico is at risk of much more drastic downturns and currency devaluation.

Mexico is full of amazing and talented people that we can rely on. We would have a much better experience in trade with them as an ally than what we have with our adversary, the CCP of China.

Here are a few bullet points that I think could help improve our position.

  • Immigration issues with Mexico could largely be solved through increased manufacturing and trade with Mexico. As we increase trade with our neighbor, their economy will boom and become more stable while also increasing the per capita annual wages of its citizens. This will create a more stable environment for the Mexican people and improve their quality of life immensely.
  • We can also address the drug cartel crisis that torments and plagues the people of Mexico. With increased individual wealth and increased jobs opportunities creating a better life, the drug cartels will become less and less relevant as a source of money that can be given to the people to do their bidding for them. It won’t be worth the hassle.
  • We can expedite prototyping and shipment to the U.S. for our supply chains. Instead of waiting 40+ days to receive products through oceanic shipping from China, our businesses could have their products in a matter of days to better address changing trends and market needs without having to plan four or more months in advance.
  • A larger number of good-paying railway jobs can be created from an increased distribution system as it becomes an ever-important focal point for logistics.
  • Reduced pollution. Trains move smaller amounts of cargo than cargo ships (around 10%) but they are quicker, they consume less fuel through a hybrid diesel-powered electric generator, and they burn a cleaner type of fuel that releases fewer atmospheric pollutants.
Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

Let’s Be Better

We can vote where our dollars go in support of products and companies. We aren’t powerless. Corporations have switched to interactive marketing platforms focusing on increased involvement with customers through social media accounts. It’s an invaluable source of information that gives them insights on consumer trends and how to better improve their products or services in a rapid fashion.

All we really need to do is vote with our dollars and let our voices be heard. This also applies to supporting candidates who support initiatives to bring jobs back to the Americas and condemn regimes like the CCP for their horrendous human rights violations and crimes.

We can be better. We don’t have to have blood on our hands from doing business with the CCP. Let’s use our power as consumers to hold corporations and government accountable and use our resources to build up states and nations who value human rights and free trade.

We are all in this together and we are the only people who can help get us out of this predicament.

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Rise Of The Machines?

We’ve all been following the numbers on unemployment recently. Twenty-two million U.S. unemployment claims in the past few weeks; the worst since the great depression. Many of these losses are a result of our social distancing.

As a roboticist, this experience has me thinking, “how will this trend towards social distancing drive automation technologies?” Will the result of this pandemic be the rise of the robots? What will that mean for jobs?

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Automation has already been a big driver in job loss. Between 2000 and 2010 the US lost approximately 5.8 million manufacturing jobs, roughly one third the manufacturing workforce, while maintaining roughly the same productive output. According to a study by Ball State University, 80% of this can be attributed to automation and technology. Over the past 10 years, advances in robotics and A.I. are permitting us to move robots out of highly precise factory environments and into unstructured environments, retail, streets, and kitchens. It isn’t just the roughly four million truckers at risk of losing their jobs to self-driving trucks, it’s fast food, medical, and retail. McKinsey estimates A.I. and automation will displace 400 million workers by 2030. I feel that is a conservative estimate.

Now many roboticists reading this may doubt the field’s capabilities to deliver the A.I. needed to accomplish these lofty goals. Narrow A.I. systems are deeply flawed and nowhere near as capable as the media gives them credit for being. Anybody who has seen the laughable performance of robots in the DARPA robotics challenge can tell you we have some time before the robots rise up.

Photo by Miguel Ángel Hernández on Unsplash

So, are people’s jobs safe from the robots? Maybe not entirely. There is one robotic technology that is advancing to the cusp of changing the world. Good old-fashioned tele-operation. Now, all roboticists have had our problems with joystick tele-operation. It’s hard to control a humanoid robot with a joystick. Our 21st Century technology was stuck with an early 20th Century user interface, but that is changing. New advances in Virtual Reality control of robots are going to lead to a User Experience (UX) revolution for robot tele-operation, making driving a robot as easy as moving your body.

For the first time in human history, physical labor will become decoupled from geography. The person striking for $15-an-hour and hazard pay during the COVID-19 crises may in the near future have to compete with somebody strapping on a VR suit in a developing country to control a robot for $15-a-day. This may seem like science fiction, but it is an area that is being heavily invested in in research, the $10 million dollar Avatar X-prize being a drop in the bucket compared to the funding the Japanese government is sinking into developing this tech. Robotic avatars are about to become big business.

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

The question that faces us now and in this potential robotic future will be the same: How do we as a society look out for people who are displaced from the workforce, whether it is due to a pandemic, or due to technology? We can look to programs like UBI but ultimately this comes down to how we choose to cooperate with each other to meet human needs. Robots taking jobs should be exciting news as people move away from repetitive work. We need to focus on building ladders for helping each other. Whether it’s from robots or COVID-19 there’s a hard road of change ahead. Help who you can, when you can, and if this pans out like prior depressions and industrial revolutions the changes we make will build a better society on the other side of the crises.