Monday, October 19, 2015

A world without work?

The Best Boss I Ever Had told me  that he liked to hire smart, lazy people from middle class backgrounds. In those days, a middle class upbringing was assumed to come with a pre-installed work ethic and sense of personal responsibility. The intelligence and laziness meant that you weren't particularly comfortable with the work ethic, and would expend enormous effort to find an easier way. Our shop was a wonderland of labor saving innovations and idiot-proofing.

This would not be a completely unfair characterization of Baby Boomers as a group, and I believe we may have ruined the world because of it. To be fair, we didn't start this process by any means, but we certainly accelerated the trend, and we have taught our children and grandchildren to be really good at it.

Take garbage trucks as an example. Not too many years ago, three men rode a giant trash compactor up and down the street, banging cans on the back to make sure everyone was awake. Today in most places, one driver in a truck with a robot arm has replaced that three person crew. The savings are divided between the millionaire who invented the arm, the international conglomerate who built the truck, and the waste disposal company. Oh, and property owners. Everyone with trash to pick up pays less for it than they otherwise would.

This is how free market capitalism has always worked. Someone comes up with a better/cheaper/faster way, and everyone wins. Except people invested in the old system. Omelet something-something eggs, right? The sons of displaced armorers, whalers, and buggy whip makers would adapt or go for soldiers, and civilization marched on, better and stronger.

Unfortunately, the disruption now is so widespread that there is no place left to go. The entire middle class is invested in the old system. Displaced sanitation workers are competing with former factory workers, administrative assistants, shop owners, and bank tellers for a dwindling number of barista openings. Machines are already reading your mammograms, packing and shipping your Amazon order, and approving your loan applications. Within a very few years they will be driving your cars, caring for your children, and yes, making your skinny vanilla chai latte with extra shot and non-fat whip.

PewDiePie owns the most watched YouTube channel on the planet. This real life Beavis makes professional athlete money for doing this. Warning: NSFW.  Also, you will probably find this incredibly stupid if you are a grownup with a job.

An old friend calls this phenomenon the robot economy, and you are not going to believe how much it will change the world in the next quarter century. Not only will the garbage truck no longer need the driver, your can will bring itself to the curb. The only real growth sector in the economy now is twenty-three year olds figuring out ways to either eliminate jobs or entertain us. Even that may soon become the work of computers.

So what of work? If you were raised with that middle class work ethic I was going on about, or you watch Fox News, you are uncomfortable with the idea of people sitting around the house watching cat videos, instead of going to an office somewhere to do the same thing. But once there is literally nothing productive left for us to do, what other choices are there? Seriously. Not a rhetorical question.

And then there is the future of money. If we don't have jobs, how can we be good consumers? The opening salvos of this dispute can be seen in today's politics, though without anyone publicly acknowledging the long term structural problem. We have become consumers of information more than things, and today's economy seems to trade in attention, a fixed (and some would say dwindling) resource. Even with free market innovations, this hardly seems like a sustainable model.

I think this is the top economic question of this still-somewhat-new century. More than one war will be fought over what comes next. Fought mostly by computers, of course. The rest of us will probably just do whatever our implants tell us.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Die another day

I died on Friday, albeit at a younger age.

A college campus is a time machine. At least once a week I see someone from my youth, un-aged, and unaware of their role in my past. They are typically not exactly as I remember, but seeing a forgotten walk, smile, or turn of phrase will send me instantly back to high school or college, reliving incidents momentous or trivial. One day I was sitting on the school bus with Lisa. A week or so later I was looking into the first friendly face I saw when I started college four decades ago, hundreds of miles from home.

Sometimes they are enrolled in my classes, and I gain insights that I couldn't have had when I knew their older dopplegangers. I have an inkling now why Joey wanted to be a Marine. I can make an educated guess why Vickie always wore that sad face when she thought no one was looking, and why Valerie never dated much.

Once in a great while, they are me. We know from science fiction that it is dangerous to encounter one's past self, though to this point I haven't found it to be a problem. We do tend to work a little harder on these kids, pushing them to avoid the pitfalls that we fell in, or grab the opportunities we let slip away. It almost never works. I think one source of confidence for teachers is that we learn that youth is youth, and the mistakes we made were more or less inevitable. They accompany youth as surely as sagging skin and stray hairs come with age.

Ben was me with a harder life, and was consequently stronger with more scars. Like me, he had wandered a bit in his youth. Like me, a setback had put him on the path that he was seeking all along, and he had nowhere to go but up. He was going to be a college professor, and he would have been a good one.

Ben was my student and my friend. He was my "there but for the grace of God."

Vaya con dios my friend. We will not see your like again.
Last year Ben started having problems with heartburn and occasional sore throats. The doctors at the clinics he could afford told him to take antacids and change his diet. By the time he put together the money to buy insurance and get proper tests, the clock was ticking on his final half year. He managed to finish his degree, and he was enrolled in graduate school this Fall, but I think we both knew he wouldn't be there.

Ben's story of redemption ended prematurely early Friday morning, and I have been at loose ends since I heard. This is not how his story is supposed to end. Besides being robbed of the triumph he earned, he left behind some people who really needed him to survive. But whether God, the Fates, or simply cosmic dice, I know by now that there is no term in this equation for what we need. We get what we get, and it's up to the survivors to make sense of it.

I suppose the sci-fi writers are right after all. As my father used to say, we learn something new every day.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Now what can you do for my aura?

So, last Thursday night I stumbled out of bed in the middle of the night to service a biological imperative,* as is the habit of men my age. My next recollection is of struggling up from the bathroom floor, with Biscuit standing next to me asking what happened.

I had sipped one or three beers and mostly skipped dinner the previous evening, but I really didn't have that much, officer, I swear. With no other explanation forthcoming at 3:00 am, I put it down to low blood sugar and fading stamina, made sure there were no bones sticking out, and went back to bed.**

The next morning I sat up, put my feet on the floor, and immediately fell backwards across the bed. I have experienced bed spins before, but never when it was light outside. I took another run at it, albeit more carefully, and found that once I got upright, things were more or less normal after a minute or so. Any significant change in the orientation of my head, however, sent the room spinning and started the process over.

A quick consult with Google pointed to some combination of stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and possibly a brain tumor. Or inner ear problems, which (spoiler alert!) turn out to be much more common, but don't get as much internet traction. Of course I only ever take ill on Friday. I determined to wait out the weekend, assuming I would either be dead or getting better by Monday. It turns out there was a third option, and I spent the weekend like a drunken sailor in a hurricane, stumbling from one handhold to the next.

I don't have a regular cardiologist or neurologist, as they are expensive and frightening. I do have an ear, nose, and throat doctor, and she has never used the word "catheter" in my presence that I recall, so I went to see her. I think everyone in the office knew what was wrong about five seconds after I walked in, but they are nothing if not thorough, so I got a blood pressure check, another stroke test, a few hearing and ear tests, and a good listen through a stethoscope. Apparently they also have the Google. Right before leaving the room, the nurse said, "She will be in shortly. She's going to align your crystals!"

My view of the world for much of the last week.

After eliminating the scary possibilities, the doctor tested me for what she already knew was wrong with me, which is something called benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, or BPPV. Unlike ED or RLS, positional vertigo is not something made up by drug companies, but a real thing that happens to a lot of people. Apparently, tiny rocks (the crystals) in the inner ear wander into a neighborhood where they are not welcome, and the social tension causes a miniature riot when you move your head.

She put me in Bugs Bunny's barber chair, raised me to a height guaranteed to break something if I fell off, and had me lie back and turn my head to the side. If she said "cough" I was out of there, dizzy or not. Instead, she held up a finger for me to stare at, and when I turned to the left and one finger suddenly became three, she said, "There it goes!" with a look like an arsonist at a bonfire.

The treatment turns out to be something called the Epley maneuver. While this sounds like a British military technique that probably involves a bayonet, it's just more lying down, turning the head, sitting up, and getting dizzy. It doesn't fix the problem exactly, but relocates the tiny crystals to somewhere less annoying in the ear until they resorb. Also, I learned a new word. Re-sorb.

I'm pretty much back to normal now, with occasional bouts of walking like a mildly drunken landlubber in normal circumstances when I forget and do something stupid like lie down and then stand up. I haven't tried driving yet. Maybe today. What could possibly go wrong?

* I'm pretty sure this is why they are called the "wee hours."

** Biscuit made me smile and blink, and whatever else you are supposed to do to check for stroke before she would let me go back to sleep. Apparently I passed, or she just got tired.