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.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Simple happiness

Final exams were last week, and a few days ago I was contemplating a post to bookend the back to school diatribe I wrote nine months ago. It would have detailed the fundamental and visible ways that the end of the academic year differs from its start. The mood on a rapidly emptying campus is a mix of elation and indifference born of exhaustion. There are no novices on campus now, no wasted steps, and virtually no one is in a hurry. Traffic is practically bearable. Summer's oppressive heat has been replaced with Spring breezes.

This is where it all went wrong. By the next day, when I got serious about writing, it was 89 degrees and humid. The magical state of inspiration was shattered. My disillusionment was beyond what the change in weather alone would dictate. I groused like my grumpiest Facebook friend.

I think this is one reason that grownups can't often achieve the same unabashed happiness that kids get out of five minutes on the merry-go-round.* Adults have complicated lives, with too many degrees of freedom in their bliss equations. Kids don't worry about tomorrow, or regret the road not taken. They are zen, unstable and uncaring. The rest of us bind our happiness to innumerable threads of achievement, entangled and often pulling against each other. Food, shelter, career success, happy and well adjusted children, regard of our peers, romantic bliss, must all coexist before we allow ourselves untainted joy. We must scale to the top of Maslow's pyramid to be unburdened, while an 8 year old is good with a hot dog and 15 minutes in the pool.

The playground may be rubber, but at least none of these kids are texting.
Image from here

I am not sure how much of this behavior is learned, and how much is a natural consequence of the way we are wired. There is a lot of gray matter surrounding the happy place in our brain. I'm sure it's there for some reason. And there is definitely a hormonal component. Self doubt and regret seem to come with puberty.

The good news is that I think the capacity for simple pleasure returns with age. Ask an eighty year old what makes them happy, and they are likely to say a good bowel movement, or a day in the garden. Our family gatherings used to devolve into stress-filled group therapy sessions. These days my family laughs through most of our time together.  I have watched my mother's happiness threshold for holidays like Mothers Day moderate from -- unachievable, really -- to lunch  and a call from her kids.

So it seems there is hope for us all, even my grumpy Facebook friend. Have a simply happy Mother's Day, everyone.

* I realize merry-go-rounds are much too dangerous for today's children. Do iPad games and Disney shows produce the same giggling elation? A question for another day -- and someone with kids -- I suppose.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Life without a laptop

My personal laptop suffered a massive stroke this past weekend. It is not completely dead, at least not yet. It powers on and the little Apple shows up, but not much productive happens after that. I am doing what I can to make it comfortable and save what memories remain, but it's only a matter of time before we pull the life support.

While tragic, this doesn't exactly leave me cut off from the virtual world. I have an embarrassing number of computers and tablets at work, and a few more at the house. But this is the machine that I commune with early in the morning, that keeps me company while I watch TV, and that sits with me when I am sick. It has been my near-constant companion since -- apparently -- mid 2009. Plus, it knows a lot of my passwords.

I have already learned something from the experience, though. I don't have the same relationship with my phone that the young people do, and the laptop has been my go-to device for killing time. Over the years, I have used the big machine more like kids use their phones, as a cure for boredom and an habitual source of distraction. Without it, I feel more focused, and I am spending more time out of my chair.

Much of my professional work involves Tangible Computing, and the Internet of Things, concepts so powerful that they defy explanation. Seriously, I can't explain them. I have been trying for years. What they promise is a future where -- let's say a decade from now -- Google will use your habits at home to adjust the thermostat in your office. They might even tweak the temperature based on what clothes you put on before you left the house. Your coffee cup will tell the robot at Starbucks what you want, and pay for the transaction. Your car may inform you that the restaurant you entered as a destination is frequented by your ex, and there is a 42% chance that they are there. And you won't have to do anything! It will all happen automatically. In fact, you won't be able to stop it.

If you are much over 30, this probably all sounds terrifying and horrible. Much younger, and your attitude is likely to be more positive. Either way, the future is coming, ready or not. The idea of computing as an activity one does with a machine will be as much a part of the past as talking on the phone in a specific room, tethered by a curly cord. The world of Star Trek will be with us much earlier than anyone believed, at least where technology is concerned. The social justice and peace thing will probably take much longer.

I was going to add an image of the inside of a computer, but this seems infinitely more appropriate.
Image from here

What is unclear is what this will do to the way people think. It is possible that technology will sink naturally into the background, allowing us to live a more intentional life. Some of our current research is in this direction, creating environments that change subtly with conditions, the way the sky changes color due to time and weather. Given society's history, it is more likely that our connected environment will attract and manipulate us in ways subtle and profane, and that we will become even more distracted than the kids who walk in front of my car every day, never looking up from their iPhones. Maybe that thermostat will cool the room an extra couple of degrees during the morning, so that I am a little more susceptible to the suggestion of a vente mochaccino.

My intellectual interest is in making sure all of this works together in some reasonable way. If my refrigerator is going to catch me up on my [insert favorite social media platform here] feed, then it damn well better remember what I came into the kitchen to do, because I certainly won't. I think this post is a good example of that phenomenon.

Which brings me to what will have to serve as the point of all this. I am going to fix or replace my laptop, but I don't think I will keep it so close to me. I need to understand this brave new world to the extent I will participate, and my MacBook is no more a part of it than a rotary phone, or cable TV.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Freeing up a Sunday night

The last football game I attended with my father was a little over 20 years ago on the day after Thanksgiving. The home state Hogs were playing the Tigers of my alma mater in my home town. Dad had two extra tickets, and my brother and I jumped at the chance to see a game with the old man, even though both teams were terrible that year, and the game was essentially meaningless.

The temperature was in the mid-30s with a cold drizzle at game time, and it was raining hard by the end of the first quarter. The game was not going well for the home team, and the situation was plainly not going to improve in the second half. Soaked, freezing, and miserable, my brother and I decided that a hot shower and a cold drink were called for, so at half time we told Dad we were leaving. "All right, then," he growled from under his poncho, showing no inclination to join us. He didn't call us pussies out loud, but it was clearly implied. He stayed until the bitter (30-7) end, and never mentioned the game to us again.

This is a long way of saying that football is important in my family. We all played growing up. My parents had season tickets most years. When other girls were hanging David Cassidy posters, my sister kept an autographed picture of Joe Ferguson on her bedroom wall. I think Archie Manning was on my mother's list. She still watches football every Fall weekend between naps, and both of my brothers are active on the sports blogs.

The trouble started when they moved the game indoors. Image from here.

So it's not a trivial thing for me to skip the Super Bowl. I have watched them all* since Super Bowl -1 (the 1965 NFL Championship game). I saw a few epic games, and more than a few I could have done without. I watched the Packers, Colts, Cowboys, Dolphins, Cowboys again, Steelers, 49ers, da Bears, Broncos, and the rest put it all together and grab the big prize. I suffered with the Bills through four straight Super Bowl losses. I even lived long enough to see my Saints make it to the big dance and win.

I have been falling out of love with big time football for a while now, but I seem to have passed my personal tipping point. It's not just the concussions and other health problems. A lot of people work jobs that are every bit as dangerous for way less than $10 million a year, though when Ditka says the game is not worth the risk, that gets my attention. It's not even the animal abuse, domestic violence, and murders. They select these people for aggressiveness and violent tendencies, then pump them full of drugs and give them more money at one time than most of us would earn in three lifetimes. Am I the only one who is not surprised when some of them don't act like model citizens?

No, the camelback straw for me was watching the Patriots clearly think it was funny that someone caught them cheating. Worse, I found myself laughing along with them.** It seems to have finally dawned on me that the NFL owners not only don't care about the players or the fans, they don't have any respect for the game. Through scandal after embarrassment, the league shoots a big finger at the fans, lights another cigar with a billion dollar bill, and watch the money-machine keep cranking.

I am not trying to start a movement or anything. I expect everyone I know to watch the game, and I wouldn't expect them to choose differently. I know that neither the sponsors nor the league will notice me gone. My personal choices are the only way I have to shape my world, so I am making this one. Who knows, maybe I'll be back next year.

My father loved football for what it taught young men about leadership, teamwork, sportsmanship, and perseverance through pain and heartbreak. He liked how the game brought families together, and gave manly men some way to express emotions. He loved the game itself. I don't think he would like how professional football is being run. He would probably still watch, and while everyone else was standing around eating snacks and discussing commercials, he would be glued to the biggest television in the house, watching every play to the bitter end. But he would definitely grumble about the erosion of respect for his favorite sport.

All right, then.

* I may have missed one or two being on the road or working, but if I did I don't remember, so they must not have been important. I am also a little fuzzy on the particulars of the 1965 NFL Championship game, other than that it was in color.

** I'm not picking on the Patriots especially. I wasn't particularly enamored of Marshawn Lynch's eloquent defense of his personal right to privacy, either. There is not a team in the league with clean hands. New England are just the latest, and their "what's the big deal" attitude is particular galling to me.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The good craic: Part 3

Sorry, got distracted by the holidays and a conference trip to Palo Alto, which is like Beverly Hills for techies. Wait, different story. Now where was I? Oh, right. We had just left Ballybunion.

The Dingle peninsula was our final destination in Ireland, other than the lovely airport Radisson in Shannon. Normally, by the time vacations are winding down I am ready to get home. I could easily have stayed in Ireland another month, so Dingle had that feeling of last call at a bar that closes much too early.

The drive from Ballybunion to Dingle was predictably lovely, though it did necessitate another trip to Shannon. I was getting the hang of this driving on the left, and Biscuit was getting used to riding a few inches from brush-clad stone walls, so the stress level was down considerably. We wheeled into roundabouts with nary a hesitation. Wheeling out was a bit more of a crap shoot, and we got lost a couple of times, making for some snippy exchanges in the car, but for the most part we had a relaxed trip.

There is a lay-by about halfway up the Connor Pass where one can stop, get some pictures, and change pants, if necessary. The yellow line in the picture marks the edge of the road, not the center.

Which was good, because we had decided to take the Connor Pass into Dingle town. I'm not sure why anyone ever chose to put a road through this thing. It's tall and steep and cold and wet and terrifying. And beautiful. Not to be missed if you are in the neighborhood. I don't know what you're going to do if you meet another car on one of the long single lane (even by Irish standards) stretches, but I'm sure you will figure something out.

Given the rapid decline in tour buses since we arrived in Ireland, we were a bit surprised to find Dingle town packed with people. And I mean Disney World, Jersey shore in the summer packed. It turns out we had arrived on the final day of the big Dingle Food Festival. Every building with a kitchen had a table set up where one could line up to buy sample portions of whatever they were featuring that day. We had some pork sliders and Guinness, a few other tidbits and a pint of Murphy's, and eventually a handful of Tums with a pint of Beamish. It was great fun, but four hours was about all I needed of 75,000 people crammed into a town built for 2000, so we were not disappointed that the festival was drawing to a close.

When we got to Dingle Town, this street and sidewalk were bumper to bumper and elbow to elbow, respectively. By the following morning, things had calmed down considerably.

We spent the next morning driving the Dingle peninsula. I can't begin to describe the beauty and history of this place, and there are WAY too many pictures to include here. I will have to let a couple of representative shots be sufficient.

Thatch is a fairly new innovation on the Irish timeline, and the trees have been gone for much longer. Many of the old structures are made entirely of stone, of which there is plenty.

One of the nicer roads in the Irish countryside. Most were narrower, and lacked the generous hard shoulder pictured here. The road up Conner pass was about 3/4 as wide, with a sheer wall of rock on one side and nothing but air on the other. Meeting a tour bus coming around one of these curves was quite a thrill.

The Gallarus Oratory. It is believed to be a chapel built somewhere around 900 CE, give or take 300 years. They say it is still keeps out the rain, at least as well as it ever has.

The small peaks on the horizon are the Blasket Islands. The island population declined through emigration during the 20th century, until last residents were evacuated in 1953. The Blasket Centre was an unexpected high point of the day's tour. Also, it's fun to say "blasket" after a while.

Dinner on our last night was at the Dingle Pub. Good traditional Irish food and drink. I think the staff were a bit burnt out from the food festival, but they were efficient and friendly, which is all you can ask. 

The trip home was blessedly uneventful. I was greatly relieved to turn in the Skoda with no new dents or scratches, and the flights were relatively on time and drama free. We definitely hope to go back to do the east and north of the island someday.

Thanks for coming along. Sláinte!