Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Pulling up roots

When you're a kid, and your parents talk about things that happened twenty, or thirty, or more years ago, it seems like an impossibly long time. Now that it's been an impossibly long time since I was a kid, I find myself saying these sorts of things all the time.*

Large Southern University has been at the center of my life off and on for an improbably long time, given that a younger me once moved 8 times in one year. I found my professional calling there, met my closest friends, learned more than I can even begin to describe. It is as much my home as the house I grew up in.

Later this month I will leave my office for the last time, and start a new adventure in a new place -- one with seasons, terrain, and a single digit student-to-teacher ratio. Biscuit and I will be leaving for the Show Me State, after almost 30 years in Bayou Country. I will be working on a campus that one can see all at one time, after spending most of my life on one that takes 45 minutes to walk across. My new job is 90% teaching, where my current is almost 100% research. I guess what I am saying is, it's going to be different.

I am excited about my new job, and the move. It is closer to family (when did that become a desirable thing?), day trip distance to some of my favorite places, and I love to teach. Did I mention I will be teaching game development? I like games. The town seems nice, and our new house has a garage. And a basement.

As much as I like it when things change, one doesn't live anywhere this long without filling up a life -- at least if you're doing it right. We will miss our friends, and the food, drive-through daiquiri shops, neighborhood parades, Mardi Gras, and much more. Mostly I will miss familiarity. It's good to know where everything is, and the parts of town to avoid when driving there. I've been getting my hair cut by the same person for twenty years (there I go again). This move will mean a new dentist, vet, dry cleaner, and HVAC service company. Restaurants, paint stores, and neighbors all need to be rediscovered and integrated.

Years ago, I was amazed -- and frankly a little concerned -- when my 75 year old father decided to start a new firm. Now I think I get it. Opportunities come when and where they will. We can choose to do what's next, or we can stay planted, clinging to the familiar. For me, it's time for a change. In the words of the immortal Roy McAvoy (Tin Cup), you ride her until she bucks or you don't ride at all.

Wish us luck, and if you're ever in flyover country, stop in for a glass of tea and a shot of white lightning. But definitely call first. I may be out trying to find a front license plate holder.

* Don't even start the "I have underwear older than that" contest. I am simultaneously proud and horrified at how well prepared I am for this game. I really need to clean out my drawers (heh).

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.