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Of Course They Kept it for You All These Years

Fiction By July 1, 2017 Tags:

The July sun has burned away all traces of the early-morning thunderstorm. And here you are, back again, with that dreamish feeling you always get–with everything the same but different. Should you knock on the old blue door–still blue, but a different shade–or just walk in like you used to? There’s a brand new air conditioner churning away downstairs, but there’s no hiding from the summer heat in this attic. It was in a cardboard box, of course, but everything here is in a cardboard box so the hunt is afoot.

And, oh. This one looks familiar.

 

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Some Predictions on the Future of Work

Life By July 1, 2017

The economic situation is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, so trying to predict anything about the future of work seems foolish. Barring any major global catastrophes, however, here are a few safe bets.

Anything that can be done by a machine, will be.

Humans have been using tools to carry out low-skilled tasks since before the agricultural revolution, but a perfect storm of technological, economic, and political conditions is set to accelerate this process dramatically. We’ve probably had the technology to replace restaurant and store cashiers with kiosks and apps for several years, for example, but up until now it hasn’t made economic sense to do so. The irresistible political pressure to raise the minimum wage, however, is incentivizing companies to invest in machine labor for these jobs. At $7/hour, it still made sense to hire humans to take orders. At $15/hour, it becomes more attractive for companies to invest in automation. The upfront costs are substantial, but the long-term benefit is a “cashier” who rarely makes mistakesn and never calls off, gets sick, or demands health benefits.

But it’s not just the low-skilled jobs that will be replaced. With advances in artificial intelligence and robotics, many skilled blue-collar and white-collar tasks will be automated as well. It’s important not to get stuck thinking about this as if it will be like The Jetsons, though. It’s unlikely that any given business executive will be replaced by the Execubot 3000. More likely, we’ll see 20% of that executive’s tasks being automated. This doesn’t mean the executive will do 80% of the job and take a few hours off every day. It means that a given organization will employ 20% fewer executives.

This same process of partial-job replacement is already in full-swing in some sectors. In some chain restaurants, for example, you now have the option to pay your bill on a tabletop kiosk. There is still a human server to take your order, bring your food, and refill your drinks, but with the bill-paying process handled by machines, the server is able to serve more tables, resulting in fewer servers for the restaurant overall. A similar process is taking place in retail stores. Instead of employing cashiers for each check-out, many grocery and big box stores now have a single employee troubleshooting a bank of self-checkouts. And, of course, ATMs have been partially replacing bank teller jobs for several decades already.

There will be fierce competition in the labor force for the tasks that can’t be done by a machine.

Let’s look at that executive job again. Of the 80% of tasks that can’t be automated, a significant portion of those can be outsourced. There is nothing about living in close proximity to a corporation’s headquarters that makes one uniquely qualified to carry out certain tasks. If a self-employed contractor or consultant in India or the Ukraine is just as capable of doing some of these tasks–and they’re willing to do it for a fraction of the cost of a U.S. executive–then it’s hard to imagine a legal or political restriction that will prevent exactly that from happening.

Human interaction will be a luxury good.

Many people simply hate interacting with machines and will pay a premium for the opportunity to talk to a real person. Much will depend on what proportion of the population is willing to pay this premium and how much they’re willing to pay. Some people might be willing to pay an extra 10% for their groceries if it means they can interact with a human cashier, for example, but they may draw the line a 25% premium. If a critical mass of such people isn’t present in a given community, there may be no local options for that service.

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The Rite of Spring

Art By February 2, 2017

Here’s how The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ritual:

noun. A formal ceremony or series of acts that is always performed in the same way. An act or series of acts done in a particular situation and in the same way each time.

Every year, on February 2nd, thousands of people gather in the early morning hours at Gobbler’s Knob, a few miles outside of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to witness a weather prediction. Men in formal wear pull a groundhog from a stump. This groundhog’s name is Phil. (Why not?) Tradition holds that if Phil sees his shadow, we’ll have an early spring. If not, we’re stuck with six more weeks of winter. One of the men reads Phil’s prediction in highly-prescribed language. The gathered crowd then rejoices or boos, depending on the outcome. This has happened every year since the 1880s.

Most rituals are serious events—baptisms, weddings, funerals, and the like—but some are just for fun. Blowing out the candles on a birthday cake, for example, or gathering on a freezing cold morning to watch a large rodent predict the weather.

When we hear the word ritual, this is the kind of thing that comes to mind. There’s a formal, prescribed series of events or actions, special clothes, special language, etc. A ritual, in this sense, is not a part of our ordinary daily lives. It’s something special, different, set apart.

The Groundhog Day ritual is what brings Phil Connors to Punxsutawney in the movie Groundhog Day. As a TV weatherman, it’s his job to “present” this ritual to the viewing audience. Because Phil is forced to relive the same day over and over, he’s forced to re-present the Groundhog Day ritual over and over again, too. At the beginning of the movie, it’s clear that Phil feels that this ritual is beneath him.

If this is the first you’ve heard of Groundhog Day, I should point out that no one actually believes that the groundhog can predict the weather. We just act as if he can because it’s fun. The ritual involves some make-believe. Phil Connors comes off as a jerk in the clip above not because he doubts the accuracy of the weather-predicting groundhog. Rather, he’s a jerk because he’s not playing along. The point of this ritual is to be silly and have some fun and Phil is not taking the ritual seriously.

Confucius had a lot to say about these kinds of formal rituals, but he also used the word 禮 (li) in a broader sense. For him, 禮 (li) wasn’t like a set of “Sunday clothes” that we bring out just for weddings and funerals. He recommended bringing the same sense of attention, reverence, and good conduct that we associate with formal rituals to our everyday lives as well.

Oddly enough, by the end of the movie, Phil Connors’ life has become something of a ritual. He has adopted an optimal pattern of behavior for living virtuously in his one allotted day.

Confucius said, “Restrain the self and return to ritual (禮, li). That’s virtue (仁, ren). If for a full day you can restrain yourself and return to ritual (禮, li), everyone under Heaven will move toward virtue (仁, ren)…” (Analects, 12.1)

For his single day, Phil Connors is acting according to 禮 (li). In his last Groundhog Day, Phil not only acts virtuously, he does so with a sense of effortless grace and elegance. He is frictionless, floating smoothly from one virtuous interaction to the next. It is the best illustration of the Confucian conception of the intimate relationship between 禮 (li) and virtue 仁 (ren) I have ever seen. And like that conception, it’s much easier to experience than to put into words.

But, back to the quote, does the “whole world return to virtue” in Groundhog Day? Phil’s “whole world” in the movie is Punxsutawney. (Literally. He cannot leave the town.) Although he doesn’t bring about utopia in Punxy, he does have a profound effect on everyone he interacts with. He comes to the rescue of a carload of stranded elderly ladies, a boy who falls from a tree, and a man chocking on his dinner. He saves the marriage of a young couple. He brings joy and happiness to virtually everyone in the town through his art, his music, and his humor. And, in a scene that destroys me every time I see it, he gives comfort to an elderly homeless man whose death he cannot prevent.

Hold on…get your tissues. I’ll wait here…No, I’m fine. Just got something in my eye. 

By the end of the movie, Phil also exhibits what Confucius called 德 (de), a kind of moral charisma or moral power. In addition to helping others, he exhibits a positive sway over them. Again, it’s easier to experience than to put into words, but just look at how other people “brighten” in Phil’s presence in his final Groundhog Day.

And let’s not forget the more ordinary sense of ritual, either. On Phil’s last Groundhog Day, he has mastered his role in the ritual, retaining the fun while, at the same time, transforming it into a moment of deep and sincere gratitude.

Link: All of Confucius’ Analects on ritual (禮, li).

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Say it in the Story

Fiction By September 19, 2016

dickens

…all that I could say of the Story, to any purpose, I have endeavored to say in it.

-Charles Dickens, From the Preface to David Copperfield

hemingway

It is hard enough to write books and stories without being asked to explain them as well. Also it deprives the explainers of work. If five or six or more good explainers can keep going why should I interfere with them? Read anything I write for the pleasure of reading it. Whatever else you find will be the measure of what you brought to the reading…it is very bad for a writer to talk about how he writes. He writes to be read by the eye and no explanations or dissertations should be necessary. You can be sure that there is much more there than will be read at any first reading and having made this it is not the writer’s province to explain it or to run guided tours through the more difficult country of his work.

-Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review

 

 

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Recommendation: The Science of Enlightenment

Uncategorized By September 19, 2016

For most of human history, a person who wanted to learn to meditate had one teacher who taught a single, unified approach, with a coherent set of practices and terminology. An American in the 21st century, however, faces a bewilderingly diverse array of traditions, each of which has its own practices and special terms. To complicate things further, many of these traditions use the same terms to mean different things and the same practices aimed at different goals.

Faced with this Tower of Babel, it’s easy to superficially jump from one approach to another, not sticking with any practice long enough to make any meaningful progress. It’s also easy to respond to this confusion by throwing one’s hands in the air and simply giving up.

The value of The Science of Enlightenment is that it gives one a coherent mental framework with which understand all the world’s meditation practices. This is the sense in which we can say the author presents a “science.” Just as the scientific classification of animals equips a biologist to make sense of a newly-discovered species, this “scientific” classification of meditation practices equips one to make sense of the bewildering array of meditation practices they are likely to encounter in the modern “marketplace” of contemplative practices.

The book is available here.

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Grey House

Poetry By August 6, 2016

Grey house,
Black gutters.

Stand on the brick path,
And enjoy the cooling
Shower of the leaky gutters.

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