Browsing Category

Life

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.

Share:

Fatal and Unmanly Slumbers

Life By July 9, 2016

I feel nothing but pity for the five police officers killed last night in Dallas and I feel nothing but contempt for their killer. I also pity Philando Castile, who was, by all accounts, an honorable young man. We don’t know all the facts in that case, of course, but his girlfriend’s account of his killing makes far more sense than the story we’re hearing from the police so far.

The shooting of Alton Sterling is much less clear. I’ve watched the video and can’t make much sense of it. The angle at which the video was shot and the low resolution of the video make it impossible to determine what happened, as far as I can tell. Was he shot unnecessarily? I don’t know. Do I understand why many people are jumping to the conclusion that he was? Absolutely.

It is high time for all of us to stop pretending that the problem of police brutality is simply a matter of a “few bad apples.” According to an anonymous survey of about 900 police officers from across the country conducted by the Department of Justice back in 2000, 84% of the officers surveyed admitted having witnessed a fellow officer using excessive force. I think we can all agree that 84% doesn’t represent a few “isolated incidents” or a “few bad apples.” And please note, this is not a number generated by Black Lives Matter or the ACLU. This number is from the police officers themselves.

Can civilians expect justice when these incidents occur? Not usually. Here again, let’s look at the data provided by the police officers themselves: 61% of the officers surveyed admitted that they “do not always report serious criminal violations that involve the abuse of authority by fellow officers.” Further, 67% believe that officers who report these incidents are given the “cold shoulder” by fellow officers. (Source: Police Attitudes Toward Abuse of Authority: Findings From a National Study.)

I’m not going to post links to every incident of cover-up, corruption, or police misconduct, but they’re out there if you care to look. My friends who are pleading for everyone to “calm down” and look for “reasonable” ways to solve these problems would do well to make some specific, concrete suggestions for how this can be done. For decades now, citizens have been searching for justice, only to be shut down by police departments, district attorneys, and judges who all seem to be looking out for one another rather than doing the right thing.

The criminal justice system is the “calm” and “reasonable” channel for seeking justice, but what exactly do we expect people to do when that system fails them? Shut up and take it? Here’s a passage from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense that I think speaks to the present situation:

But if you say, you can still pass the violations over, then I ask, hath your house been burnt? Hath your property been destroyed before your face? Are your wife and children destitute of a bed to lie on, or bread to live on? Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands, and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor? If you have not, then are you not a judge of those who have. But if you have, and can still shake hands with the murderers, then are you unworthy the name of husband, father, friend or lover, and whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.

This is not inflaming or exaggerating matters, but trying them by those feelings and affections which nature justifies, and without which, we should be incapable of discharging the social duties of life, or enjoying the felicities of it. I mean not to exhibit horror for the purpose of provoking revenge, but to awaken us from fatal and unmanly slumbers…

Many passages from The Declaration of Independence could be cited here as well, to the same effect. As colonies of Great Britain, we suffered injustices at the hands of the mother country and all attempts to address these grievances through the proper channels were denied. As a result, we turned to violence. This is the predictable course of events when people are denied justice. Unless real changes are made, we can only expect more.

Here are a few real, concrete things we can do turn things around.

  1. Stop passing so many damn laws. Police officers aren’t called “law enforcement” for nothing. Their job is to enforce the laws that our legislatures pass. Every law is enforced through violence or the threat of violence. When a new law is proposed, ask yourself if its enforcement is worth the injury or death of a police officer or civilian. (I suspect that most police officers hate enforcing many of these petty laws as much, or more, than we hate submitting to them.) As a rule of thumb, reject the idea of a “crime” unless there is a clear, direct victim. Vote for legislators accordingly.
  2. Don’t expect people to rat on their friends. It is unreasonable to expect fairness when police departments investigate themselves. It is equally unreasonable to expect district attorneys who work closely with police officers to be completely objective when investigating the people they reasonably view as colleagues. This is not because they’re bad; it’s because they’re human. Police misconduct should be investigated by independent prosecutors and independent review boards. Always.
  3. Use body cameras. Every police officer should be required to wear a body camera, for their protection as well as our own. Body cameras ought to be activated the moment the siren turns on and there should be an automatic investigation by an independent review board every time a camera is “accidentally” deactivated. We are constantly admonished that if we aren’t breaking the law, we have nothing to worry about. The same standard should apply to the officers who enforce those laws: if they aren’t doing anything wrong, then they have nothing to fear from a video recording of their actions. (There have already been many instances of good cops being exonerated from any wrongdoing by simply looking at the tape.)

If you disagree with any of my suggestions, feel free to tell me where I’ve gone wrong. More importantly, please offer some specific concrete suggestions of your own. More memes and good feels aren’t going to solve anything.

Share:

It’s a Wonderful Wife

Life By May 26, 2016 Tags:

It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t just a great Christmas movie, it’s a great movie, period. I’ve written quite a few posts about it already, and I was planning a new one for this holiday season. I had a great idea and was all ready to write it up. As it turns out, however, my great idea was mostly wrong. I was so in love with my precious idea that I had cranked my confirmation bias up to 11: I magnified the points that supported my argument while unfairly dismissing those that didn’t.

I know all this because I talked it over with my wife. She kindly and patiently pointed out where my thinking had jumped the rails. Like George Bailey, I was lost in my own dreams and fantasies and blind to the people around me. George’s wife, Mary Bailey (Hatch), played brilliantly by Donna Reed, didn’t get as much screen time as George. What we do see of Mary, however, paints a very appealing picture.

When George stubbornly clings to his failed dream of world adventure and refuses to court Mary–a woman that he clearly loves–Mary doesn’t let her own pride get in the way of their happiness. Faced with the kind of angry rejection that Mary experiences, a less virtuous person would have dished out some rejection of her own. Instead, Mary patiently guides George toward the happiness that was available for both of them.

When the Building and Loan was in danger of being destroyed due to insolvency, Mary selflessly gives up the money they had been saving for their honeymoon to save the day. Although she had clearly been looking forward to their time together, she hands over the money with good cheer because it was the right thing to do.

While George is seeing how the world would have been different without him, Mary recruits Uncle Billy to search for him. And, although it’s easy to overlook it in all the excitement of the “miracle” at the end of the movie, there’s no doubt who is responsible for this miracle:

Uncle Billy: Mary did it, George! Mary did it! She told a few people you were in trouble and they scattered all over town collecting money.

George’s war hero brother, Harry, also leaves a banquet in his honor to lend a hand. Why?

Harry: Oh, I left right in the middle of it as soon as I got Mary’s telegram.

George’s moral transformation is, of course, the center of the movie. We don’t need to spend as much time with Mary, however, perhaps because she is already what George needs to become. She’s loving, kind, patient, and virtuous in every other way. She is, in short, a hero. When the bell rings at the end of the movie, signaling that Clarence has earned his wings, there is another angel onscreen–and she’s been there the whole time.

She is the character in all of fiction that reminds me most of my Elizabeth.

ItsAWondrflLife_015Pyxurz

Share:

George Bailey, Phil Connors, and The Dude

Life By May 26, 2016 Tags: ,

Some movies become classics because they speak to something universal about the human condition. Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is a good example: just about everyone can relate to Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal of George Bailey. No, you don’t run a savings and loan in upstate New York in the 1940s and no, you probably have never been visited by an intellectually-disabled angel. But yes, you have stood on that bridge, looking down at the water, thinking about how badly things have gone for so long, what a mess you’ve made of everything, and just how damned hard life is.

George-Bailey-praying

So that’s one kind of classic. Let’s call it the everyman type. (Apologies for the sexism, but “everyperson” is too ugly a word.) However unusual the specifics of the narrative are, the main character(s) have an experience just about everyone in the audience can relate to. You and your buddies probably never went on a hiking trip looking for a body, but at some point in your childhood, you got your first real taste of independence and the danger that comes with it. The bittersweet aftertaste of that experience is probably why you never turn off Stand By Me if you catch it showing on TV.

There’s another type of classic, though, that manages to convince specific groups of people that the movie is speaking especially to them, or that it’s expressing themes or ideas that are particular to their group. I’ve written about Groundhog Day before: Buddhists, Hindus, Existentialists, Aristotelians, and Christians of every stripe have felt a special connection to the film. They feel that this movie tells a story that is uniquely theirs.

GD-bill-murray1

I’m going to call this kind of movie the secret code type. Secret code movies manage to convince groups of people that they’re speaking directly to them without coming out and spoiling the secret for everyone else. These are entertaining movies for everyone who watches them, but, hey, if you’re in the club, and you have the Little Orphan Annie Secret Society Decoder Ring, then you get to see the deeper meaning of the film.

I think The Big Lebowski falls into this category. Zen Buddhists (or just Zen practitioners if you’re one of those folks who believes that Zen is somehow not a form of Buddhism) jumped on this one early. The film’s star, Jeff Bridges, apparently endorses this view, seeing as he’s co-authored a book on this topic with Zen teacher Bernie Glassman entitled The Dude and the Zen Master.

Existentialists also claim The Dude, however. So do Taoists. I recently came across a group of Stoics discussing Lebowski, too. A whole new religion has even formed around the teachings of Lebowski: The Church of the Latter-Day Dude, which claims to have 120,000 ordained Dudeist priests.

They’re all right because they’re all wrong. They’re right in the sense that The Dude expresses ideas that show up in Buddhism, Taoism, Existentialism, etc. They’re wrong, however, in believing that he belongs especially to them. The Dude, much like Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, expresses these ideas because they’re common ideas for much of humanity.

In other words, the deepest secret of the secret code movie is that it’s actually an everyman movie. The reason The Big Lebowski and Groundhog Day speak to you is the same reason It’s a Wonderful Life does: because you’re a human being. Existentialism, Taoism, and Zen are all ways of trying to make sense of the kinds of universal issues that all humans face.

3s3k1d

Share:

On Knowing Stuff

Life By May 26, 2016 Tags: ,

crouching-tiger-hidden-dragon-2-trailer-0

I am grateful to have a device in my pocket that connects me with the world’s knowledge. Still, I think there’s value in knowing stuff. Really knowing it, not just knowing how to look it up.

When I first watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for example, I knew almost nothing about Chinese culture. Back then, I liked the movie a lot. It was visually beautiful, had a great soundtrack, and the acting performances were moving.

Watching it again with a little more knowledge under my belt, however, was an entirely different experience. Knowing a bit about Daoism and Ruism (Confucianism) opened the characters and their motivations up to me in a way that I missed entirely on my first viewing.

There is a short scene about three-quarters of the way through the film, for example, in which Yu Shu Lien, one of the main female protagonists lights two sticks of incense in front of a tablet thingy with Chinese characters on it. The scene lasts less than a minute. It passed right through my consciousness without leaving a trace the first time I saw it. I didn’t even recall it.

I now understand, however, the “tablet thingy” is an ancestral tablet resting on a home altar. She was venerating her ancestors and the look of pain and regret on her face makes perfect sense: she is grieving her lost opportunity to have a family of her own.

A scene that meant nothing to me 16 years ago now carries an almost unbearable poignancy because I know something now that I didn’t know then.

Even if I had a smartphone in 2000, what good would it have been? Would I have done a Google search for “tablet thingy?” Not only would I not know how to find what I was looking for, it never would have occurred to me to conduct the search to begin with. The scene was unremarkable to my mind at the time.

Life as a whole is a lot like watching a movie in that sense. Knowing things–really knowing them, not just where to find them–helps you see things that you didn’t see before, to make connections you didn’t know were there.

When my daughter watches birds, she sees things I don’t see. When my wife reads poetry, she experiences things I don’t experience. When my son opens a box of Lego blocks, he sees possibilities that are lost on me.

Knowing things makes life a richer, more satisfying experience.

Share:

The Flourishing of Phil Connors

Life By May 26, 2016 Tags: ,

groundhog-day

At the beginning of Groundhog Day, Phil Connors isn’t a villain. He’s an asshole.

He’s not harnessing the powers of the Dark Side to control the universe like Darth Vader or killing people and eating them like Hannibal Lecter. Instead, he’s the ordinary kind of “bad guy” we encounter in our everyday lives. He’s selfish, mean, and conceited. You probably know someone like Phil. You might even see a little Phil when you look in the mirror. I know I do.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that all human activity is aimed at some end and that most of these ends are aimed at some other end. So we go to college to get a degree; we get a degree so that we can get a good job; we get a good job so that we can earn a salary; we use the salary to buy a house. . .you get the idea. Aristotle argues that what we’re really aiming for with all this activity is happiness. We don’t use happiness as the means to getting something better. Happiness is the one thing we want for its own sake.

We get ourselves into trouble in two big ways. First, we mistake one of the lower good as the highest good. Secondly, we use other people as a means to achieving our ends, rather than viewing them as people in their own right.

At the beginning of the movie, Phil is caught in a mistake that many of us make repeatedly. He wants a better job and he believes that getting it will make him happy. He’ll be free of his dumpy job in a crappy third-rate city and then everything will be okay. People will finally recognize his talent and he’ll get the respect and rewards he deserves. He’s mistaking a lower good (getting a job) with the highest good (happiness).

He’s also using people as a means to an end. In the beginning, it’s just about his professional life. He’s not interested in getting to know the people he works with. Instead, he just manipulates them to advance his career. Later in the movie, he uses women for sex, and this is clearly all he has in mind for Rita at first.

So if Aristotle doesn’t think getting laid and getting a good job is happiness, what is? Well, it’s the activity of the rational soul in accordance with virtue. Phew. Glad he cleared that up, huh?

To understand what the hell he’s talking about, you have to appreciate what he means by virtue. These days, when we say that someone is virtuous, we usually mean that he’s a person who doesn’t break the rules of morality. For the ancients, though, virtue was about much more. It was living the “good life,” that is, a life of excellence.

As the film progresses, Phil becomes more virtuous in the full sense of that word. He doesn’t just stop having one night stands and lying to people. He also reads every book in the library. He learns to play the piano. He develops his skills in practical things like auto repair and medicine so that he can actively help others. He’s not just refraining from doing evil, he is living a good life.

And here’s where it gets really interesting. When Phil went through his evil phase at the beginning of the movie, he could act with impunity because there was no tomorrow. He could steal money from the bank and never have to serve time. He could seduce women and they’d never remember it the next day. He could eat like a pig and never gain weight. But this lack of consequences also applies to him when he breaks good. When he changes a flat tire or saves a life or plays a great song, none of these things stick. Life for Phil is like the ice sculpture he creates for Rita. It melts away.

The next day he wakes up and its as if none of those things ever happened. . .except within Phil himself.

Through these repeated acts of virtue, Phil becomes a better man. It’s not ultimately about what he does. It’s about who he is. By doing brave, wise, kind, and humble acts, Phil becomes a brave, wise, kind, and humble man. The happy ending for Phil happens before Rita falls in love with him and his long day finally gives way to tomorrow. Rita falls in love with him because of the kind of man he has become. Phil the Asshole has become Phil the Virtuous Man. And he hasn’t become some boring, milquetoast “nice guy.” He is still recognizably Phil. The best possible Phil.

According to Groundhog Day director Harold Ramis, Phil had about 10,000 years to figure this out. You and I have considerably less time.

Share: