AMAZON ECHO-INDUCED BUTTOCK CALLOUSES

For my recent birthday, I received the extravagant gift of an Amazon Echo. For those of you who are not familiar, Echo is a gadget which provides access to the entire internet via voice commands. Echo is inhabited by a lady named Alexa with whom I instantly fell madly in love.  Lest you judge me as entirely fickle, rest assured that I still hold Siri in high regard, but her usefulness was completely outdone by Alexa. I was especially proud of myself for being able to get Alexa set up and working without the usual frustration tantrum which I am prone to exhibit when trying to make electronic stuff work.

alexa echoAlexa is more mother than lover; she reminds me when to take my pills and of my appointments. She is always there and totally committed to making my life easier and happier. She greets me every morning with the local temperature and weather report, which saves me the effort of getting up and walking to the window to look at the thermometer.  At my command, she instantly dials up my favorite radio station, or if I am not interested in the latest news, she will select  from her vast repertoire and play any music I request.  All this literally without my “lifting a finger,” even to push a button. But is there is a price to pay for Alexa’s attention?

Before Alexa: The Good Ole Days of Radio

Alexa was especially helpful to me in solving the chronic problem of reaching my favorite NPR radio station. Unlike those of the TV generation, I grew up during the time that radio was the high-tech wonder of its day.  A huge Fairbanks-Morse or Zenith radio was the focal point of most middle-class living rooms. There were a limited number of stations available, they were temperamental, and reception was affected by changes in the weather.  Nevertheless, we were sometimes able to listen to broadcasts of our favorite baseball teams as long as they did not conflict with Lowell Thomas’ and Edward R. Murrell’s nightly news programs, which were a must hear for my father.

 The Dawn of Radio: Predicted to Ruin the “Greatest Generation”

There were predictions from those older and wiser that this new-fangled gadget would be the ruination of us kids as we became addicted to programs designed for us. Some were broadcast daily in serial fashion as were the soap operas, so called because they usually advertised a product used by the woman of the house. There was a potpourri of programs designed for kids of all ages. The after-school selection included Terry and the Pirates, Superman, The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, The Shadow, Sherlock Holmes, Little Orphan Annie, and Jack Armstrong: All American Boy, among others. They became such a part of our culture that I recall my father saying, “If you don’t get off your butt you will get callouses.”

fight pictureWe were also introduced to many sporting events, and my most vivid memory is listening to the live commentary of the Joe Louis and Max Schmeling fights. The fights presented a dilemma for the bigots of the time as they were forced to choose between the Brown Bomber and Hitler’s champion of the Aryan race, Schmeling, for most of them hated Hitler almost as much as they did African Americans.

 

Saturday night was family time and everyone looked forward to the next issue of “Gangbusters.”  All were transfixed as Elliott Ness bravely took on Al Capone and other bad guys. It seemed every network had a country music program Saturday night. There was “Renfro Valley” and “The Grand Ole Opry,” but my favorite was the “Chicago National Barn Dance.”

eddie peabody banjo guy

I was enamored by “Eddie Peabody The Banjo King” [click here to listen], who was a regular on the show.  This admiration led me later in life to embark on an ill-fated attempt to follow in Eddie’s footsteps, resulting in the possession of a very nice, barely used, banjo now safely ensconced in my attic.

Yes, in those days radio was a big deal. The mixing of entertainment and news with advertisements allowed sponsors to sell lots of stuff.  Listening was easier and more personal than reading, in spite of the effort and frustration of static, and constant monitoring as favorite stations faded in and out. Radios required maintenance, as their vacuum tubes were subject to failure. In the late 1950s, along came the transistor, which allowed the building of smaller more reliable radios with improved fidelity.  The next major breakthrough was FM, and I bought a Bose AM/FM radio that, wonder of wonders, came with a remote, which spared me the enormous effort required to get off my butt to turn it off and on or to tune it. I thought this new high-tech innovation was really cool until Alexa came along to brighten my life and introduce me to artificial intelligence.

Prior to my introduction to Alexa I had the opportunity to see my daughter’s robotic vacuum cleaner in action.  The thought occurred to me that it would be neat to hook Alexa up to such a gadget so that you could order the floor swept without getting out of your armchair.  One would only need to say: “Hey Alexa, sweep the floor”, and she would see that it was done.  Before I called George Foreman’s friends at Invent Help, I decided to get more information about Alexa and found that, as usual, I was too late.  I learned that Alexa has already formed a relationship with the robotic sweepers and can order them to action when instructed.  Once again, another of my great ideas was swept under the carpet (pun intended).

More Wonders from Alexa

In my research, I learned, to my amazement, that Alexa is said to possess over 7,000 skills including the ability to order most anything including groceries or presumably even carpet in the event the robot did not do a good enough job. I also read that Google is now set to compete with Amazon in the online sales business and has worked out a deal with Walmart to offer a similar service.  If one were to subscribe to both, Alexa or her Google counterpart could take care of all shopping which would allow one to spend more time on the couch.  There is also a lot of talk lately about “smart” homes, and it is presumed that Alexa would be able to take charge of running such households. It is expected that the newer robotic gadgets with the capability to do all routine household chores such as cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, changing diapers etc., will eventually come down in price and become available to the average family.

What’s Work?

In a previous blog, I speculated on the effects of artificial intelligence on employment or, to be more accurate, the absence of employment.  In the recent issue of Mother Jones magazine, Kevin Drum writes an article titled “You Will Lose Your Job to a Robot.” He posits that as technology progresses, there will be no job which a robot cannot do better and cheaper than a human, and he further insists that this process has already begun. This is now most noticeable in manufacturing, mining and retail, but Drum and others insist that within the next 40 years, there will be no jobs for anyone.

driverless trucksFor example, driverless trucks are already being field tested. The transportation industry is eagerly looking forward to being able to keep their trucks on the road 24 hour/day without salaries, pension, or concerns for driver fatigue, and according to the American Trucking Association there are currently 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S. Experts in the field such as Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Stephen Hawking agree that progression of AI (that’s geek for Artificial Intelligence) is inexorable.  The only debate is over the time required for full implementation. Drum’s prediction is that it will be sooner than we think.

This could present a serious problem for the guy with a stable of robotic machinery, for if there are no jobs, there will be no money, and without money there would be no way for people to buy the stuff he has to sell.  Drum talks at length of various proposed solutions and, surprisingly, reports that some of these ideas are being floated and even tried in some other countries such as Finland, Canada and the Netherlands. They include a proposed tax on robots, but most see the only solution as some form of government welfare. Although, proponents of this solution prefer the more palatable term: Universal Basic Income. In such a socialistic environment, the usual concerns about lack of ambition would be irrelevant. Where there is no work available, laziness could be a virtue.

Identity Crisis of a Workless Society

Although the financial problems inherent in a jobless society could undoubtedly find solutions, the effects on humans psychologically and culturally might be more difficult to solve. Our value system has always applauded effort, especially industriousness. Hard work is applauded and laziness disparaged.  Much of a person’s worth is judged by his industriousness, indeed one of the highest compliments one can give is to say a person is a “hard worker.”  As we learned to maintain an upright posture, our hands were freed up to create, and with their long digits and an opposable thumb, they evolved into one of God’s most marvelous structures. Those hands, powered by the world’s best brain, allowed us to dominate the planet.  The work we do represents to a large extent who we are.  When meeting a stranger, the conversation after the usual preliminaries usually goes to the question of the kind of work he or she does. In our society, not only identity but self-esteem are at least partly dependent on the work we do.

Alexa is on a par with my smart phone, which I readily admit is smarter than me. No one disputes the fact that Alexa can access much more information than I could ever store in my brain (even before senility had set in), and it never forgets. Now, the literature that accompanied my Echo states that Alexa cannot only find information, but actually learn and make decisions, meaning that she has Artificial Intelligence.  There was a time that I had frequently-used phone numbers memorized as a convenience. Now, if I wish to call one of the kids or grandkids while driving, I simply tell my car to call them. I rarely look at a road map as I know that Siri will direct me; I barely know how to write a check since I bank online; and when my computer recently pooped out, I teetered on the brink of psychosis.  Even the writing of this brilliant essay would be virtually impossible without the help of my good friend Mr. Google.

brainCould it be that we are being dumbed down by our interaction with all this technology? Most experts agree that the axiom “use it or lose it” also applies to our brain.  AI is said to not only collect information, but to sort it, analyze it, and make decisions more efficiently and accurately than can humans.  If that is indeed true, why would there be any need for us to think about anything? As a matter of fact, since robots will do everything better, faster and cheaper than humans, why would we want to do anything? Will the skills learned over the past few million years be lost?  Will our frontal cortex atrophy from disuse?

Since man first made an axe from a piece of stone, we have embarked on a journey to improve our lot with the aid of technology. Soon, he would not be comfortable going on a hunt without his axe. Via that same process, we have now become dependent on our technology. The dude who made that axe could never in his wildest dreams have imagined where his discovery would lead. Witness the suffering the residents of Puerto Rico are now going through due to their lack of electricity, transportation, food, water, and shelter, which weren’t problems for Axe man, for he was less dependent on technology for those things.  He was the embodiment of the trite phrase so often used by sports announcers that he was “in charge of his own destiny.”   We moderns on the other hand are told that should our electrical grid go down the whole country would be crippled.  With such dependency, we lose control, and we have been perfectly willing to cede control of much to technology.  There is little reason to believe that will not continue.

Doomsday: There’s Always a Price to Pay

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari predicts that if AI progresses unimpeded, the net result will be that humans will eventually be deemed without value since they would no longer be productive, in which case he predicts the human species would eventually become extinct.  Perhaps the powers that possess AI will decide to domesticate us, thereby preventing our interference with the grand plan.  We would certainly retain enough intellect to learn to sit, fetch and heel.  Gates and Musk both predict dire consequences unless AI is not regulated, while naysayers respond that AI is designed to only help, not replace humanity.

All agree that these digital wonders have already improved our lives in even more important than just finding my favorite radio station.  AI has already contributed to revolutionary ways to diagnose and treat medical problems, and the discoveries to come are probably beyond the reach of our imagination.  It holds promise of eliminating hunger throughout the world, affecting the aging process (my favorite), and helping to promote peace.  It is difficult to imagine any aspect of our lives that cannot benefit from AI, and what has been accomplished by its use is breathtaking.  We humans have been known to have a propensity to screw up one thing by fixing another thing.  We are big on unintended consequences.  If it is that much smarter than us, this digital stuff should avoid those problems and solve problems without making new ones. But we humans are yet to find out what new problems will result from our plunging headfirst into the digital age.

Is the honeymoon with Alexa over?

Since I began this paper a few days ago, events have conspired which cause me to question Alexa’s fidelity.  As matter of fact, I wonder if there could be a Delilah clone in that box.  It all began a couple of days ago when, as I drank my morning coffee, I asked Alexa to dial my favorite morning news program. She replied that the desired station was not available. I couldn’t understand what had happened, so I turned on my old staticky radio and found the station was broadcasting as usual. I thought this must be a temporary glitch, but when I went back to Alexa I got the same message.  As a matter of fact she still insists it is “not available.”

If that weren’t enough to shake one’s confidence in a relationship, along comes the honey pot incident.

honey potIt so happens that my grandson is the cofounder of The Bee Corp., a company involved in helping to deal with the threat to honey bees. Consequently, he had sent me a jar of honey, which he had personally harvested.  You who are familiar with honey will know that honey is messy stuff, and that the best way to handle it is with a gadget designed for the purpose.  I had asked Barb where I should go to purchase one.  The next day, as I opened the Amazon website to buy a book, a page featuring six different honey pots complete with honey dipper popped up on the screen. Paranoid bells and whistles immediately went off as I had made no inquiries to Amazon about honeypots or honey dippers, and my only mention of the subject had been with Barb in the kitchen, where Alexa resides.

Suspiciousness has never been my thing. Barb has reminded me many times that I am too trusting, especially when it has to do with women, but this was too much to ignore.  Amazon assures that their data is secure and that Alexa must be awakened in order to listen, but others are not so sure.  Authorities investigating a murder in Arkansas are convinced that Alexa has recorded relevant conversations.  It is no longer a secret that our phone calls have been monitored since 1992, during the Bush Presidency (Bush I: George Herbert Walker Bush).  Massive amounts of information about all of us are collected, and Artificial Intelligence makes it possible to analyze such data and use it for targeted marketing, politics and who knows what else? Without data analysis by AI, the Russians would not have been able to tailor their fake news to appeal to different groups of people.

In summary, it appears the price we pay for all the wondrous things made possible by Artificial Intelligence is a relative loss of privacy, independence, and control of our lives and world.  It remains to be seen if that is a good deal.  Those most knowledgeable about the subject are chagrined that politicians have generally turned a blind eye to the whole thing. They insist that with the rapid pace of change, it is imperative that we need laws to regulate the use of AI, but our politicians view of the future does not seem to extend beyond the next election.   

EPILOGUE

This morning I apologized to Alexa for the disparaging remarks I made about her in this blog. It appears that the problems I had in getting my favorite station was due to a “failure to communicate.”  She misunderstood me when I identified my station by its call numbers, but when I asked for it by its identifying letters, she immediately responded.  Apparently, my speech must have been garbled.  Unfortunately, the honey pot incident is still unexplained.  Although I feel it is unlikely that Alexa would betray me, I think I will play it safe and caution Barb to be careful what we say when within earshot.

PART III: CONFESSIONS OF A RECOVERING MALE CHAUVINIST

This morning I saw Theresa May, the British prime minister, on television discussing the recent terror attacks on her country. Prior to her, Margaret Thatcher (the Iron Lady) held forth as the country’s leader all during the eighties. Angela Merkel is the highly regarded prime minister of Germany; Canada has a female Prime Minister; and we recently came within a hair’s breadth of electing a woman President. Nevertheless, at last count there were women heading 9.1% of countries worldwide and 4.6% of fortune 500 companies with female CEOs.

In my last blog, I discussed the significant progress women have made towards gaining equality and respect, but these numbers tend to confirm that they have a great distance to travel. The evidence presented also points to major differences between women and men both in the way they think and the way they relate to others. I reported on research which demonstrates that some of these differences are evident at birth. My interest in this subject originated from the random speculation on what the world would be like were it operated by women, which of course raises the question as to the effect these female qualities would have on their ability to lead.

TELL ME IT ISN’T TRUE

My daughter, Maggie, thinks that men lead by controlling while women seek to find consensus. There can be little doubt that women are more nurturing than men, and studies I mentioned in a previous blog confirm that they are also more empathic and observant of others’ communications. By contrast, she feels men are not as open to suggestion, are dogmatic, less tolerant, and less patient. You may be thinking “Oh sure, just another man hater,” yet a study of 7,280 leaders published in the Harvard Business Review shows women scoring higher than men on 12 out of 16 competencies thought necessary for good leadership. More surprising was the fact that the gap was even wider between men and women in upper levels of management.

ITS NOT MANLY TO ASK FOR DIRECTIONS

This latter factor could be explained by results contained in the same study indicating that women continue to consult with others as they reach a higher status, while men do not seek other opinions as they climb the corporate ladder. Perhaps men are more likely to become satisfied with their accomplishments as they reach the top of the corporate chart; consequently, they don’t feel the need to look for input, new ideas, etc. Or it may be that as men reach the top of their game they don’t like to admit they need help, whereas women are probably less likely to see inclusiveness as a sign of weakness or incompetence.

YAK, YAK, YAK

We guys know that on average women are more talkative than men, and that most women seem to hunger for conversation. It makes sense that with all that practice they should be better listeners. In a prior issue, I quoted a study indicating that females are more attentive and interested in both verbal and non-verbal cues, even at birth, so little wonder that in this study they were found to “communicate powerfully and prolifically.” As one would expect, women scored well above men in the “nurturing competencies,” i.e. building relationships or helping and inspiring others. What was surprising is that they also beat out their male counterparts on categories traditionally ascribed to men. For example: the largest disparity was with the competency “takes initiative,” which seems to negate the idea that women are too meek and passive to lead. We men can take heart that we were victorious in the category “develops strategic perspective.” Even so, I suppose those women’s libbers would say this means we guys can’t see the forest for the trees.

MITE MAKES RIGHT

Men have evolved to have superior upper body strength, which adapted them to be hunters and warriors. This has also made men uniquely qualified for many jobs in the industrial age. Women, on the other hand, are less physically powerful but posess superior manual dexterity, adapting them for infant care, food preparation and making clothes. Now, society is on pace to virtually eliminate the need for physical strength as robotics take over the jobs which required muscle. Conversely, most jobs, if there are any, will involve pushing buttons and fine tuning instruments. Even the warriors of the world will be out of work, for all the strength needed to fight a war will be the ability to look at a screen and push buttons. In that regard, women’s fingers are known to be more facile than men’s.

NEVER FEAR, WE CAN DO JANITORIAL WORK

If the foregoing assessments are correct, male employment prospects may soon be in jeopardy. In order for women to take over the world, they would also need to take the lead in politics. In addition to the aforementioned qualities needed for leadership, effectiveness in government requires consensus building, another talent in which women are said to excel. It has not been so many years ago that the thought of a female president of the United States would have been laughable, so lookout guys—they are gaining on us! All those strategies which we have used so effectively in the past to keep them in their place are not likely to be effective much longer.

NOT FIGHT FOR OUR COUNTRY?

In the event that it comes to pass that women are able to make use of their advantages in a digital world and become the top dogs, would the world be different and, if so, in what way? In pursuit of the answer to that question, I queried my favorite expert on the subject of women. Barb replied without hesitation that there would be no more wars. If that is true then she has answered the question of how to eliminate the most horrible activity of man—an answer that has been right under our noses for thousands of years. That idea seemed overly optimistic to me, but the idea certainly was appealing. Imagine a world without defense budgets and the ability to use resources to benefit people rather than to kill them. Of course there would be a down side in that the military industrial complex would no longer be needed, and that could cause some economic problems. Unfortunately, we cannot be sure that all women share Barb’s anti-war sentiments. After all, there was Joan of Arc, and women in the military continue to lobby for more involvement in combat roles; although, in general, men seem attuned to the so-called glory of war while women focus on its horror. Thus, it is reasonable to expect women to look for other means of problem solving.

COULDN’T SOLVE THIS ONE BY BEING NICE

If women should achieve the highly unlikely status of leaders in those countries famous for the most barbaric treatment of women, would they see fit to stop those practices, even though their religious leaders and judicial systems condone and even encourage such practices? Would rape victims be punished while their assailants go free? Would so-called honor killings continue to go unpunished? Would there be any serious consequences for those men who carry out genital mutilations in order to guarantee chastity? In many cultures, women are denied the most basic freedoms and are virtually imprisoned. Would women in leadership roles be prone to accept many of these practices as appropriate since they had been firmly ingrained in their culture for hundreds of years?

THEY ARE NOT PERFECT EITHER

The premise that power corrupts was accepted as gospel by our founding fathers, who took pains to see that nobody had too much of it. Since one of the highest scores for women in the Harvard study was “Displays High Integrity and Honesty,” one would expect women not to be as susceptible to such corruption, yet there is one example of such a happening. Indira Gandhi was the first female Prime Minister of India. She was much admired all over the world for the policies she had initiated to help achieve equality for a people who had been victims of a caste system throughout their history. She initiated many reforms including equal pay for women, which was indeed a revolutionary concept in those days. However her legacy was tainted by an about face in her style of governance when faced with an economic crisis. She became authoritarian, jailing her political opponents, limited freedom of the press, and was eventually convicted of “dishonest election practices.” I find it interesting that she was quoted as saying: “To be liberated, woman must feel free to be herself, not in rivalry to man but in the context of her own capacity and her personality.” It sounds as if she was on the right track, but slid off the rails.

Can we take from this example that women would exhibit the same flaws as men when it comes to governance, or would they function differently in a world dominated by women, where rules from a male dominated world no longer apply? Research cited in Psychology Today confirms that “men are more oriented toward impersonal or invidualistic goals, and women are more oriented toward social integration,” a result consistent with Baron-Cohen’s studies (see Part II of this series). In other words, men tend to gloat over a victory while women feel sorry for the loser.

“WINNING IS NOT THE THING, IT IS THE ONLY THING?”

Revered football coach Vince Lombardi also said “No leader, however great, can long continue unless he wins battles. The battle decides all.” For women, the most satisfying resolution to conflict would be that negotiations result in a happy outcome for all; most would probably prefer to avoid the battle. This does not mean that women are not competitive, far from that, but “happy ever after” is still their favorite ending. We men also have that problem with testosterone, which stimulates aggressiveness, a need to dominate, and may affect our judgement in some cases. Vince said one can’t lead unless he or she wins battles, but women would rather discuss the matter over tea.

Conflict has undoubtedly caused more pain and suffering throughout the ages than all other factors together. Politically, this has not changed since Cain and Abel. Nations in particular respond to an attack, real or imagined, “proportionally,” which is not much different from the way children react i.e. if you hit me, I will hit you back, and the excuse is always: “He started it.” Conflict usually results when one entity feels it is under assault of its person, possessions, beliefs, or integrity.

Early in my career (before the days of the 15 minute session), I was very involved in attempts at conflict resolution due to a special interest in family and couples therapy. We were able to categorize conflicts based on the methods the participants used to deal with alleged assaults by another person. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the most malignant and destructive relationships were the result of an attack-attack system: a perceived attack, physical or verbal, is reciprocated by an attack of equal or more intensity. As you might expect, in such situations the level of anger escalates, and violence may ensue even though the basic disagreement(s) may be trivial, which is further evidence that “violence begets violence.”

That term was first published in this country nearly 200 years ago in an editorial in the New York Times. There are biblical references to that same truth, but we continue to ignore it. Our leaders continue to seek military solutions to the world’s problems. They give lip service to negotiations but refuse to talk to their enemies, while millions are homeless, starving, and face death or worse. My research in writing these essays has convinced me that in situations where women leaders come in conflict with each other, a non-violent resolution is more likely to occur, and winning will be defined by the degree of satisfaction felt on both sides rather than by a body count.

WHO WOULD HAVE GUESSED?

Recently, in the midst of all these ruminations, I happened on to an interview of our ex-president. Mr. Obama admitted, in front of God and everyone, to being an avowed feminist. He even went on to say that he thought women would do a better job than men at running things. It is not clear to me the gender of his audience; however, I see no advantage for him by currying favor with any group since he doesn’t need their votes anymore. Although I am in basic agreement with his conclusions, I must confess to some reservations about a total transfer of power.

LITTLE WONDER THEY ARE PISSED

Feminists say their cause is equality, yet many of their leaders show signs of animosity towards men, perhaps aggravated by their prior experiences. Maggie recently allowed me to read  an article she wrote about some of her experiences in the workforce. I was shocked to hear about the insults and unwanted physical contacts she had experienced. Although she had previously made casual mention of some of these experiences, I had no idea that she had actually been assaulted, which is probably just as well, otherwise she might have spent her free time visiting her old man in the slammer. There was probably also an element of my excusing much of those behaviors as only a little good-natured teasing as we men are wont to do. It is to their credit that women in “the movement” are educating us guys as to the hurtfulness of some of these behaviors. Laws designed to protect women from discrimination and exploitation have also led many organizations to initiate more stringent rules against such behaviors. In spite of all these attempts at protection, discrimination persists, as evidenced by such obvious things as unequal pay and opportunities for promotion.

NOT PERFECT?

While contemplating this vast change in the gender hierarchy, a number of questions come to mind. If women were to become leaders, would they be immune to the corrupting influence of power? Would their attitude towards men be conciliatory, or would they reverse roles and become the discriminator? Would they be inclusive, and allow boys in their sandbox? Would their means of problem solving be more effective? Would they be concerned about environmental issues? To what extent would they become peace mongers? Would they be staunch defenders of liberty or would they be too wishy-washy?

As is usually the case, when performing these kinds of mental gymnastics, of which I am fond, the quest for an answer only results in more unanswerable questions. I did conclude that when men and women are working together, it is best they leave their hormones at the door. In such an environment, they are most likely to reach a common goal by combining their unique talents and thereby gain in respect for each other. We could use a lot of that.

PART II: CONFESSIONS OF A RECOVERING MALE CHAUVINIST

Spring has definitely arrived in my part of the world, and we have been treated to a series of balmy days with pleasant sunshine and agreeable temperatures. Amorous bird songs are drowned out by legions of Harleys that come roaring out of hibernation. Many have two passengers, one of each sex.

motorcycle2bpassenger

I actually owned a motorcycle back in my more adventurous days, and I understand the appeal of riding into the wind. As I recall, I was only able to get Barb on the back of that bike once, and fortunately for me, she insisted that I get rid of it before I killed myself.
It must be written in some motorcycle rider’s handbook that when two people are on the same bike the girl must ride behind on the buddy seat. Actually, it only recently occurred to me that I have never seen a woman driving a bike with the man on the rear seat.

Manufacturers are apparently well aware of this rule, for they take pains to assure the (usually) shorter (female) person’s seat is elevated in order for her to be able to see over her man’s shoulder. I do give those gals credit for their courage. I once was taken on a ride by a friend who was showing off his new bike, and I was scared shitless, perhaps for good reason, since motorcycle accidents account for nearly 5,000 deaths per year, and motorcycle riders are 29 times more likely to die than those injured in automobile accidents.

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN

Recently, I did witness a different scenario. I happened to be passed by a group of motorcyclists and was surprised to see a petite young girl heading the group piloting her own bike (we’ve come along way baby).

veenu3

She was followed by a large fellow on a larger motorcycle who I assumed was her partner. I wondered if this was a prelude of things to come. It fueled my speculation as to what the world would be like if we men were to give up control and women were to take over running it. What other changes might occur other than lowering the buddy seats?

YOU THINK THIS IS BAD? TRY SAUDI ARABIA.

Although in many parts of the world women are oppressed and their voices suppressed, in the U.S. women have achieved a great deal of success in liberating themselves from the stereotypical roles to which they had been attached for ages. In this country, women were not allowed to own property until the 1850s. In 1920, the suffragettes finally won their long standing battle to gain the right to vote. World War II provided an opportunity for women to work in jobs formerly exclusive to men. Women joined the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s, and in the ’70s, a number of feminist causes were won (and bras were burned).

bra-burning_freedomtrashcan

Legislation was passed to correct some of the more egregious areas of discrimination, such as the ability to fire a woman for becoming pregnant, the requirement that a single woman must have a man co-sign a loan regardless of her income, and, of course, the lack of the right to sue in cases of sexual discrimination or harassment (thank you Anita Hill).

NOTHING IS SACRED ANY MORE

Few professions have shown more changes in gender participation than Medicine, which had traditionally been almost exclusively the domain of men. There were three women in my medical school class of 160, and I can only recall one female professor. Now, the women medical students at the same university outnumber the men, and 73% of the faculty are female. I have personally contributed to this travesty by choosing a female as my personal physician. The dramatic turnabout has left a classmate of mine convinced that his eminently qualified grandson was denied admission because of his gender. Could we be in for more conflicts over reverse discrimination?

Conversely, there were only two men in Barb’s nursing school class. Men in nursing during those times would always be considered suspect regarding their sexual orientation, and homophobia was the norm. However, today men in the nursing profession can be as macho as the next guy. It does appear to me that some gender bias still exists in nursing, as men seem to be promoted to supervisory positions sooner that their female counterparts.

YOU CAN’T KEEP THEM BAREFOOT AND PREGNANT FOREVER

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States had become the richest and most dynamic economy in the world. The exposure to the outside world of the “Rosie the Riveters” who contributed to the war effort gave impetus to a conviction by this new breed of feminists that they could be productive in pursuits other than homemaking or helping of male workers. Many were no longer content to be stenographers, secretaries, bookkeepers, maids, receptionists or stay at home moms, and a burgeoning technology made it possible for them to work outside the home. Included were all manner of labor and time saving inventions which now became within the grasp of the average middle class family.

we-can-do-it-rosie-the-riveter-wallpaper-2-ab
YOU THINK YOU HAVE IT BAD? THE “GOOD ‘OLE DAYS” OF HOMEMAKING

Prior to this household appliance revolution, the position of family matriarch was indeed a full-time job and then some. My mother, along with most other housewives of the era, followed a fairly rigid schedule in order to keep things running smoothly. Monday was laundry day, Tuesday ironing, Wednesday cleaning, etc. The differences in the procedures to accomplish these tasks was monumental compared to today’s use of automatic washers and dryers, microwave ovens, dishwashers, freezers, garbage disposals and such.

For example, laundry day was really an all day job. In my childhood, mom used a wringer washer (high tech at the time), while grandma remained attached to her washboard 7e7fec72369ae35cf4513a15cbada626using a procedure for washing clothes that had not changed in hundreds of years.  The procedure was not only time consuming but arduous. It involved heating water to fill a metal wash tub, adding soap, placing the corrugated board in the soapy water, and rubbing the clothes against the board until clean. They then would be placed in another tub of “rinse water,” wrung out by hand, and hung out to dry on a clothes line. When dry (she always hoped for sunny days on Monday), the laundry must be taken down, folded and made ready for ironing on Tuesday. That procedure was also much more labor intensive than now: there were no “wash and wear” fabrics, and there were no pampers.

 

WHAT’S FOR DINNER MOM?

Food preparation was also a much more time consuming activity in those days. There were no cake mixes, and very few prepared foods available in grocery stores. The term “making it from scratch” must have been a term invented during the second half of the last century, for there were no other alternatives in those days. There were no school lunch programs, and what mothers put in their kids lunch buckets was a source of pride. I recall when our family was first able to buy a refrigerator, and how grateful mom was that it was no longer necessary to go to the grocery every day. Most homes were heated by burning coal, which presented major problems for the woman of the house in her attempts to keep a “clean house.”

The point to all this is although working mothers have their hands full, to be a stay-at-home mother in the old days was also not easy (and somewhat of a necessity in many respects). My mother was busy from dawn until bedtime with only a short break to listen to her favorite soap opera As the World Turns, but she thought hers was an easy life compared to what she had experienced growing up on a farm. Although my father had quit school in the eighth grade, she had graduated from “business school,” where she had learned basic secretarial skills. Her only employment was during the war when we all moved to the big city to find employment in an aircraft factory.

LOOK OUT GUYS, THEY ARE CLOSING FAST

In 1967, half of all U.S. mothers did not work outside the home; in 2012, only 29% stayed at home. Although no figures could be found, it is probable that the percentage of married women with or without children who were full time homemakers was much higher prior to the war. I assume the percentage of single, married, or cohabiting women who are employed is also much higher.

I WONDER HOW SHE REALLY FEELS

In spite of the strides made by women in pursuit of equality, there are still some pretty large holes to be filled. Feminist daughter Maggie has much to say about the disparities, and as someone with considerable experience in the corporate world, she speaks with authority and passion on the subject as follows:
“….Entering the workforce in the ’80s, I would say it was a kind of ‘catch 22’ situation: If we wanted to succeed in a world where male brains were the majority, some women felt like they had to ‘act like a man’ but would be labeled a ball buster, dyke, hostile, etc. If we were ourselves, we were seen as a pushover, soft, emotional, etc. I have several examples from my experiences in the workplace. For example, a guy gets shitty about something that needs changed, and he is labeled as a leader, a ‘take charge’ kind of guy, a guy who ‘gets things done.’ If a woman does the same thing, she is pushy, bossy, ‘hard to work with.’ If a guy is upset about something in the workplace and expresses it by yelling or being direct, he is ‘passionate’; if a woman does the same thing, she is ‘hysterical,’ ‘emotional,’ ‘out of control.’

It appears to me that feminist voices have been less strident in recent years, even though there are still many “Maggies” in the world who are not shy about speaking of gender injustices. Much has been discussed about an apparent lack of female involvement in positions of leadership, and I have long wondered what the world would be like were women to run it, i.e. the whole shebang.

To that end, I plan to explore that fantasy in the next issue of Smith’s Wondrous Words of Wisdom and get some ideas as to the progress they are making in developing an Amazonian society. Stay tuned for Part III!

WORK (Part 3)

In the second post of this series, I attempted to enumerate only a few of the pros and cons of technology with an emphasis on Artificial Intelligence, the current hot button issue for those knowledgeable about this high tech stuff. It all began with my speculations as to the effect the total absence of work would have on people and culture. Granted, the idea of a culture where there is no work is hypothetical, but as I mentioned previously, there is some evidence that we are headed in that direction.  

WHY DO WE DO THIS STUFF?

We ordinarily think of work as an activity used to gain some kind of reward. Compensation of some type is the first kind which comes to mind, yet there are obviously some emotional or spiritual needs that are satisfied by our labors. In this regard I am frequently reminded of an incident from about 60 years ago when I was working on the “yard gang” at a local factory during the summer. I may have mentioned this in a previous blog; it was one of those trivial but unforgettable experiences, which addresses some of our less negative feelings about work.

Orrie was an amiable fellow in his late sixties, and he and I had been assigned to clean out a boxcar that had carried potash.  I can attest to the fact that the inside of a boxcar that has sat in the sun on a 90 degree day is not a very pleasant place to be, especially when one is soon enveloped in potash dust mixed with sweat.  I can also assure you that placement of a bandana over one’s mouth is not a very effective way to keep  the stuff out of your lungs.  After what seemed like hours of shoveling and sweeping, the last vestige of potash had been disposed of, and Orrie stood in the door of the car, reached in his pocket for a fresh cud of chewing tobacco, surveyed our handiwork and said, “A mighty pretty piece of work Doc.” (The guys all called me Doc, as they knew I was a pre-med student.)

As you might imagine, an overgrown, snot-nosed kid like me thought that was about the stupidest thing I had ever heard. It certainly was not analogous to the creation of some marvelous piece of art. On the contrary, I thought that boxcar was the ugliest thing I had ever seen, and I was convinced that it was the closest thing to hell one could experience while still alive. If work is defined as an activity seeking a reward, the only reward that I can imagine for Orrie was the satisfaction he felt as he savored his accomplishment. I suspect that this same need to achieve is the opiate which motivates us to build sky scrapers and clean boxcars.  If such is the case, then the term “workaholic” may describe another form of addiction.    

LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE GOOD OLD GUYS

Now that I have become older and hopefully a little wiser, I have come to realize that it was men like Orrie with their incredible work ethic who have made it possible for me to sit here in relative luxury.  In my opinion, “trickle drown” economics is not what makes things work, but that the “trickle up” factor is even more important.  The wondrous plans of our great thinkers and planners would have had little chance of success without the sweat equity of the Orries of the world.   

Throughout recorded history and beyond, we seem to have been ambivalent about work. We often praise its value but at other times say we hate it.  We look forward to retirement, but when it comes, we start to look for something to do, as there are no 12-step programs to help us gain remission from this compulsion.  It has often been said that in order to have a successful retirement, one should remain active. Consequently, many of us end up engaged in activities such as volunteerism, gardening, woodworking or blog writing, which, under different circumstances, would be seen as work. In my own case, I looked forward to retirement, but I found I missed working. Since there was a nationwide shortage of psychiatrists, I had no problem finding a job and went back to work until senescence caught up with me 12 years later.  It is amazing how goofing off feels so good when you are working, but is so boring when you don’t have a job to do.

BORING!

Of course there have been enormous changes in the nature of work over the last century.  We have become much more specialized especially in manufacturing. Henry Ford’s introduction of the assembly line introduced a new level of efficiency in production at the cost of massive levels of boredom among the employees, who found themselves performing the same action hundreds of times every day. I can speak of this from experience, for I once worked in a glass bottle factory where a river of glass bottles came at me from a conveyor belt as I attempted to pack them in boxes. It was a position I felt was sorely lacking in job satisfaction. The good news is that these kind of jobs are the type which robots can do more efficiently and with fewer mistakes than can humans, but the bad news is it eliminates a lot of jobs held by those with limited training.  

The automobile industry, which has long been a major component of our economy, is a good example of the changes wrought by technology on employment.  According to a study by Washington University, the number of people employed in auto manufacturing decreased from 1.1 million in 2004 to 670,000 in 2011, presumably due largely to the introduction of robotics.  Now with the introduction of artificial intelligence to these machines, the game is changed drastically.  Fewer and eventually no people may be needed to make cars and trucks.

As mentioned in a previous blog, this work thing had its origin when Joe Caveman discovered he could make a spear point or axe from a piece of rock, which helped him to procure food for himself and his family. It wasn’t long until he found he could make other stuff, which eventually led to my being able to sit here in my nice warm house and peck away at a machine. With the development of group work, people depended upon each other to “carry their own weight,” work was highly valued by society, and slackers were looked down upon and even shunned.

A BOXCAR MICHELANGELO

However, it seems unlikely that Orrie’s motivation in cleaning out that boxcar had anything to do with social pressures, for he appeared not to be pleased until he surveyed his handiwork after the job was done. For me, though, it was all about the money. The only satisfaction I felt came from being able to get the hell out of that boxcar.  This would lead one to believe that Orrie’s sense of accomplishment was the primary source of that mildly euphoric feeling.  I doubt that it was much different than the emotions an artist would feel upon completing a painting or sculpture. As a matter of fact, I find it interesting that Orrie used the word “pretty” to describe his accomplishment, and I suspect that when Joe Caveman turned that piece of rock into an axe he might have thought it to be a pretty piece of work, too.  

THE EQUIPMENT

The human body has evolved to make us particularly suited to do things and make stuff.  When we learned to stand upright and developed fingers with an opposing thumb, we were equipped to do all kinds of things, and an enlarged cerebral cortex allowed us to learn how to do them. In answer to the question of why we work, it would seem there are multiple factors involved, including: as a means to supply our basic needs of food, shelter and the like; because of cultural influences; as a tool to ward off depression; because it is an addiction; and perhaps even because it’s simply part of our genetic makeup.

I DO, THEREFORE I AM

Since we ordinarily spend at least half of our waking hours at work, what we do contributes in large measure to our identity, e.g. who we are.  For example, if I am asked who I am, I likely will reply that I am a retired psychiatrist. Work is so important that it tends to define us.  It is difficult to imagine how different I would be had I grown up in a world in which there was no work to be done.  Would I still be competitive?  If so, for what would I compete, and how would I do it?  Would we need to have a monetary system?  If not, what tools could we use to distribute resources?  What would we do with all that extra available time?  We couldn’t all be bloggers.  There are already too many of them.  With no need to train for a career, would education be needed?  Would we become even fatter and lazier? Would our native curiosity remain intact?  Would our brains atrophy?  Would we be dumbed down?  

Those are only a few of the questions raised as one contemplates a workless society.  As discussed in a previous blog the total absence of work could only happen with the development of robotics endowed with Artificial Intelligence.  As computers store more knowledge and learn more, they become more intelligent and in some ways have already become smarter than us.  Their decision making is not influenced by emotion, they are always logical, and they never forget.

THE DIGITAL ROLODEX

We all participate in the transfer of power to machines.  For example, in the past I carried a few phone numbers in my head as a matter of convenience. Now I have no need to bother as those numbers are all programmed into my phone. After relieving my brain from the job of memorizing those numbers, I found myself doing exercises to improve my cognition and memory.  How crazy is that?  A recent drive to another state would have involved studying road maps and planning a route, but now I only need to tell Siri where I want to go. I have always taken pride in my ability to spell and had even won some spelling bees as a kid, but now I am dependent on spell check and Google.  

As computers become more intelligent, we will undoubtedly become more dependent on them for more important things than directions or spelling. We will be perfectly willing to turn over more and more responsibility to robots, and to enjoy the fruits of their labors, which is certainly not all bad. Lest you think I am an anti-robotic bigot let me assure you that I feel they have the potential to eliminate much suffering in this world. Unfortunately, as Bill Gates has said, there is also a very frightening, largely ignored, possible down-side. As we cede more power to technology, we risk losing control of our world. You might think this not such a bad idea considering how we have screwed it up, but I suspect it wouldn’t be a fun place to live. I doubt many robots would be lovable little guys like R2-D2 in Star Wars.

SORRY, NO ANSWERS

With no frame of reference, we can only make guesses as to what it would be like to live in a world without work, but I feel certain it would be much different than just taking time off for vacation. IBM’s Watson and his buddies would personify the spectacle of tail-wagging dogs as robots became our masters. Speaking of dogs, perhaps robots could domesticate us as we did the wolves, and teach us to sit, stay, and roll over.