Looking for trees? Check my mailbox.

Our mailman does not seem to like us although Barb and I both consider ourselves to be as likeable as the next guy. Whenever I meet him at our mailbox, he doesn’t respond to my characteristic jolly greeting, but simply hands me my mail, grunts, looks straight ahead and drives away. Old habits die hard and this old psychiatrist still tries to understand aberrant behaviors. Consequently, I have attempted to understand what may have precipitated his apparent animus.

 

The Investigation: Why does my mailman hate me?
It is true that I forgot to leave his traditional tip in the mailbox at Christmas time, but of course that was several months ago.

There was also the Floyd incident, but I wouldn’t anticipate his blaming me for my dog’s exuberant behavior. Floyd loves to ride in the car and isn’t choosy about the type of vehicle or driver. Consequently, when the mail truck pulled up to mailbox one summer day, Floyd seized the opportunity. He leaped into the mail truck with excitement with big plans to accompany our mailman on his route. Unfortunately, in the process Floyd was forced to run through a gauntlet of boxes and crates of mail resulting in the rearrangement of their contents. However, the mailman was remarkably calm throughout the incident and accepted my apology, although I did note that he was muttering to himself as he restored order to the crates of mail.

 

My Epiphany! It’s not me. It’s those damn catalogs.
After all of these deliberations, I have concluded that the ire exhibited by my mailman has the same genesis as my own.

You see, just yesterday he delivered 23 catalogs in addition to two magazines and multiple solicitations from organizations, some of whom I have never heard of, and this was only a routine day. If history is any guide, the volume will increase as the holiday season approaches. Instead of emptying my paper recycling bin once a month, I now must empty it every few days. No wonder my mailman becomes frustrated since he must stuff all that stuff in my mailbox daily.

 

Nothing unites like a common enemy.
His pain is my pain! I sympathize with my mailman’s frustration. I get angry each time I have to unload that mailbox, cursing as I sort the scams from the legitimate mail. As a bona fide card-carrying curmudgeon I must tell you that I remember the day when if one wanted a catalog they asked for it. Today, if you order something  from a catalog, you will soon be buried in an avalanche of slick pictures of beautiful people wearing cool clothes and hawking gadgets I’m sure I need but know I’ll never use. Not only do I resent their audacity of sending the catalog without me requesting it, I resent that they believe they can convince me that I look as cool in those duds as the suave handsome dude who models their stuff.
Some of these catalogs feature stuff way beyond my pay grade. For example, I do not ordinarily shop for $1500 leather jackets, $600 sweaters, or $750 shoes. One such high end catalog featured of all things a $250 pair of jeans faded in all the right places to make them look old. I do occasionally browse and sometimes find interesting inventory. For example, one which featured home health aides also had a two-page display of dildos. I was surprised to find they came in so many different sizes, shapes, and colors. Barb vigorously denies having ordered the catalog, but I have my suspicions.

 

The good ole’ days of face-to-face relationships
It is no secret that there is a flourishing market for names and addresses of potential customers and that these catalogers have no hesitation in selling us to the highest bidder. I recall the time of the mom and pop stores when the relationship between customer and seller was built on mutual trust and therefore personal. The storekeeper was more interested in customer loyalty than making a sale, trusting that if his customer was “treated right” he would come back. Likewise, the customer trusted the salesperson to give an honest representation of the product sold. In many cases shopping was as much of a social event as a series of business transactions. I suppose that now as even we former Sears catalog devotees fade-away, we will become even more depersonalized as we become numbers in Amazon’s super computer. Our computers will order from their computers, our orders will arrive untouched by human hands, and one more avenue of human interaction will close.
Shopping: Art, Science, Disease, or Therapy?
Enter my beautiful, charming, and aesthetically gifted wife. She is a former shopkeeper one of the last to conform to those qualities I mentioned, and whose store continues to receive rave reviews from former customers. Among her other talents she is a world class shopper. As our daughter Molly (now deceased) said regarding her Mother’s shopping prowess: “when Mom gets the scent, you better get out of her way.” For Barb, Christmas shopping is not a project, it is a mission. She scoffs at the idea that it would be much simpler for her to give the kids money and insists on finding a gift (or unfortunately–gifts…plural) which are perfect for each one whether they realize it or not. Things to be considered include: hair and eye color, stature, personality, and consideration of their known personal preferences unless those preferences are in extremely poor taste.
Within the past year the last department store as well as the last men’s store in our town closed their doors. I recall a time when our main street hosted three department stores and multiple specialty shops which have all folded as the big boxes took over. Having fought and lost the good fight with the big guys, and since she places online shopping in the same category as those big box adversaries, the best Barb can do is to reluctantly shop via catalogs even though she disapproved of the one featuring dildos. I presume this change in her shopping habits is responsible in large part for the appearance of our names on a few hundred mailing lists.

 

The List Contagion: It’s a real thing
It’s not only the merchandisers who will pursue you. Barb is a sucker for those tear-jerking ads on TV, which has resulted in reams of solicitations for real and non-existent charities. I wonder if they make more money selling my name and address than from my feeble contributions. In my zeal to become a good steward of my government, I once made the mistake of contributing to a political campaign online. Now, I start my day by deleting pleas to contribute to this or that political cause or candidate. They assure me that without my contribution a worldwide calamity is immanent or that I will be to blame for the extinction of the white rhino.

 

Privacy?
On a more serious note, it has been said that with a few key strokes one can know more about me than I do about myself. This is undoubtedly true e.g. I don’t know where I ate a year ago but that info is available somewhere. Our privacy is said to have been eroded, but it is probably more accurate to say it is gone. Now, as more DNA results are collected not only will more be known about your behavior but your body and your relatives. Nevertheless, the blatant disregard of our rights to privacy as this little essay illustrates is only one small example yet enough to piss me off big time.

 

Ground Zero
Maybe my overzealous anger about the catalogs goes beyond the senseless time spent sorting and recycling and even beyond the invasion of my privacy. Maybe it’s a symptom of something bigger that concerns me. A change in our society that is worrisome. While many say technological changes make it easier than ever to connect with one another, it seems we are more disconnected than ever. Less human interaction. More loneliness. Clicking the chat button as you order gifts on the internet, or even talking to a live person when you order from one of the thousand or so catalogs, is a poor substitute for the process of old-fashioned shopping at the aforementioned brick and mortar establishments where you talked to retail clerks, shop owners, and even fellow shoppers.

 

A little over 100 years ago, a sociologist name of Emile Durkheim coined the term Anomie which he used to describe situations where societies in large measure feel a sense of alienation because their only feeling of attachment is to the system in which they don’t believe or feel a part of. He thought this came about due to division of labor (this was in the midst of the industrial revolution) and rapid change from a traditional society to a modern society.

 

The pace of changes which Durkheim witnessed were trivial compared to the last 50 years, and it change continues to accelerate at a speed almost beyond our ability to comprehend. Yesterday, I awoke to hear news of the second mass shooting in less than two weeks. I believe it noteworthy that most of the perpetrators of these horrible acts were described as people with few if any acquaintances and no one who was willing to call them a friend. They were described as quiet and uninvolved in their communities, in short: alienated.

 

It also seems noteworthy that in spite of relatively good economic times, suicide rates in the U.S. have increased 24% from 1999 to 2014. Likewise, murders increased 8.6% in only one year (2016). According to the non-profit that tracks gun violence in the USA, (www.gunviolence.org) incidents have increased each year since they started tracking statistics in 2014. Conventional wisdom is that our current President was elected and continues to have widespread support from those who feel they have been “disenfranchised.”

 

Who is the patient?
This all suggests to me that we need to look farther than individuals with mental illness as the major factor in gun violence. It may be that it is our society that is ill, and in need of treatment. Human connection, kindness, and compassion might not help cure all of society’s mental illnesses, but it can’t hurt.

 

P.S. Catalog UPDATE
By the way, I just now picked up today’s mail and there were only 18 catalogs, but an armload of solicitations for money, some bills, and a letter from my only friend who still writes via snail mail.  Remember to be kind to your mailperson (especially this time of year).  There may be other Floyds out there and I’m sure there are even more catalog targets like me and Barb on every mail carrier’s route.  (Break for reminiscing): When I was in college a couple of centuries ago I worked as a mailman during Christmas breaks, and occasionally someone would invite me in for a cup of hot chocolate on the coldest days.  I wonder if that happens anymore.

Editors Note: While editing eshrink’s blog, I found this non-profit whose mission is to help us cancel unwanted catalogs: Catalog Choice . However, I haven’t told eshrink yet because I don’t want to rain on his curmudgeon complaint parade…he’s on a roll and I think it energizes him! Love you dad.

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 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!

PANTS ON FIRE: the truth about truthfulness

Since our fearless leader arrived on the scene, there has been much debate over the matter of truthfulness. Though the word truth may not be as fashionable as it once was, it is still used a great deal in everyday language. I have my own ideas about the definition of the word, but etymologists tell us language is in a constant state of flux. With that in mind I decided to look up the definition of the word to see if its meaning had changed during the past 80 or so years. It seemed to not have changed appreciatively since the day a few decades ago when I lied about throwing a hatchet at my brother.
The definitions of the word “truth” I found confusing in most cases; for example, one was “the quality or state of being true,”  which I did not find to be helpful. It reminded me of the meaningless cliche “it is what it is.” However, I was pleased to learn that some of the synonyms used george-washington-cherry-treefor truth, such as candor, honesty, and sincerity, are still associated with the word. Along with a few million other kids I was indoctrinated with the fable of George Washington and the cherry tree. The moral of that story was very clear that lying about the deed was as bad or worse that the deed itself. To that end when my father confronted me about a misdeed, and said “don’t lie to me” I soon learned that I was more likely to escape corporal punishment if I confessed.

 

Truthfulness in the “good ole days”

According to my recollection, truthfulness was highly regarded in those days; although there were situations in which lying was condoned. For example, horse traders, much as the used car salesmen of today, were famously expected to lie. In those days I am told that transactions involving horses were seen as a competition testing the ability of the buyer or trader to judge horses, and the rules about truthfulness were suspended. In most situations however; truthfulness was considered a virtue and liars were regarded as on the same level as wife beaters.
My indoctrination into those ideas about truth was successful, and I value them even today, although I must confess that I have transgressed a few times. In most cases I have rationalized by telling myself they are only white lies, minor exaggerations, or embellishments, and that there are times when truth can be hurtful. As a consequence, I tend to classify lies as to their size in order to excuse my behavior. However, according to the Smith classification, any prevarication uttered by the most powerful man in the world is a whopper with the potential of dire consequences for the entire world.

I Don’t Care if Trump Lies

With all that in mind, you can imagine my chagrin when I ran across an article in the January 23 issue of “The Daily Wire” titled 5 REASONS I DON’T CARE IF TRUMP LIES. It was written by John Nolte who had previously been editor of the far right web based Breitbart News which was also the former home of Steve Bannon, Mr. Trump’s advisor. Mr. Nolte justifies the lying by using “the old everybody does it” strategy we used in grade school by saying: “Politicians lie. That is what they do.” He goes on to say “In politics lying is a tactic, and if you don’t use that tactic, you’re screwed.” 19c05de8e57fda9170ee3a1e7a95e269How many times in history have we heard that. If indeed the most talented at lying have an advantage at the polls, it might explain why there appears to be so much dissatisfaction about the performance of our elected officials. Nolte is not so charitable with the major news outlets that he describes as “evil” due to their dishonesty, but assures us that “I will not lie.” Yes, I am sure George Washington would be pleased to know someone is following in his footsteps.

Fake News. Confirmation Bias. The Internet Conundrum.

4e6661deeb79365cf2ad34752f12c3f7The term “fake news” has been bandied about a lot lately, but that seems to me an oxymoron. If it is fake, it is simply a lie, certainly not news. No matter what it is called, the internet has become a fertile field for its growth. It allows any individual to send whatever lie he chooses with impunity to large numbers of people who are then capable of spreading it to others like an epidemic. The more outrageous or unusual the story, the more likely it is to be widely dispersed. The volume of such misinformation is such that there is something for everybody so that a person is more likely to believe something if it supports his own beliefs or prejudices, and discard that with which he disagrees. This has been called the confirmation bias.
As he continues to surf the web, he will be drawn to those sites, truthful or not, which confirm his beliefs. So armed, he becomes even more entrenched in his opinions and more unlikely to listen to alternative ideas. In my opinion this is one of the major contributors to our divisiveness. Unfortunately his conclusions may have been influenced by faulty evidence.

In an optimistic essay in the December 29, 2011 issue of the Atlantic, by Rebecca Rosen titled TRUTH, LIES and the INTERNET, she acknowledges that the internet is a repository for much misinformation, but comforts us by insisting “the internet has brought a golden age of Fact Checking,” and goes on to say “…..the good news is that the Internet is nurturing accuracy.”

So much for prophecies: here we are six years later with the development of wonderfully complex lie machines, which are not only capable of reaching millions of people, but can actually tailor their lies to appeal to certain groups or even individuals. In the face of such onslaughts, all the fact checkers in the world could not keep up with their output.
Not only has the internet provided a convenient platform for the delivery of lies, new techniques such as the twitterbot are now used to overwhelm and prevent access by competing messages.

In contrast to the Atlantic article, Richard Clarke’s book, Cyber Warfare has turned out to be prophetic. He had warned in his book that the US was sorely lacking in preparedness for cyberattacks. Russia has proven him correct in his assessment by their role in attempting to undermine our electoral process. I have heard several comments on TV which attempt to assure us that the outcome of the election was not affected by these cyberattacks; however I find it hard to believe that anyone could be certain of that since there are so many intangibles which may affect such outcomes.

Whatever the effects they may have had on the outcome of the election, the specter of even the possibility of an illegitimate presidency or treasonous staff members is a win for the Russians due to the loss of confidence in the process. Slanderous comments about various politicians are accepted as fact by some which further undermines the trust in our system. Attitudes so developed may also result in a cynicism about our government which may discourage our brightest and most dedicated from a career in public service.

Facts. The truth. The whole truth. And nothing but the truth.

When testifying in a court of law all people must swear to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. This oath is said to have been traced to the 13th century. Those guys must have been pretty smart, for they already were aware of how one could make a lie appear to be the truth. Unfortunately, counterfeit truth tellers are not required to take such an oath in ordinary situations. They can avoid telling the “whole” truth by taking something out of context, usually a word or modifying phrase that changes the meaning of what is said. The “nothing but the truth” phrase forbids the mixing in a lie or two which can also change the gist of the message. Such strategies seem to me to be used more frequently now than in days past.

190583Beliefs and opinions are not facts. Facts are a necessary component of truth; however truth is more than that. Truth requires an understanding of the meaning of the facts, their relevance to the issue at hand, and their context. Truth is necessary for our survival. Truth is essential for development of trust. Without trust, chaos reigns and society disintegrates. Truth is honest, sincere, and respectful. Truth is especially important in today’s messy world, but currently seems to be in short supply.
Since I began this essay, I noted that Time Magazine featured a lead article on truthfulness. Although I was initially dismayed to have been scooped, I was nevertheless heartened that the issue is getting the attention it deserves. Of course lying is not a recent development.  It has been said that THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE which leads one to ponder the question of the effect of its absence.   Plato addressed its seriousness a bit before my tenure when he said:
“FALSE WORDS ARE NOT ONLY EVIL IN THEMSELVES, BUT THEY INFECT THE SOUL WITH EVIL.

Farm Life

While on my way to visit kids and grandkids recently, I passed through some of the most lush farmland in the country.  In western Ohio and eastern Indiana one can see for miles in all directions for the land is tabletop flat, and the soil is nearly black.  Early settlers must have concluded that they had indeed reached the promised land.  It is difficult to imagine an area on the planet more suitable for farming, and it has been utilized as such for two hundred years or more.

During the last forty years of traveling this route, there have been dramatic changes in the landscape for this is the age of corporate agriculture with its
“factory farms”.  Gone are the fences, farmhouses, barns, silos and houses that identified family farms.  In their place are huge expanses of unadorned land reaching almost to the horizon with a lone house and machinery shed surrounded by shiney metal granary bins visible in the distance.

On this trip, I noticed a bulldozer in one of those fields which was in the process of demolishing a house.  It had also attacked a group of trees surrounding the house and there was no evidence of the barn and silo which must have once resided there.   I wondered about the family who had lived in that house and worked that soil.  I wondered about how many generations had lived there and how many kids grew up there.  I wondered about what had led them to sell out.  Was it the amount of money offered, poor management, crop failure, or simply a lack of interest by the kids and their desire to pursue an urban life?

Whatever the history of that house, I felt sad to see that it would soon be obliterated for it provided further evidence that a way of life which had existed for thousands of years would soon be gone.  200 years ago more than 90% of people were involved in farming while today it is less than 2%.  Early on man learned that planting his own crops and domesticating animals was more efficient and less risky than hunting for food.  As he became more proficient he was able to barter and later sell what was left after he fed his family, a tradition which survived until recent times.  In the last century that system was turned on its head as farmers joined the evolving culture of specialization.  Rather than growing food for his family and selling what was left, he sold what he produced and bought food for his family with the proceeds.

During my adolescence I was fortunate enough to spend a year living on my Grandparents farm.  It was small, and operated primarily as a source of food for the family; consequently it was diversified with cows, chickens, pigs, a huge vegetable garden, and a field of corn large enough to feed the animals.  Although they did sell some eggs and milk the primary fruits of their labor was to provide food for the family.  To live there was to be in harmony with nature.  I found it very satisfying to eat what I had labored to help nature produce.  I have been a “city slicker” all my life, but I still cherish that year I spent learning the most important lessons of my life.

With the age of specialization such farms as my Grandad’s are seen as very inefficient.  Consequently we now have chicken farmers, turkey farmers, hog farmers, dairy farmers, grain farmers, fruit farmers, beef farmers, truck farmers (vegetable growers for you who are unenlightened) and even fish farmers.   Furthermore many of these may be even more specialized producing a particular species of animal or variety of vegetable or fruit.

After a group of investors buy several adjoining farms and clear them of obstructions like buildings and fences, one man on a huge air conditioned tractor can till, sow, fertilize, and reap more crops than could all of the previous occupants combined without even breaking a sweat.  The weed problem was long ago solved by soaking the ground with chemicals which prevent unwanted vegetation from appearing, so forget those long days in the hot sun hoeing a field of corn one stalk at time.

Much about these changes are laudable for in a world in which the World food Program reports 795 million people do not get enough to eat, food production needs to be done as efficiently as possible. Another statistic that floored me was that while we struggle with the problem of childhood obesity 100 million children in developing countries are underweight, and malnutrition is the norm.

There is much about the demise of the family farm, and proliferation of large corporate farms which causes concern for many of us.  Farm subsidy programs are a major source of contention which not surprisingly are popular with farmers, but not so much with others.  In these programs, crazy as it may seem farmers are sometimes paid for not growing crops.  This costs taxpayers 25 billion dollars a year, most of which according to an article in the February 14, 2015 issue of the Economist “goes to big rich farmers…..”.   As nearly as I can tell, this is designed to protect farmers from price fluctuations by limiting production.   What a comfort   to know your business is insured against losses by the federal government.  That type of business welfare appears to be even better than the type enjoyed by “big oil”, or Wall Street.  Little wonder that “agribusiness” has expanded rapidly.   I can’t help but wonder if that subsidy money might be better spent by paying farmers to grow stuff and using the surplus to feed those kids who go to school hungry.  25 billion dollars should buy a lot of corn flakes.

Environmentalists are also in a tizzy over modern farming techniques with good reason.  In 2015 there were 190.4 million tons of fertilizer used worldwide with its runoff causing all kinds of problems.  For example, in my area of the world it is deemed responsible for the pollution of Lake Erie with toxic algae affecting the fishing industry among other things.  There are reports of so called “dead zones” in streams where fertilizer run off is said to reduce oxygen levels to a level incompatible with the life of fish and other aquatic organisms.

The debate over other health issues which may be associated with fertilizers rages on between the environmental community and the major chemical companies.  There is also speculation about impurities such as heavy metals which could have a more long lasting effect on the soil.   However there seems little doubt these chemicals have had a major effect in increasing food production.

Even more contentious are the disagreements as to the effect of insecticides and herbicides.  These substances are after all powerful poisons which are spread over wide areas.  Many entomologists believe that one type of bug killer (neonicotinoids) is largely responsible for the demise of large numbers of bees which are so necessary to pollinate many of our fruits and vegetables. . Neonicotinoids are still widely used in the U.S. while they have been banned in Europe, enough for a cynical old tree hugger like myself to lose even more confidence in the EPA. It also seems logical that the widespread use of weed killers could adversely affect wildlife populations.  Once again, skeptical me does not find the reassurances of giant agribusiness companies that these substances are innocuous very comforting.

Livestock farms pose even more disturbing scenarios.   The December issue of Scientific American published an expose of the effects of antibiotic use in livestock “the looming threat of factory farm superbugs”.  Animal rights advocates have  long complained about the policy of close confinement of animals and chickens in order for them to require less feed and gain weight faster.  The author of this article visited a hog farm to find 1100 pigs housed in a 40 x 200 foot building, which allowed them little room to move or to avoid lying in their own excrement.  Such conditions raise the risk of infections which could decimate the herd, the solution for which is to give them antibiotics.

blog-pigs

Recently researchers have found evidence of drug resistant bacteria in these animals.  In one study 70% of pigs tested were positive for MRSA, the drug resistant staphylococcus which has become a major problem for hospitals nationwide, and now shows signs of entering the population at large.  They have also found those same organisms in workers on these farms.   In addition to the risk from undercooked pork, the bacteria can also be transmitted from handling raw meat from infected pork, chicken, or beef.  With that in mind it is important for those preparing meats to wash their hands thoroughly after handling them.

In most cases the format for the pork factories is different than for grain farms.  It appears that in most cases, the company does not own land, but pays a farmer to raise their pigs until they are old enough to butcher.  What is most disturbing about the Scientific American piece is their assertion that researchers who wish to investigate this problem have been denied access to these farms on orders by the corporations who own the pigs. This prompted Dr. James Johnson at the University of Minnesota to say “Frankly, it reminds me of the tobacco, asbestos, and oil industries”.  “We have a long history of industries subverting public health”.  The response to this potential epidemic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been tepid at best, while the Netherlands and Denmark outlawed such animal antibiotic use years ago.  The mantra that business is over-regulated in the U.S. does not seem to apply in this case.

There is also the   problem especially in the pork business of what to do with the manure.  It doesn’t take much imagination to understand that raising 30 or 40 thousand pigs a year in one spot could result in a lot of pig poop.  The problem has been solved by building “lagoons” in which to dump it.  Believe me if any of you have ever had a whiff of pig shit, you will know that lagoon is not a very appropriate designation for these super cesspools.

blog-water

It does not take a high powered scientist to understand that odor might be the smallest part of the problem.  The leak into an aquafer for example could not be very healthy for those downstream.

Last but not least is the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMO) about which there does not seem to be a consensus.  There are those who think foods from these seeds may be unhealthy, and others who express concern over the dangers of tinkering around with DNA apparently concerned that some Frankenstein plant form might evolve.  Those on the other side of that fence point out that we have been doing genetic engineering for many years, by creating hybrids, selective breeding, or by grafting one part of a plant on to another.  They also suggest we look at dogs who exist in hundreds of varieties, who although genetically different from each other all have the wolf as their ancestor.

One very promising development of this science has been the ability to develop plants which are drought resistant.  It is also reported that it may be possible to produce plants which are unaffected by pests.  If that were to come to pass we might be able to eliminate the use of some of those pesticides which certainly would not be a bad thing.  On the other hand, once again we face that same old conundrum, forced to decide if the good resulting from the implementation of a new technology outweighs the bad.  Unfortunately, we are often unable to anticipate the bad.

At this point you may be thinking that many of these thoughts are colored by the nostalgic meanderings of an old man, and of course you would be correct.  Although I am saddened by the losses of a subculture, I am heartened and amazed at the scientific achievements witnessed during my lifetime.  One of these is how it has been made possible to yield so much food from our soil.  My grandfather would be amazed to learn that his one acre which had produced 50 bushels of corn could now yield three times that much.

So far innovations in farming have allowed us to increase food production to grow at a faster pace than the world’s  population; therefore refuting Malthus’s prediction of world -wide starvation.   The big question that remains open is whether such innovations will be able to keep up with a continued increase in world population especially while facing the challenges of climate change, if we will be able to do this without killing the goose that lays the golden egg.