The Way It Was | Part 2

Note from the editor: Click here to read Part 1 of “The Way It Was”

Conversations Overheard

There was a fringe benefit for me from the depression in that I received my first indoctrination into the ways of the world which included comprehensive discussions of politics, economics, world affairs, and morality but with a special focus on means of survival in difficult times.  My education occurred while lying on our living room floor listening to Dad and friends (not to be confused with Fox and Friends) debate all kinds of issues while they focused on possible work sites.  The men were regular visitors to our house where they met and planned strategy to find work.  It is likely that they were attracted to our house as a meeting place by Dad’s famed home brew.  Although he was not a bootlegger per se, he was known to have occasionally traded a bottle or two for some needed commodity.    I was an accomplice in the enterprise as I took great delight in placing a cap on each bottle and watching Dad press it in place. 

There must have been a robust feeling of camaraderie amongst those guys who were all in the same sinking boat.  There was laughter in spite of their dire circumstances, and there were frequently told colorful stories which without benefit of Dad’s home brew would not likely have reached my tender ears.  The coarse language was not lost on me, and was quickly incorporated into my vocabulary, the use of which would often get me in trouble.   One particularly memorable event occurred when Dad took the guys down to our cellar to show them his success of the day.  He had received a feisty old rooster in return for a day’s work, and the rooster was confined to the cellar, a small space with a dirt floor cool enough to render the beer palatable.  Someone stumbled over the pan of water left for the rooster and Dad filled it with beer.  Surprisingly, the old guy imbibed with gusto and was soon stumbling, flapping his wings, and attempting to crow in a falsetto voice.  If he was hung over in the morning it was short-lived as a few hours later he would be on a platter sharing space with some drop dumplings.

Work

In spite of the bravado most of the conversations had to do with work or rather the lack of it.  The meetings were unscheduled and men would drop in at various times during the evening with comments like “I thought I would drop in to shoot the shit.”  There were always rumors of things to come both good and bad… this place was laying off, another was going to be hiring, another business was in trouble and about to go under, etc.   In 1933 the unemployment rate is said to have been 25%, but that number does not tell the whole story.  Many who were said to be employed were actually able to work only part time.  For example, Barb recalls her Father listed as an employee at a local steel mill, but usually actually working only one day a week and sometimes sent home early even for those days.  He avoided eviction by painting houses owned by his landlord. 

One conversation in particular stands out in which one of the men who was employed at a local glass container factory said he had just come from his workplace and had been turned away.  He reported that at every shift change there were huge crowds of employees at the entrance hoping to be chosen to work that day, but few would be chosen.  He loudly and profanely complained that the foremen “suck asses” and relatives were always the first chosen to work.  Some jobs or professions previously considered ordinary were highly prized.  Postal workers, school teachers, and local government jobs were highly prized for their stability.  The lack of available cash led to a great deal of bartering, especially with farmers who had no one to whom to sell their crops.  Conversely, professionals such as doctors and lawyers along with day laborers were often paid with food (e.g. the story of the inebriated rooster).   

Civics (Yesterday’s Term for Politics)

No education is complete without lessons in civics and the down-but-not-outers were not shy about expressing their opinions in such matters which was probably enhanced by the tongue loosening effects of Dad’s beer.  There was considerable disagreement amongst the group with almost everything.  In our home Dad was registered as a Republican and Mom was a lifelong Democrat.  I have the opinion that in those days one usually belonged to the party with which they had grown up much as with they do with religion.  Dad in spite of his upbringing had experienced an epiphany: he blamed Hoover for the depression and lauded FDR’s efforts to restore the economy. 

Those on the negative side of the debate were equally vociferous in their ridicule of FDR’s “make work programs” and “socialist stuff.” There were all kinds of jokes referring to the WPA and their workers having a penchant to be seen leaning on their shovels.  With the establishment of social security in the mid- thirties the idea of government taking money out of his check (if he had one) and giving it to someone just because he got to be 65 years old did not sit well with the naysayers.  A typical analysis might go something like this: “What ever happened to the idea of saving for old age” or “If they can’t take care of themselves, they should go to the poor house” (large forbidding appearing buildings euphemistically referred to as county homes).  Families were expected to care for their elderly or infirm parents consequently; they shared in the disgrace, and were denigrated for forcing their parents to “suck on the public tit.”

The most often discussed and vilified make work program was the WPA (Works Progress Administration).  The average wage was $52 per month yet one of my uncles worked in the program until it was disbanded in the early 1940s.  During that time, he managed to raise two children with the help of his wife who was able to find work cleaning the house of an affluent neighbor.  Although largely removed from most employment opportunities, wives did find ways to contribute.  For example, Barb’s Mother did laundry in her home in spite of a childhood injury that left her crippled.  The WPA worked on infrastructure projects while the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) focused on environmental projects.  It was an organization for young men who were housed in barracks throughout the nation and paid even less.  They were best known for planting millions of trees, often in areas where logging had left a desolate landscape.  Roosevelt in announcing its formation said; “forests are the lungs of our nation.”  They also fought forest fires, worked in national parks and landmarks building roads, trails and camping facilities.  Many such projects remain in use to this day.

Philosophy 101

While listening in on those conversations from my vantage point on the living room floor I was also privy to discussions of moral issues some of which have bedeviled philosophers for eons.  For example, one evening one of the guys reported that he knew of a place where it was possible to steal casing head gas.  Although gasoline was 18 cents a gallon, he did not have 18 cents, his car was out of gas, and he couldn’t look for work. (For the unenlightened of my readership: casing head gas is formed by compression of natural gas by functioning oil wells.  It is a very low quality fuel and can cause significant damage to automobile engines.)  Since he was without the means to get there, he was attempting to recruit an accomplice.  This provoked a heated debate.  Not only was his proposal illegal there was that “thou shalt not steal” thing in the Bible for which some thought there were no exceptions.  This brought up oft delivered hypotheticals one of which was very relevant to their situation which was “would you steal food if your children were starving?”   

Keep Walking or Go to Jail

Vagrancy laws made homelessness even a greater problem than it is today for one could go to jail for “having no physical means of support.” When I looked up the origin of such laws, I was surprised to find they were written after the Civil War as as a means to get freed slaves off the street and into the chain gangs which could be rented out, a process some called a new form of slavery.  These laws were found to be useful during The Depression as a means to rid the parks and other public facilities of the homeless.  I had always wondered where all those men I used to see walking along the highways were going.  Later it became obvious that they must stay on the move or go to jail.

These were the same guys who would sometimes appear at my Grandmother’s back door offering to do work for food.  Of course, there was no expectation that work would be done.   Grandma would bring a plate out for them and after a brief repast they were on their way. Since farmers were those who were most likely to have food to spare and cops were scarce these backroads were fertile territory.   I heard stories of farmers who discovered “bums” asleep in their haymows especially during inclement weather.  Depending on the compassion of the farmer they might be awakened by the business end of a pitchfork or sent to the house for something to eat then on their way.

Many of these hoboes or bums as they were called in those days would become so enured to that lifestyle that they would spend the rest of their lives on the move never staying more that a few days in one place.  They became expert at hopping freight trains, knowing their schedules and where they slowed enough to get on them.  They often migrated with the birds following the seasons.  They eventually developed places where they could hide for a few days at a time usually close to a rail depot but far enough away to avoid the railroad police.  It is said they verbally catalogued places that were soft touches for hand-outs.  Thus, a nomadic subculture came into being demonstrating the remarkable change which can be brought about in an industrial society by an economic crisis.

An Early Exit Prevented

At some undetermined time during those preschool years I experienced life threatening incidents one of which would label my Father as an unlikely hero.  In what was probably an effort to provide food and recreation simultaneously, he had decided to take me, my brother and mother fishing probably with the hope of making a meal of our catch.  The site, called Pleasant Valley was a favorite of mine and was next to a small conclave of houses reached via a covered bridge over the Licking river.  Its only reason for existence was a Post Office situated next to a major rail line.  It was a mail distribution facility for a large part of the county, and its fascination for me was to be able to watch the train rush past at what seemed to me to be at least 100 mph, while a metal arm reached out from the mail car, dropping a bag of mail, while snatching a similar bag, and pulling it back into the car without even slowing.

Most likely, on that day I was preoccupied with the hope that the mail train would come by.  The river was high, and I recall staring at the water as it rushed by, then everything was suddenly brown.  Probably that memory remains so vivid due to fact that I would have a recurring dream of that incident for years although; such dreams were not frightening but consisted of the sensation of floating in that brown water.  I am told that Dad saw me fall into the swollen river and immediately jumped in although he could not swim.  I was told that my life was saved by a single button for I was wearing a light jacket with one button fastened and Dad reached out with one hand and was able to grasp the jacket with one hand.  He threw me upon the bank and as he was floating by, managed to grab a root growing out of the river bank and save himself.  Thanks be to God that the button held for had it not you would have been denied the joy of reading these blogs!

Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for Part 3 of The Way It Was! 

THE BOOMERS’ KIDS

While the baby boomers head toward retirement, their kids are beginning to take the reins.  They are commonly referred to as the millennial generation.  We can only hope they will do a better job than have their parents or grandparents.  These millennials have received a good deal of bad press, mostly from old farts like me  They have been called narcissistic, spoiled, inept, lazy, and trophy kids among other things.  They are the first generation to prefer a computer screen to stuffed toys or rattles.  This was brought home to me yesterday when I passed a grocery cart in the store containing a baby in a child seat who was apparently entranced by something he was holding which looked very much like some kind of mini ipad.  With that in mind is it any wonder that digitally deficient old folks like myself rely on kindergarten grandkids for computer lessons?

Educator Marc Prensky in his publication, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, defends the millennials and insists that our misunderstanding of them is the result of our speaking different languages.  He posits that their nearly total immersion in the digital world via computers, video games, digital music, cell phones, video cams etc. has resulted in their “thinking and processing information fundamentally differently from their predecessors”.  They even prefer to communicate digitally.  As a matter of fact, the geeks may be the new heroes of the millenial generation.  Prensky concludes that all of this leads us to feel apart, since these geeky kids do inhabit a different world.

Pensky goes on to quote Dr. Bruce Perry of Baylor College of Medicine who echoes his assessment with the statement, “It is very likely that our students’ brains have physically changed and are different from ours-as a result of how they grew up.”  Although the idea that a whole generation of brains might be changed in both function and structure seems farfetched, recent research concerning the elasticity of the developing brain suggests it not so much of a stretch as it seems.

David Burstein, himself a millennial, in his book “Fast Future” coined the term pragmatic idealism to describe millennial philosophy and insists that millennials in general have “a deep desire to make the world a better place.”  He goes on to say that their idealism is tempered with the realities of what is possible, and consequently, they will be able to bridge the divisiveness that currently prevents solutions to world and domestic problems.

He is an ardent defender of his generation, and insists that they are optimistic about the future as is he.   He points out that soon his millennials will represent one third of the population and mostly represent a consensus on societal, environmental and economic issues.  It is easy to see how when these kids (to me all people under the age of 40 are kids) ascend to positions of power they could conceivably bring about massive changes to the status quo.

In a time in which our electronic gadgets are obsolete by the time we old codgers learn how to use them, these geeky kids stand a better chance of utilizing the best features of a cyber world, and warding off nefarious uses of technologies that seemingly progress at warp speed.  The dangers inherent in artificial intelligence and robotics was the subject of previous blogs, but there is also the problem of cyber warfare which seems to be already underway via Russia’s attempt to undermine our democracy.  A criminal element will always be with us and they have found ways to do much harm with only a keyboard as a weapon.  A digital world will require our best millennial minds to sort out the good and protect us from the bad.

In such a world it is vital that those scheduled to take over be forward thinking if they are to be successful in adapting; however, in doing so they tend to ignore traditions important to previous generations, undoubtedly convinced that history is no longer relevant in their digital wonderland.  Materialism is frowned upon, and new lifestyles are in vogue.  To own a home in the suburbs is no longer the ideal for many.  Those women who choose to marry are more likely to sign up for the Wal-Mart bridal registry, and could care less about inheriting the family silver.  In many areas the antique business is on life support.  In their zeal to move forward, let us hope they will not lose sight of the lessons painfully learned by their ancestors which led to the origin of many of those irrelevant traditions.  Prensky posits that we have been remiss by failing to teach “both legacy and future content in their language”.

There is evidence that Burstein’s positive assessment of these kids is valid.  One example of which I am aware seems to fit his “pragmatic idealism” mold quite well.  It all began when four college students at the Indiana University became interested in beekeeping, and ultimately, concerned about the plight of the vanishing honey bee.  With further study they learned to appreciate the magnitude of the problem.   It is said that nearly 70% of the world’s edible crops depend upon honey bees for pollination, and we are now losing nearly half of all the colonies each year.  The extinction of the species would be catastrophic.  Other animal life could also be affected due to the lack of pollination of plants on which they feed.  The Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that without honey bees it would be impossible to feed the 9.1 billion people expected to inhabit the planet by 2050.

This group of four college students formed a club to study bees, and noted that although there was ongoing research into the problem, little was known about life inside the hives.  The university annually hosts a contest, Building Entrepreneurs through Science and Technology (BEST), for would-be entrepreneurs with an award of $100,000 to be used as seed money for the students to put their idea into action.  After an application process, the finalists present their business plan to the venture capitalists involved much as in the TV series Shark Tank and our heroes won. Click here to see the press release.

They incorporated in February 2016 under the name “The Bee Corp” and set about to use their grant to purchase some bee hives in order to have a cohort on which to learn, but were not averse to harvesting and merchandising nearly 1,000 pounds of honey the following year (one jar of which I enjoyed).  Those hives had suffered a great deal of neglect prior to their purchase by Bee Corp consequently; there was much sweat equity involved in the production of that honey.  This business success while in the pursuit of their stated mission “to drive innovation on traditional beekeeping practices through scientific research and technology in order to foster sustainable honey bee populations” a perfect example of Burstein’s pragmatic idealism.

Meanwhile, they continued in their efforts to develop the means to monitor the health of bee hives and indeed to collect enough data to learn what parameters were most healthy. Not surprisingly they came up with a digital solution.  They proposed to monitor intra-hive conditions by placing sensors in the hives which could transmit data wirelessly to the beekeeper.

Soon another instance in which business opportunity coincided with mission occurred.  In their contacts nationwide with beekeepers, they learned that a secondary problem had accompanied the loss of hives.  As the shortage of hives became acute, those remaining became more valuable, and there developed a widespread business of hive theft.  More than 1700 hives were stolen in California alone during the 2016 almond season.  They were able to enhance their intra-hive technology by developing a GPS tracking system which could be forwarded directly to police.

On January 1, 2018, this trio of kids who were now full time into the bee saving business were rewarded with a grant from the National Science Foundation in the amount of $225,000 to further develop a database which can used to “create a baseline model of a healthy hive to detect anomalies” as stated in the award.  The award allowed them to hire their first full time employee: a data scientist.   The beekeeping industry welcomed the news that there was an effort underway to solve their problem.  Successful Farming magazine wrote “Ag tech start-up The Bee Corp is causing quite a buzz as it begins to monitor conditions inside commercial beehives.”

the bee corp crew

It so happens that one of the co-founders of this corporation is well known to me, as a matter of fact he is my Grandson, but you may rest assured this in no way affects my objectivity in writing this for he would be an exceptional person no matter who was his Grandad.  Simon has always been interested in business but is not lacking in altruism, or environmental concerns even ending up with a major in environmental science while working nearly full time throughout college.

So, there you have it.  Millennials working hard to provide themselves with a comfortable lifestyle while simultaneously improving the lives of others.  Where could you find a better example of “pragmatic idealism”?  Let’s hope there are many more like them, and that greed will not blind them to the second part of that phrase.

HARASSMENT IN THE WORKPLACE

Not since the 1920s has there been more activism on the part of women in protest against male domination. Their current complaint is much different than that of the suffragettes, for it involves sex. This was a taboo topic for women of the ’20s, who were products of the Victorian era. The unintended consequence of such societal restrictions gave men free rein to sexually harass, abuse, humiliate, and denigrate women who would be too embarrassed to publicly complain. She could also be subjected to the time-honored policy of blaming the victim.

There has been much news recently about a big-time movie mogul who is currently under the gun from a platoon of gals alleging not only harassment but assault. This brought up memories from my childhood when there was a lot of talk about how movie starlets “screwed their way to the top.” It was said by those supposedly knowledgeable about the industry that the road to stardom was via a producer’s couch (the “casting couch”), and of course, people said that it was the directors who were taken advantage of, for they were seduced. I don’t recall ever hearing an actress, or anyone else for that matter, complain about sexual abuse. What suffering they may have endured was done silently.

Ah, but how times have changed. Women have come out of the closet en masse, determined to seek retribution in spite of their fears and embarrassment; they instantly changed from shamed to heroic. It doesn’t hurt that one third of all judges in the country are now women and that women can no longer be depended upon to vote the same as do their husbands. Consequently, they have become a political force to be reckoned with.

Among the torrent of disclosures are stories of workplace abuse going back decades. Although I have always found physical abuse abhorrent, I must confess that in years past I was oblivious to the discomfort that even off-color remarks could actually inflict on a woman. Were she to complain, I would undoubtedly accuse her of lacking a sense of humor. When such situations evolved in social situations, Barb was usually there to set me straight. However, when such behaviors occur in the workplace it becomes much more complicated. Indeed, in any situation in which there is a hierarchical power structure, sexual harassment, or even unwanted physical contact, will be initiated by the more powerful person almost without exception.

Of course, this leaves the victim in an untenable position, often forced to choose between tolerating the abuse or putting his or her job in jeopardy. Defensiveness is likely to curry disfavor with her superior which could result in disaster. Not only could chances for promotion become limited, victims could even lose their jobs. They then could be labeled as troublemakers and carry that label with them as they search for a new job. Larger companies are likely to have a Human Resource department where one can lodge a complaint, but they may be more interested in protecting the company than the employee.

The increased number of harassment and abuse charges in the workplace is certain to provide another cash cow for the lawyers who could find such cases as lucrative as auto accidents. For many years, businesses have been concerned about the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. Many have spent large sums on programs designed to educate employees regarding rules for interactions with fellow employees of the opposite sex. As a matter of fact, I was told by a person who had previously worked in a supervisory position for a fortune 500 company that he had been required to repeat such a course annually.

He also said that those accused of sexual improprieties were subject to immediate dismissal. In spite of these efforts, there continued to be complaints of harassment. Those complaints may have been exaggerated at times, for the company, apparently more concerned with reputation than money, initiated a policy of negotiating payments to these complainants in return for a pledge of secrecy without regard to the legitimacy of their complaints.

But, the most flagrant example of the payment of hush money was by the recently exposed Congressional Accountability Office. It was revealed in the November 15th, 2017 issue of USA Today that this office, under direct control of our elected representatives, had paid out over 17 million dollars of taxpayer money with the proviso that such payments remain secret. This had all occurred since the agency was established in 1995, and it got some attention since it involved dollars from the voter’s pocketbook. The inherent assumption that these alleged perpetrators were falsely accused was exemplified by the the caveat that the victims, not the accused, must agree to engage in counseling, another example of blaming the victim without any attempts to confirm or negate the claims.

This reminded me of problems that similar policies caused during the height of the epidemic of medical malpractice suits several years ago. Nearly all physicians carried malpractice insurance, but many found that when they were sued, their insurance company found it cheaper to settle than to fund a court case. Doctors who felt the charges against them were unfounded wanted their “day in court,” but found the terms of their policy did not give them that option unless they wanted to pay the expenses of a trial.

It was a tidy arrangement: the plaintiff could pick up a few thousand bucks, the lawyer would get 20 or 30% of the take for not much more effort than it takes to write a letter, the insurance company avoids the risk of getting one of those multimillion dollar judgments from an unusually sympathetic jury, and everyone is happy except for the doctor who will find himself registered in the National Practitioner Data Bank with a forever sullied reputation. He will be looked on with suspicion when applying for hospital privileges or virtually any professional activity, and if he is unfortunate enough to be sued for the second time, he will probably be forced to hang it up, as he will undoubtedly become uninsurable. I knew a physician whom I thought to be very competent who was forced to end his career prematurely this way. A few of the uninsured risked losing everything by “going bare” i.e. practicing without insurance.

None of this should be construed as to minimize the importance of this issue or to excuse the centuries in which women have been left powerless to defend themselves. It does appear to me that women are on the threshold of finding tools with which they can exert more control over their own lives, and defend themselves from those behaviors they find abhorrent. That is not only as it should be, but as it must be as women gain credibility and status. They may even prove themselves superior in areas previously exclusively occupied by men and, consequently, come to occupy positions of leadership in spite of long held exclusionary policies.

With leadership comes power. Let us hope women will use that power in a more judicious manner than have men, and the traditional “battle of the sexes” will no longer be played out in the workplace. This appears to me to be unlikely, as I believe the reasons for the continuation of the love-hate relationships between the sexes are deeply ingrained in our species, perhaps even in our DNA. This is an issue which I discussed in a previous blog. The women’s movement has a stated goal of equality. After they achieve that goal, perhaps there would even be more problems should they move onto a quest for domination.

Workplace problems do not have a simple solution. There are people of both sexes who have longstanding anger towards members of their opposite gender. How can accusations be adjudicated? Does the policy of paying hush money give the rich license to violate as they please? On the other hand, does it allow those falsely accused to be legally blackmailed? How about flirting—when does it cross the line? When is a friendly attitude mistaken for an invitation to be intimate? It is reported that many office romances end in marriage—would they happen if all were able to ignore another’s appeal? What about relationships between co-workers outside the workplace? What about the use of “feminine wiles” to advance one’s position at the expense of another competing for favorable treatment?
If my assessment of the male’s need to dominate is correct, those who attempt to solve these problems are in for an uphill struggle, for despite society’s best efforts, there remains in mankind only a thin veneer of civilized behavior. Nevertheless, our culture is changing in ways which often conspire to make traditional male-female relationships dysfunctional. I read somewhere that some smart guy said change only occurs with revolution, and revolution is accompanied by chaos. We now appear to be in the midst of the next phase of a revolution that began over 100 years ago. Change is needed. Let us hope that the chaos will be limited and that the change pendulum will not swing too far.

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.

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.

 

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.