“2001: A Space Odyssey” in the context of “Mad Men”

I remember the first time I realized that the future was not going to be even remotely like it appeared in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”  I was 18, living on my own, and taking classes at The University of Iowa.  I watched my VHS tape (letterbox) on the couch one evening, and realized that the fictional year of the future Kubrick portrayed was only a few years away, but even then, there would be no Pan-Am Orion space transport (Pan-Am was defunct).  There would be no brightly uplit, Howard Johnson’s festooned Space Station One (NASA and the Russians could barely assemble a few tiny modules in orbit).  There would be no Clavius bases or moonbuses or banal administrative talk while eating perfectly square seaweed-based “ham” sandwiches en route to a lunar archaeological site.  And, the reason that none of this would happen was not because it couldn’t – not that we weren’t technologically capable as a global civilization of doing these things.  It’s that we wouldn’t.  The future had forked at some point in the early 70s, and everything had changed out from underneath the possibility of that future.

I had discovered Kubrick’s masterpiece on a laserdisc at the Iowa City Public Library when I was 12.  I watched the entire thing on a Sunday, with cruddy industrial plastic and metal headphones attached to a 19″ Sony CRT television, flipping sides on the stack of discs one after the other.  The thought that this was the future (then, it still was) held me in thrall.  That future seemed so clearly realized, so detailed, I felt that I was looking through a window at a reality that could exist, that would exist.  My observational skills failed to note the presence of details in my own reality that were much to the contrary of the details in Kubrick’s diorama future.

The Internet should have been my first clue that things were not the same.  Although DARPA and the beginnings of the global network were being created at the time Arthur C. Clarke wrote his book and he and Kubrick were working on the screenplay, neither of them, for all of their prescient inventiveness (there are iPads in the movie!), foresaw that hyper-connectedness would be the dominant paradigm of the future, not sterile disconnectedness, space-based bureaucracies and the cold war.

The leisure suits should have been my second clue.  In hindsight, watching a show like “Mad Men,” the style, the attitudes, the smoking and drinking, the dominance of old boys’ clubs, the pink cashmere stewardess hats and all the other cultural accoutrements of the 60s completely saturate the visual style of “2001.”  It is the past, set in the future.  Looking at the awkward conversation between Dr. Andrei Smyslov, Dr. Floyd, and “Elena” (the future is so sexist, even though she probably has a Ph.D., she’s still only credited as “Elena”) in the lobby of the Space Hilton, you are struck by the character of the setting, the clothes, the drinks, and the non-character of the characters.  These people are sitting casually on incredibly stylish and expensive red “Djinn” chairs, set against the striking white uplit floors, huge curved windows looking out at the blackness of space and the blue gem of the Earth, and ignoring it all.  They are having a stilted and perfunctory conversation that would be just as appropriate were it to take place between Roger Sterling, Don Draper and Peggy Olson.  Just replace “calibrating the new telescope at Tchalinko” with “convincing Conrad Hilton to buy a new spread in Life” and you’ve got it.

What’s fascinating about seeing a fictionalized account of a past I never experienced in “Mad Men,” but is so accurate that my dad can’t watch it because it’s so eerily familiar to his Manhattan upbringing, is that the characters can be, and strive to be, just as cardboard cut-out-y as the human characters in “2001.”  But Matthew Weiner and the other writers won’t let that veneer hold.  They puncture it, rip it apart, and show the seething humanity that struggles with its emotions and fights off the trauma of rapid cultural change, wars, technology and the artifice of civilization.  They won’t let the self-defense mechanism of formality survive more than 5 minutes into any script.  Kubrick, on the other hand, took the opportunity to criticize the fakery and superficiality of 60s culture by developing in the computer, HAL, the only fully realized human character, and contrasting that with the astronauts, who have the kind of personality that Don Draper wishes he could have.

When I was 18, I was so detached from the world around me – my social life consisted of sending text messages to my roommate via the ytalk daemon on our duct-tape and coathanger computer network in our condo, going to James Bond movies with my grand total of two friends after smoking up in the parking lot, and never, ever getting anywhere near a party or alcohol.  The prospect of a clean, stylish, sterile and inhuman future (complete with a computer that I could relate to) appealed to a kid who had been on prozac for 10 years.  Now, years, many friendships, and many social awkwardnesses overcome in my past, and not only do I realize that Kubrick and Clarke’s future will never happen, I’m glad for it.

Pain, Depression and The Winter

I recently took a work trip to the San Francisco Bay Area, to attend a conference.  The trip, the conference, the people, were all great.  I enjoyed it, it was uneventful.  A number of people at the conference started to fall ill toward the end of the week.  The day after I returned home, a Saturday, I got a high fever and started to have flu-like symptoms.  I stayed in bed that weekend and the first two days of the next week.  The aches, pain and fever of the flu turned into a sort of general late-fall malaise that stuck with me the rest of the week.  By Friday afternoon, it was warmer weather (the 50s), but rainy.  I was so worn out I had to go and work from home – I could not be in the high energy environment of the office.

Earlier in the week, my wonderful and caring wife had left town for a conference of her own.  I was home alone, and started to feel really low.  On Saturday, it was cloudy, colder and gray.  I woke up with a terrible cough and took some cough syrup.  I started to get odd, sharp pains in my neck, back and left arm, very sharp and atypical for my normal migraine symptoms.  I thought I was having a bad reaction to the cough syrup.  The pain was so unusual, I did not identify it as migraine related pain.  The pains would last for 5-10 minutes, and recur every 30-45 minutes.  This was like the worst ice cream headache you can imagine, but behind my left ear and eye, and in a way that’s almost indescribable, simultaneously very distant and immediate, like it was happening to someone else and being transmitted from them to me.  The pain was metallic and so intense I could taste and smell it.  In the afternoon, the weather changed rapidly, the wind started blowing, and it snowed.  Finally, at about 10 p.m., the pain was so unbearable I decided it must be migraine related.  I took my migraine meds and fell quickly asleep.  My migraines have always been tied to weather, so far as I can tell.

Today, Sunday, I awoke feeling better – it was a clear day.  By 10 a.m., the wind had really picked up.  I started to feel dread and panic.  Not depressed- downright panic and fear.  I took some deep breaths and decided to take a drive across the valley to calm my mind down.  That actually worked until the sharp, odd, intermittent pain that I had the day before returned.  I went home and took more migraine medication.  I fell into a deep, dark depressive funk.  All my lifelong friends, and my parents, were in Iowa.  My wife was away and I needed a hug terribly.  I felt I had made a very bad mistake leaving home to come work in Pennsylvania.  I wanted to run but couldn’t because the pain was so intense.

I came to a sudden realization: This panic, depression, fear and anxiety were all related to my migraine.  It was a mental manifestation of some neurochemical cascade that was in progress in my brain.  While I could not control it, I could try to understand it.  I had experienced a panic attack before, and my friend Ryan had picked me up from work and drove me around and talked to me to calm me down.  While few things in life are as terrifying as a panic attack when you have no one around to help you through the fear in a rational way, I had succeeded at understanding this reality.

I still find it incredibly strange and unfair that specific combinations of sunlight or lack thereof, heat or cold, and changes in atmospheric pressure and wind can trigger such intense chemical reactions in my brain and the rest of my body.  At times, I am nearly powerless before the cruel tricks of serotonin and norepinephrine.  This realization gives me more tools to fight back, so long as I can remember: it’s the genetics talking, and it will go away if I give it time.

I’m looking forward, intensely, to Thanksgiving with my wife and her family in our house.  I’m looking forward to driving home in December and spending a couple weeks with my parents and wife, and seeing old friends.

Different Soil

The land heaves to meet the sky
An arch of sandstone and limestone
Washed away by a quarter billion years’ rain

Among the scarred hilltops and ridged remnants
In a green valley in the wilds of Penn’s Woods
I sense the transience of my position

Where I come from I was certain
Of many things which are just as untrue
The words, clinging to the heels of my feet as I tread Iowa Avenue’s sidewalk

As you breathe, there, you feel them
Words pass through the membrane of your lungs
Dissolve in the blood and cross a barrier to saturate your being

Breathing here, the oxygen is the same
Knowledge and wisdom flow through the valley
But I miss the words

Where Do We Lead?

As the United States falls deeper into the willful anarchy of intentional leaderlessness demonstrated by our elected officials, I’ve noticed a trend of uncertainty about how we should lead among people of my generation.  We late-Gen-Xers/early Millennials (those of us born some time in the late 1970s-early 1980s) straddle the border between a couple different dynamics.  If you subscribe to Strauss-Howe generational theory (some have called it pseudoscience – I value it as an observation of a pattern more than a predictor of things to come) then you’ll note that these generations are “Nomad” and “Hero” archetypes, respectively.  What does this mean?

In Strauss-Howe, there are four Archetypes (Prophet, Nomad, Hero, Artist) born during four different Turnings (High, Awakening, Unraveling, Crisis).  These time periods are roughly 20 years each, and each Archetype experiences the Turnings at different times in their life.

The current Gen-X Nomads were born during an Awakening (the 60s/early 70s counterculture) and grew up during an Unraveling (80s/90s consumerism, the “me” decades).  If the pattern holds, they/we should mature into leaders during a Crisis.  Meanwhile, Millennials were born during an Unraveling (80s) and should be growing up during a Crisis.

For those of us in the borderland between these two twenty-year generations, it is confusing to try to define ourselves.  Are we Gen X?  Millennials?  What is the Crisis?  Did it start with the events of 9/11/2001?  That seems like a good choice for a beginning.  If we pick that crisis, it’s been going on for over a decade, with perhaps a decade left to work through.  If the pattern holds, we should see Gen X stepping up to take leadership and action.  I’m beginning to see signs of the Millennials stepping up to take team-oriented action in the form of social consciousness, entrepreneurialism and the new “Maker” ethic.  Meanwhile, Gen X seems to have passed cleanly through its angsty, angry searching years and emerged into successful mid-level managers placed throughout the crumbling infrastructure of the free market economy – the monolithic driver of the last three generations of Western experience.

The economy, now an artifice of high-frequency trading, ponzi schemes and prop-ups from taxpayers, is failing.  The next step in that decline seems to be the self-imposed freakshow Russian Roulette game being played out in Congress by the Randian private wealth warriors elected through a combination of corporatist influence (thanks, Citizens United) and xenophopia.  If the debt ceiling is not lifted and the shutdown continues, the global economy is in for another big downturn.

Where is the leadership that Gen X should be demonstrating?  There are no protests on the National Mall.  No one is running for office on a ticket of constitutional amendments to ban gerrymandering and undo citizens united.  We are getting fidgety.  We see things like former investment bankers quitting their jobs in their 30s to race $500 Craigslist cars in the World Rally Championship, or buying abandoned trailer parks in New Mexico and becoming Makers.  We are impatient to lead, but our furtive steps toward leadership seem disconnected with the political and economic reality of the times.  Perhaps we believe that the next steps have nothing to do with government or the global economy.  If that turns out to be true, I think the next 10 years will be an interesting and very challenging time.

Beginning of a Short Story

The coffee tasted expensive, not like the scalding watery mud you got at gas stations or donut shops. It was warm, dark, and when she swallowed it, the sides of the back of her tongue were left with a faint impression of chocolate and cinnamon. The beans were a perk from her job – her morning ritual was rooted in manually grinding them with an antique burr mill grinder she found at a flea market and cooking her coffee the Norwegian way, with an egg. Rain pounded the tin roof and swept down the double glazed plastic framed windows she had lifted from the trash bin behind a local home improvement warehouse. The firs and hemlocks she planted swayed in the wind outside, and her little house creaked. She started building the 400 square foot home on an abandoned lot purchased for $20,000, ten years earlier. It was hers in a way that money couldn’t buy. Her hands had touched every square inch of it, her hammer had pounded every nail.

Her connection to the outside world consisted of an old cloudbook and a high speed mobile data puck which she kept powered up on an array of 12 volt storage batteries connected to PV panels epoxied to the roof. The property was cordoned off by a rusting chain-link fence which made the lot look both forbidding and uninteresting. She kept the gate padlocked. No one ever bothered her here. She worked at a coffee roaster down the road which specialized in importing shade-grown beans from Nicaragua and roasting them for a number of expensive coffee shops in Portland. She liked her privacy and the solitude provided by living in this edge city.

She finished the coffee and a plastic cup of Greek yogurt, pulled on a pair of well worn jeans, and layered a wool sweater and breathable rain jacket over her t-shirt. The keys for her 30 year old Volvo 240 station wagon were in her backpack. She took them out, zipped up the backpack, pulled the door to the house shut behind her and threw the backpack on the passenger’s seat. The car groaned to life, its agricultural four cylinder engine still working well after untold hundreds of thousands of miles. The heater even still worked. She pulled out of her lot after unchaining the gate. There was no one on the road at four in the morning – it was an easy and automatic drive to the roasting company’s warehouse five miles down the road. The wipers whipped furiously back and forth, really not doing much other than churning up the water on the windshield. The rain was coming down terrifically hard, but that wasn’t a problem, it was a straight shot to work and she could still see the colors of the traffic lights.

Burt shouted at her from the gantry far up in the brightly lit space, “I see you made it in through the hurricane this morning! I thought that boat of yours might float away!”

“It would probably sink first!” She shouted back. “How’s Mel doing? I haven’t seen you since you got back from Vancouver!”

“She’s doing. Asleep right now, this weekend was rough. She had a terrible bout after the last round.”

“Give her my love!”

“Will do. See you in 30.”

Burt always stopped by her station after his receiving shift was over to say ‘hi’. She had known him and his wife for five years, and they were probably the nicest people she knew. Burt had been laid off his old job working at an engineering firm, and was so thankful to get this job, he had invited the entire company to his place for a pig roast every year since.

The Part of Me That Could Cry

All text and images copyright (c) 2013 by Nicholas Roy. All rights reserved. No duplication or reuse without written consent of the author.

Gilbert Street, Iowa City, Summer
Gilbert Street, Iowa City, Summer

I remember crying easily as a child. When a grandparent or family friend died, I remember crying for a long time. In high school, I remember sobbing in the stairwell because I got a C. I had a long bout with depression between the ages of 8 and 22.

By the time I was 25, I was dangerously overweight, from eating, from the depression. I remember thinking: I’m going to kill the part of me that is sad. I don’t know how I did it, other than to say that through some force of will, I stopped being depressed, and I lost about 140 lbs. I have kept the weight off and have not been depressed for over 10 years now.

Evening summer sky above an Iowa prairie
Evening summer sky above an Iowa prairie

This afternoon, I came the closest I have since been to falling back into that despair. My wonderful wife is across the ocean doing her research. I have not been able to hug her in over two months, and there is more than a month left before she is back. I’m in a new place, with a new job. The new job is the hardest I have ever had. I’ve easily been able to think my way out of tough spots in jobs before, but this new one challenges me in ways I have never been challenged before. I miss my wife, my parents and my friends.

The sun sets over an Iowa tallgrass prairie
The sun sets over an Iowa tallgrass prairie

This afternoon, I missed Skyping my wife because of a dumb problem at work that really isn’t a problem. I haven’t Skyped with her in nearly a week. I missed her going to bed by 13 minutes. I know, because I have the Facebook chat record to show it. I was driving home when she messaged saying she was going to bed. I was so angry at myself for missing this chance to see her face. I was so angry and so sad. I felt the welcome point of a dark gray cone of despair1 puncture my sternum from the outside, the point pressing against my heart. I felt the tears well up inside. I let out a muted shriek of disgust and pity.

And then it was gone. I did not cry. I could not cry. I had killed that part of myself in order to save the rest of me.

My Parents' Garden
My Parents’ Garden

1 Dark gray cones of despair are about 8 inches long, with a vertex angle of roughly 10 degrees.  They are nicely Gouraud shaded.  Yes, I saw the cone.  It was a “Donnie Darko” moment.

Stratagical

I invented a new word today: “Stratagical” – a synthesis of “Strategically tactical, practical and agile.” This sounds terribly pointy-haired boss-like, but whatever, I don’t care, because I’m excited that I’m able to hoist myself to a place where I am able to help make tactical decisions but keep a focus on the strategic goals of a project.  In many ways, in my previous software developer role, I could become consumed with the architecture of a solution and its enormous volume of details to the exclusion of practicality and making tactical choices when necessary.  One transformative step on the road to Stratagical decision making was the day I realized I needed to do a huge batch process completely in memory for speed.  This decision eventually paid off quite well.  I am learning that many tactical decisions can be strategically advantageous if done correctly.

I consider this type of decision making process to be a key to agile management of an agile software development and technical operations group, and it must be founded in practicality. The strategic part comes in by ensuring that the software and systems we are designing meet the long-term needs of the institution, that we not shut the door to future needs, that we ensure good data to start with. The practical part comes when you understand that a new system will not be immediately used by the entire population of the institution, and can be phased in over time. The agile part comes in by focusing on improving the baseline of the system at each customer integration opportunity.

Step 1: Design the system to be flexible in the future
Step 2: Get good enough data into the system to start with one or two customers
Step 3: Validate the data with those customers
Step 4: Fix discovered data issues
Step 5: Repeat steps 2-4 with a new customer or customers

If you do this right, things seem to start nearly magically falling into place, and you start knocking out large chunks of alignment and execution, like scoring 5 lines at a time in “Tetris.”

Differences Are Interesting

My wife and I just moved from Iowa to Pennsylvania.  I was born in far northern New York, but we moved to Iowa when I was only a few months old.  Although I’ve spent time in Europe and West Africa, I have never lived anywhere but Iowa for more than five months.  I’m finding that what I miss the most is, obviously, seeing my close friends nearly every day, being able to visit my parents any time, and running in to people on campus who I know whenever I walk around.

I know that many of these things will change with time – I will know more people here, I’ll make new friendships, but my parents will still be far away.  For me, that is really difficult.

I grew up in a small university city, and knew every road, location, pattern, sound, smell, image, time and context in intimate detail.  I had walked or biked nearly everywhere in Iowa City, and that was comfortable.  The sense of place and my sense of myself were deeply integrated.  One of the most valuable things for me about going to school at Iowa was that in my spare time, I would get in my car and explore Johnson, Cedar, Washington, Henry, Lee, Linn and Iowa counties in extreme detail.  I could drive out of town in any direction, for 200 miles, take any turn, and come back in to town from any direction I chose.  I would often depart town in the morning on a Sunday and come back late at night, my pump primed to write new poetry for class the next day.  Now I’m in a new small university city, but all those deep interconnections are missing.  It will take a long time (possibly the rest of my life) to rebuild them here.

I like this place, I like the few people I already know here.  I like the mountains, but I miss the gently rolling plains and the comfort of the way all the streets and roads are perfectly aligned to the cardinal directions.  I miss knowing interesting historical details about the place I live, like why “Blackhawk Mini Parkis called that.  I miss having a beer at Bo James or The Mill with friends. I miss driving past the airport where I learned to fly and remembering cleaning airplanes there with good friends who left town in the other direction a few years back.

I miss knowing that if someone had the last name Yoder or Swartzendruber or Stutsman, they were from the area.

I miss Kevin Olish, who died last year, suddenly, and was a familiar face and interesting guy at the Co-Op, always talkative, always with something interesting to say.  Once, I was wearing a UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs t-shirt my dad had given me.  Kevin said, “I used to live in Santa Cruz, nice town!  Expensive town.  I like it here better.”

I’m sure I will get to know all sorts of characters and characteristics here in Happy Valley.  Over time, I’ll come to appreciate the unique aspects of life here.  One of the things I like most so far is how genuinely nice and helpful most of the people I have talked to here are.  That seems like a platitude, but it’s not.  It’s deeply not.  People here are, as far as I can tell, mostly just nice all the way to the core.

Identity In Transit

In my last job, one of the things that kept me up at night was the notion of electronic identity “in transit” or “on the wire.”  Specifically, I was concerned with protecting the electronic credentials of our customers from any kind of eavesdropping, spoofing or tampering as they were transiting the network at the moment a person entered them in a web form, login box on a computer, on their smart phone, or anywhere else they used their officially issued username and password.

Now I find myself in physical transit, from Iowa to Pennsylvania.  Along with that transition comes the need to re-prove who I am to a number of different agencies and institutions.  Those agencies are rightfully concerned with the prevention of any kind of tampering or spoofing of my identity in physical transit.  Along with that concern comes the need for rigorous forms of identity proofing and vetting in order to obtain new credentials.

Because I do this for a living, I knew the kinds of checks that were going to be required to prove my identity in my new location.  I was atypically well-prepared.  Before the movers arrived, I carefully packed all my incredibly precious, practically irreplaceable, highly combustible paper government-issued proofs of identity in a special box in the center of my car’s back seat.  Like a baby.  I knew that the checks to prove who I am to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania would be burdensome, but I never really had the opportunity to experience them first-hand, and all at once, before.  Here are my experiences so far.  Please note that these experiences are likely nearly identical in every state in the union (thank goodness I didn’t move to California or my ability to drive would have been in question and I would have had to get fingerprinted!)

The Drivers License

I started with what appears to be the “intermediate certificate” in the trust chain rooted in US citizens’ birth certificates and social security cards: the state-issued drivers license.  This form of physical identity has the following attributes:

  1. It’s highly vetted
  2. It’s issued by a state agency
  3. It has your photo and signature on it
  4. It has your address of record on it
  5. Its issuance is rooted in more deeply-entrenched forms of identification
  6. It’s not so irreplaceable that you can’t carry it with you everywhere, like you can’t with a birth certificate
  7. You must carry it with you everywhere to effectively operate in the modern world
  8. You can’t get one if you don’t already operate effectively in the modern world

As such, most other forms of daily identity proof are rooted in the state-issued drivers license.  To obtain this, I had to drive 10 miles out of town (good thing I have a car and an existing drivers’ license) to a small building where I had to write a check (no cash or credit accepted – are government agencies even permitted to not accept US currency?) to the PennDOT and surrender my Iowa license, present a Social Security card (why?) and any of the items from list A and two of the items from list B:

A

  1. Birth Certificate with raised embossed seal (not a copy)
  2. Certificate of US Citizenship
  3. Certificate of Naturalization
  4. Valid and original US passport (not a copy)

B

  1. Tax records
  2. Lease agreements
  3. Mortgage documents
  4. W2 form
  5. Current weapons permit (US citizen only)
  6. Current utility bills

Note that were I any less than a fully employed and housed person of good means (I carry a passport, and can afford a safe deposit box in which to keep my social security card, birth certificate and passport) I would have an extremely difficult time obtaining a license or photo ID in Pennsylvania (which, were it not due to the action of the ACLU, would be required to vote in an election here.)  If I didn’t have an Internet connection or at least access to a phone, I wouldn’t have been able to determine what I needed to take with me beforehand, and might have needed to make multiple trips, in the car which I thankfully own and am licensed to drive.

Luckily, the address on my check was not required to match my Pennsylvania address of residence, doubly so due to the tear in the space time continuum that would have been caused by identity in transit issue number two:

The Bank

I like credit unions- they exist to serve the membership.  The credit union I currently use in Iowa is a community credit union, meaning it has a community charter, and anyone in the area (a huge area) can use it.  I can still use it because I have existing business with them.  I want to get a new account at a credit union in Pennsylvania because I don’t want to pay ATM fees for withdrawing cash here, and I need to get a safe deposit box to put my incredibly precious and practically irreplaceable, highly combustible paper government-issued identity documents in.  The credit union here does not have a community charter, which means I need to have proof of employment at my new employer to get an account.  That’s fine, I can just do that when I start work at my new employer.  Here’s the fun one though: the credit union asked for my Pennsylvania drivers’ license.  Imagine if the drivers’ license office had decided that the address on my check (no cash, credit or Trobrian Island yams accepted!) needed to match my official Pennsylvania address of record.

Car Title

These next two things are not technically personal identity issues, although they deal with the state-issued identity of my car, which is almost as tightly controlled as the state-issued identity of me as a person.  When I went to the credit union in Iowa (which owns the lien on my car) to ask them about transferring the title to Pennsylvania, they said “don’t move to Pennsylvania.  Anywhere but Pennsylvania.  That is the worst state to transfer a title to.”  I’m not kidding, that’s verbatim.  So, clearly that’s not going to be a problem.

Vehicle Inspection

Iowa does not require any kind of periodic vehicle inspection (this shows in many of the cars on the road) and does not have what the EPA considers to be an air pollution problem, so does not require California Air Resources Board (CARB) certification.  You can legally (and actually) buy a car in Iowa that does not comply with CARB specifications.  If you take your car to Pennsylvania when you move, it’s MY2008 or newer, and it doesn’t have CARB certification, it must have over 7,500 miles on the odometer or you are out of luck, I guess.  Perhaps you could just drive to the King of Prussia Mall a few times to run up the clock before your 20 days to register your car expires.  Of course, in your formerly non-coastal, more-polluting, non-CARB-certified, extra-dinosaur-burning-mobile, that would just cause more pollution, not less.

Neighborly Identity

For the past week, we have had numerous neighbors in our condo association stop by to say “hi” – this was nice the first few times it happened.  Now it is becoming clear that they are investigating whether we are going to depreciate their property values and/or throw wild parties all night.  We are a prematurely elderly, workaholic grad student/professional couple with no kids.  Hopefully they will figure that out and stop ringing our doorbell while I’m on conference calls.

The Grocery Store

Loyalty programs abound!  They are all slightly different and all have weird different rules.  To obtain today’s lowest price on spaghetti sauce, I had to create an on-line identity at the new and different (to me) grocery store and print out a temporary loyalty card on my laser printer, which I bought at Staples, with a discount, using another loyalty card, with another on-line identity.

I understand the need to do many of these things, even most of them.  On the other hand, they are extraordinarily onerous and not at all customer-friendly.  In some cases (voter ID laws) they are blatantly and intentionally disenfranchising of certain segments of society.  That’s a problem.

Update (4/13/2013) – Title and Registration

I don’t know what the credit union thought would be so difficult about getting the title and registration transferred.  Within a couple days of me sending a form to them asking them to send the title to Pennsylvania, I had a new title issued in Pennsylvania, plus my registration and license plate.  It was probably the easiest thing to do yet.

Time To Start Paying People To Go To College

I’m becoming convinced that the increasing economic disparity in the United States is at least partially due to the radical transformation we are seeing in the availability of extremely efficient and disruptively cheap and powerful machines. Machine intelligence in the form of open-source rules engines can be downloaded and used to create expert systems that can be loaded with facts and programmed with rules to power extremely fast decision making that used to be the exclusive purview of domain expert “knowledge workers.” The effects of Moore’s Law are evident in the increasing pace of this change. Not more than 10 years ago, the solution seemed to be retraining of unskilled labor to do skilled jobs. Five years ago, we started to hear grumblings that the US was not producing enough “STEM” jobs (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – funny because US colleges and universities do educate in Science, Engineering and Math, but Engineering and Technology (especially IT) are where the jobs are at, and IT tends to be overlooked in academic circles.) Even STEM jobs, though, are starting to seem to be in danger. Economies of scale that make cloud services like Amazon EC2 and Microsoft Azure attractive for business also drive on-premises IT workers out of their jobs. These jobs are not replaced by an equal number at the cloud providers, precisely because of the scale and degree of automation of their operations.

This past week, two things happened that are tied directly to this trend: The bizeratti at the World Economic Forum in Davos are apparently convinced that higher education is in the midst of radical disruptive change due to things like Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and Paul Krugman said the increasing economic disparity in the US is due to our jobs being replaced by machines. Many of the jobs that US universities have been creating over the past 20 years have been feeders into the academic system via graduate school. The prospects for this huge number of Ph.Ds to find tenure-track jobs and retain them in the brutally competitive academic job market are not favorable. And now we are starting to see students default on their student loans because they can’t find jobs, leading to the possibility of another taxpayer-funded bailout of loans.  Those students who do get Ph.Ds face the prospect of their potential job pool being severely undercut by the scalability of MOOCs.  Why go to a local community college when you can learn about creating software as a service, in video form, from Cal Berkeley?  A core concern here: if we start creating superstar professors who teach MOOCs, and people stop attending local, “regular” colleges and universities, how will today’s graduate students get the experience they need to be tomorrow’s superstars?  If we say they must dedicate their careers to cutting-edge research instead, how will fields that are more pedagogically focused survive?  How will these future research nerds ever learn the practical skills of teaching, so they can communicate their ideas to students?

What do the rise of MOOCs, rising and defaulting student debt, lack of good jobs for highly  educated people, increasing economic disparity, and an economic system increasingly powered by arbitrage and technological tricks like high-frequency trading and hidden risk tranche-based pyramid schemes point to?

We need something real to invest in, that thing should be human fulfillment through education and the arts, and we are losing the means to pay for it because there are no jobs to support it.  I think we are transitioning to a system where the very wealthy (businesses and individuals) need to be extremely heavily taxed, world wide (so there is no place they can hide their wealth – this implies a world government to enforce it.  Let’s get over the “new world order” paranoia right now – that ship has sailed.) in order to pay the newly “job”-less class to become educated and fulfilled in other ways.  To prevent massive social disruption, this pay should likely be focused to create “artificially” high-paying jobs that will do good, things like working in organic local agriculture, renewable energy, infrastructure repair and K-20 education.  The US education system needs to be transformed to again be highly publicly-funded, and we should probably start paying people to go to school instead of charging them huge tuitions and forcing them to accrue debt they have little hope of repaying.  We should begin a project to massively publicly fund the arts, basic science research, infrastructure rebuilding and renewable energy creation.

Let’s think of ways to fix things, and let’s stop undercutting these ideas before they can work by labeling them with outdated, ignorant, reactionary 20th century wolf-whistle terms like “socialism.”  Did I just describe a totalitarian communist world government in overly-rosy terms?  My hope is that equally disruptive technologies like social networking, anonymity networks like Tor, and alternative currencies like BitCoin can put some reins on the power of government and big companies.

Update: It appears that Robert Reich is thinking about some related topics today.

Update 2: I guess there has to be some kind of system of competitiveness or incentive in order to drive people to excellence and prevent the kind of stagnation that eventually destroyed the USSR.  How that fits into this proposed new system is not clear to me.  I suspect it’s do-able, especially if we do not eliminate the free market, but instead tax it at a reasonable rate.  The media and culture would also need to be gradually changed to make intellectualism a highly valued trait.  Superprofessor MOOC instructors with huge followings might go a long way toward that goal.  Can you imagine a world in which Larry Lessig is more famous than LeBron James?  That seems like a good thing to me.