Player Piano

Kurt Vonnegut’s 1952 novel “Player Piano” was more than his first. It was arguably the first “dystopian utopia” novel of a world carefully described and proscribed for everyone involved. Those with technical degrees were the masters of the carefully planned world, and the rest either joined the army or worked for the “Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps” building infrastructure. Government took care of everyone, but not all were happy. Rebellion steeped under the calm surface in both the working class and the unchallenged rulers.

It’s hard to not think of such a world when reading “AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs” from the Pew Research Center and Elon University. A survey of 1,896 experts in technical areas were asked what they thought the future world of employment might look like – how much automation might displace workers and how many jobs it might create. The results read something like Vonnegut imagined – enough so that a little anxiety about the next economy is justified.

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Six (more) Things Schools Should Teach

In Junior High I had a class on typing. We meandered to a windowless room full of the clickety-crunch churn of IBM Selectric typewriters, set out in rows on tables. Each had the solid ca-CHUNK keys that let you know that you hit one, even when you became proficient and fast on the things.

It seems like it was the era of the dinosaurs describing it to kids today. They’ve never even seen such a device.

But as antique as it seems, the training was important. I was ready to pick up a computer keyboard and move ahead when they became standard. Like the use of cc: to mean “carbon copy” on an email, the old system trained me well for what was to come next. Old ways often form a bedrock for learning in a world that is redefining itself all the time.

Here is a short list of items I think that we should continue to teach in schools, antique as they may seem. Many simply became lost in the desire to goose standardized test scores, which is pathetic.  These are not only still relevant, they may become moreso in surprising ways in the years ahead. And that may point to new ways to teach them, too.

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A New Cold War?

Are the clouds of a new “Cold War” gathering over Russia and the US? A member of the Russian Duma has declared as much, and it’s resonating through the world for one simple reason – it sure seems right. Sanctions are starting to bite hard throughout Europe as the ties that were formed since the last Cold War ended 25 years ago slowly meandered towards integration.

But was the integration of Russia, and for that matter China, really such a good thing in the first place? Many nations around the world don’t share the same values as the West and stand in competition to what we value as an open society. Clouds of war challenge not just our relations, but the very soul of what we as a people value most dearly. And we value it because it makes us who we are.

It’s called “Social Capital”. It is the fruits of an open society. The parts of the world that aren’t ready for it will always be in conflict with us over it, and we are at our best when we don’t forget it.

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Tea & Coffee

Picture yourself in England at the start of Queen Victoria’s reign.  If you have some skills as a part of the growing middle class, things look better every day.  That life comes in part from unskilled workers driven into the growing (and filthy) cities who are more productive than ever before.  The great symbol of the improving standard of living greets you in the morning as a cup of this once luxury beverage, tea.  It comes from China, traded under the barrel of the guns of the Royal Navy through the new colony of Hong Kong.  The latest in technology, the Clipper Ship, brings it to you with great speed and makes it possible to run this enterprise at a distance.   The sun never sets on the British Empire, and tea is both its greatest commodity and emblem of success.

Today, in the waning daze of the American Empire that isn’t an empire, things could hardly be different even as they are the same.  Coffee is the beverage of choice for 54% in the US.   It has always been the workingman’s drink, but it is moving more yupscale – even though 35% of us still drink it black (as it is meant to be, damnit).  It is shipped from tropical, underdeveloped nations in unromantic cargo containers as the second most traded commodity in the world by value ($15B per year), behind only oil.  The nations that produce it are rapidly urbanizing into filthy cities.  The trade is managed over the internet by a cadre of traders and speculators.

History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes like a street poet hitting a beat.

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Wackos with Guns

The pictures and stories coming from Donetsk, Ukraine, are horrifying. Bodies flung from Malaysia Air flight 17 have been lying in the fields right where they fell from the sky, rotting in the summer sun for days. Wreckage is everywhere, some of it disturbed in what appears to be looting as much as recovery. How can this happen?

The short answer is that the area is not under the control of any organized or trained government, but held by a group of separatists with guns. Some have been described as “visibly intoxicated” as they fired into the air to shoo off international investigators. It seems ridiculous, but the families – indeed, the entire world – is being held hostage by a few wackos with guns.

That’s the state of the world right now as we all draw much closer. A little bit of chaos in one part of the planet affects everyone – even when the number of people involved is small.

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James Garner

The 1970s were a tough decade on everyone. Everything was changing rapidly as a new generation came of age in the wake of social and political turmoil. Television had given us characters like Archie Bunker so that we could laugh at how ridiculous it was to hold onto the gone away glory days, but laughing wasn’t enough. To a young kid soon to make his way into this new world pop culture needed to offer something more profound yet subversively simple.

“The Rockford Files” started in 1974 as one of many detective shows that were popular diversions away from the chaos. It quickly became a vehicle for the talent, the personality, and in a sly way the values of its star, Jame Garner. Garner’s death today at age 86 brings back a flood of memories from Friday night TV time with Dad, but there was more than that to him. James Garner taught my generation what it meant to be a man.

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One State Solution

A group of mourners arrived to express their condolences and support for the family of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who was killed in revenge for the death of three Israeli teens. But they were not family or even friends – they weren’t necessarily welcome. They were Israelis reaching out to perform their own “Tikkun Olam”, or fixing the world. When asked if it was hard,  one offered her reason for beig there.  “Maybe,” she said. But, she added, “I think the peace will come from the people, not from our leaders.”

This may be more than just a gesture of grace. It may be the start of something bigger, something even more than the peace sought by the mourners. A lasting peace means a permanent arrangement that promotes peace – justice, order, respect, and cooperation. It may be different than anyone has contemplated in a long time.

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