Read all about it

Day 101: Tuesday

Morning Tim!

I lament not writing sooner. It’s been far too long.

We had a sermon this past Sunday that I found interesting. It was ultimately about grace, and the blessing that it is. He gave an example that resonated with me, and I wanted to share.

The story is about a man, watching a sporting even at the top of the stadium. Eager for the game and wanting to take part to the full, he grabs a plate of nachos and a beer. As the game goes on, so too do the beers. The team is losing, he is frustrated. He continues to cheer. Cheer and drink. The game passes, the home team notching a loss

The game passes, the home team notching a loss. The man stays after, finishing his last sip. At this point, many have started to pour out of the stadium. He looks down, like tiny ants they seem. He slips over the railing, and falls, bottle clinched in his hand.

This is like all of us, the story would go. We are all eager for the game of life, and as the innings go on, we find bad things can happen. The sin in our life, like the cup, pries its way into our senses, first impairing the way we see then being the lens through which we do so.

But that’s not where the story ends. It has two possible endings. Read like a newspaper, it could go one of two ways.

Imagine the owner of the building knew this kind of thing happened. He prepped for it — perhaps with a large circus net over the railing. Maybe even a giant jet-pack, binoculars in hand, ready to scour the skies as necessary.

One way this story ends is without this owner. The story, if made about us, reads poorly. “Drunken man freefalls to death, clinging to vice”. Perhaps slightly nicer, depending on the paper you read — but that’s the gist.

The other way is with the owner. The story dramatically changes. Not only is the man saved, the drunken man isn’t a central figure at all. Instead, having faded to the background, the story tells of a hero who, without any contribution from me, the drunken man, saved a life that was otherwise in ruin, otherwise headed directly to a dark end.

I’m not sure why this resonated so well. Perhaps because, as with most of us, I love to make things about me. Reading in a newspaper what ‘me’ gets is sad, though. Perhaps it was the way the story reads to give full credit, inspiring others who were to read that paper about the one they should emulate. Perhaps it’s because there is an acknowledgement that we are blessed — but that we also get thirsty. If we aren’t regularly drinking of a cup other than that of sin, we will choose to quench our thirst some other way.

Until tomorrow,

Zak

Suspected bibliophile

Day 44: Thursday

Morning, Tim!

Tim, It should be obvious to long standing Thily Fin readers that you are quite the avid reader. Not only do you regularly write and cite poetry, you also go into roots and philology. Hopefully you don’t (regularly, at least) fall prey to the Etymological Fallacy

What readers may not know is that I have (outside of Thily Fin) accused Tim of liking old books (note to readers: if you did know this…well I guess I don’t want to think about that scenario). Tim has adamantly denied that he likes old books simply for the sake that they are old – it is the content that matters. In other words, he wouldn’t judge a book by its old cover…

Now Tim, I came across this article and found it particularly intriguing. You see, a man checked out some library books throughout the year, similarly perhaps to how you and our readers might use libraries. He was a bit different, though. To paint a fuller picture, he checked out over 2300 books!! That’s quite remarkable. Importantly, his motive was a bit paradoxical. Because books infrequently checked out fall prey to algorithms (blast you, technology!) which help cull dated material to create room for the new, he was checking these books out to ensure they did not leave the shelves. However, he also wanted these books to be read by future patrons – to get taken off the shelves. I’m sure the authorities pointed out this wonderful logic “WHICH IS IT?! DO YOU WANT THEM ON THE SHELVES OR NOT?! Guess he couldn’t make up his mind…

That’s a silly little spew of consciousness. The other, perhaps more interesting take on the story, is a warning. Tim, when I first saw this story, I immediately thought the culprit might by you, secretly embarrassed by the voracity with which you bring to learning. Unwilling to confess your secret, you created this story to throw everyone off the scent, only to have it backfire with repercussions. Thankfully I realized it couldn’t possibly be you — 2300 books is way too few.

Until tomorrow,

Zak

Blessed, with Responsibility

Day 30: Friday

Morning, Tim!

Depending on how you count it, we’ve been at it for a month! I figured I’d count it this way so that I could note it before you did (though you could have made a claim regarding “But February only has…” A missed opportunity…).

[…] Close our eyes and imagine somewhere we would like to be if we could be anywhere in the world.  When we opened our eyes he asked if the place anyone had imagined was room 312 YC high school.  I was the only one who raised their hand.  Maybe I was over thinking things, but if I really wanted to be somewhere else, wouldn’t I just get up and leave?

Decisions are a challenging thing. To be fair to your 14 year old classmates, I wonder if they really did have the power to go where they’d like. Perhaps some thought “man, I’d love to be at tacobell!” (depending on the hour of your class, perhaps Starbucks…). But others probably imagined the word Italy (it’s probably hard to imaging if you haven’t gone) or somewhere foreign – and where was a 14 year old to get the means to travel to Italy? Even getting up and leaving wouldn’t get them there. And so of course they sat in class, for that’s what they were told to do, many with the hope that life would be a long conditional. “If I do this [e.g. sit in school like I’m told], I’ll get to do that [e.g. go on vacation where I’d like, or perhaps even live there depending on my willingness to dream…]”

Or you could be an odd boy, realizing this train of thought, and….suggested that this was the place you wanted to be. I was that boy too…

Leaving your work would be an administrative decision that you make about the infrastructure of your life.  We don’t make those kind of decisions on a daily basis.

You don’t state it explicitly, but your discussion of decisions, infrastructure life decisions in particular, seems to lean toward an inability in at least some cases to truly make these changes. There are people who can make them (e.g. Jim Koch founded Sam Adams brewery after being fed up with consulting – but it was precisely because he was a management consultant that he was in a position to quit). In cases such as these, he describes them as scary but not dangerous; not dangerous because the other option was dangerous – looking back at 65 and wondering why he spent his whole life doing management consulting when that’s not what he wanted to do. I can appreciate this line of thought – I have been blessed with opportunities; while I work hard, I also know I’m lucky to be in the position I am.

In other cases, though, it is dangerous to make those infrastructure changes. For a single mom with three kids, there isn’t much room for adventure in the job market, nor to simply “get up and leave” because the consequences mount so high – hungry kids, an unpaid mortgage, utility bills mounting. Or, much worse, someone in a war-torn country who can’t leave because they literally can’t. They have nowhere to take refuge, no country to take them in.

Obviously you know all of this; I’m merely reflecting on decisions, infrastructure choices in particular. Reflecting on the choices I deliberate over…

I feel blessed to be able to even have the options I have in my choices. I also wonder what responsibility comes along with those options…

Until Monday,

Zak

p.s. I hope you chose to join the choir. Also if you do, I’ll anticipate a good picture of you doing some handshaking…

Ugh. I hate lines (but…what to do without them?)

Day 22: Tuesday

Morning, Tim!

If my recollection of English is correct, your use of ‘literal’ is mostly a  taunt, valiantly attempting to have me tirade about unusual incorrect usage and usages. I won’t take the bait – just know I’m watching you closely. That said, I’m watching you closely mostly because you got a haircut from a stylist not named Monique, not because of your taunts. Italy is really changing you…

A couple weeks ago I touched a bit on automation, attempting to detail some thoughts on the tech industry’s moral obligation to bring others along with them. Rather than simply displace workers from jobs, the industry as a whole should help think carefully about the society being created when these jobs are gone and how people can not only make a living but also live meaningful lives contributing to societal flourishing.

Amazon announced the soon to be public launch of their Amazon Go store concept. Watch the video below – it’s worth the couple of minutes.

Now to be clear, this is one store that isn’t yet open to the public. But the implications are glaring. There are 3.5 million people working in cashier jobs in the US alone. I’m not sure how it’s counted, but you also have people managing those cashiers and in the case of grocery stores those bagging the purchases. That’s a lot of people to displace.

And to be sure the technology will have some kinks to work out and some frustrations of it’s own. There will need to be a clear way to get assistance if something isn’t coming “off the cart” if you put it back (consumer frustration) or ensure everything is being charged (retailer frustration). But in the long run, if it really is using self-enforcing and learning tech as described, the thousands of data points gleaned every day add up and the experience improves, driving more people to use the service. Moreover, if their massive scale and logistical distribution advantages weren’t enough, the real advantage here comes when looking at costs – investing in the (essentially) fixed costs of running the tech allows Amazon to out-compete others who have to use labor. And as hinted at above, it’s not just grocery that gets impacted – there’s no reason to believe similar technology couldn’t be put into clothing retail, gas stations, convenience stores, etc.

I write this thoroughly torn about how to feel. From a tech innovation perspective, I’m all for it. People unproductively standing in lines is a real problem to be solved – time that could be spent building relationships over tea or writing comics about math (this is the kind of friendship we have, Tim!) or observing the beauty in nature. But there are other real-world implications, meaning people may not have jobs to work to pay their way through school or to support their families or to simply make a few extra bucks so they can go hang out with their friends on the weekends.

And I don’t have any answers. I don’t even have thoughts in the right direction, yet. But being attentive to what is happening and having it sit on the mind, discussing it with friends – that I can do. Let me know when you’ve figured it out, Tim…

Until tomorrow,

Zak

p.s. I really liked your pigeons rummaging.

p.p.s. If the Amazon Go thing comes to fruition, I have serious angst about having to travel back through stores to put groceries back rather than simply placing my unwanted rice bag on top of the canned soup section. And before you say “aww you’re that guy! Put it back yourself” I’ll pe-empt with a “Hey I’m giving someone a job!”…

Confirmation bias; sources of information

Day 12: Tuesday

Morning, Tim!

Cleverness has your way with words. I could mean no one has your way with words (which is likely taken as a compliment but, taken literally is just a truism) or I could mean a large bearded man, a legend, a king has a way with words that is similar to your way with words. I’ll let you decide, Tim.

I wanted to follow up a bit on my fake news letter, and not only because I just enjoyed a wonderful cup of Indian Nimbu tea (which isn’t really relevant, but I’ve started drinking tea again and have a strong desire to continue advertising that fact to you). Specifically, I wanted to bring into question how you get your information. Being historically loose, a while back information would come by word of mouth, written letters, and, if noteworthy enough, a newspaper. Because of the distribution costs, the ‘local’ paper tended toward a monopoly, which made sense for their business model; selling ads meant they wanted the most readers, and being a trustworthy source that got the paper on the doorstep in a timely manner, covering what needed to be known in the day ensured that. Fast forward, you have TV producers vying to be the source of truth through morning and nightly news casts. Then, in the age of the internet, company’s began to reproduce the content they had on paper in little bits so everyone could read. Now-a-days, a TON of people get their news by scrolling through a feed of paid placement, shared content, and created content (Facebook, in case you hadn’t guessed or clicked on my link, Tim…). But before there was Facebook, Google dominated (and still does) by being a different kind of source. Rather than being a push, where the user is passive in the receiving of information, Google requires the user to be an active participant, pulling the information (quick aside, that’s why their ads do so well; it’s why Amazon paid so much to become the place people ended up when they needed to buy something and why ultimately they have become the (trusted) starting place [even more so than search engines] for all things intended for purchase.)

How does this all relate to fake news, you ask? A few different ways. First, in today’s world, when distribution costs are 0 because of the internet, the newspaper monopolies of old suddenly are competing with everyone globally — a content creator in London, Hong Kong, a tiny little farm town, and you, Tim, are all competing for the eye-space of the same readers.

In a pull world, the incentives align to be the best source of truth, the source that someone can go to reliably time and time again. They’d bookmark you, or in the case of Amazon, this would bear itself out by how people start their shopping. In a push world, however, incentives are different; because the ads are being sold and pushed directly to you, it’s competing for eye-space not by being the best, but by drawing in your attention. It means you have click-bait headlines, and news which is polarizing in order to get a reaction. If you strongly agree, great! Share it as truth (whether it’s real news or fake news, confirmation bias often provides nice blinders). If you strongly disagree? Great! Share again, but this time with commentary about how wrong it is. For the content producer (and Facebook as a source where people go to get information pushed to them), the incentives are to gain the most attention, sustaining that for longer and longer periods of time. Facebook doesn’t have an opinion on what is “right” or on what “should” have that attention; so long as it’s on their platform, they are making money, be it a photo album from vacation to Italy, a link to some quotations, or some clickbait about this Awesome Blog That Writes About Crazy Topics You Won’t Believe!!! But while Facebook isn’t incentivized to have an opinion on what you focus attention on, it has created the platform which enables others to polarize, much of which is getting attention in recent news about filter bubbles and fake content.

One quick note before signing off an already lengthy letter. There is a bunch of talk about the bad that could and does come of this (people reading, believing, and sharing things that aren’t true but that shape their opinion; people reading only things they agree with because they are surrounded by people like them, and thus beginning to think another point of view unfathomable; etc.). On the bright side, living in a world where distribution costs are 0, it means theoretically all those people focusing their attention on Facebook could be reading articles about the New York Times and their wonderful journalism…or they could be reading some quickly written letter to my brother-in-law. And it also means that they could be reading about something that wouldn’t otherwise be covered — a niche like a post about quiche, or perhaps a deeper dive at social issues that wouldn’t otherwise be covered because  they are taboo, difficult to read about, or those covering them simply do not understand the issues.C4C4E4A9-363E-4112-97D0-11964D9AC29F.jpg

Until tomorrow,

Zak