What I’m reading this week: “Rise of the Robots,” by Martin Ford.
Humans have a love-hate relationship with automation. We love automation when it gives us dishwashers, washing machines, and robot vacuum cleaners to relieve the drudgery of menial labors. But we hate automation when it enables telemarketers to endlessly spam our phones, corporations to displace real people’s jobs, and tech companies to surveil our every movement.
Pop culture is replete with nightmare visions of cold robot overlords taking over the world on one hand, and utopian dreams of effortless lives and limitless adventures supported by faithful robot servants on the other. The truth is probably somewhere in between— although robots themselves may never rule the world, the people and organizations who control the most powerful robots almost certainly will.
“Rise of the Robots,” written by economist Martin Ford is a detailed analysis of the current state of play. Will robots dominate society? The answer is yes, they already do. The more pertinent question right now is, who will control the robots? Ford’s book explores this question with skill and keeps it interesting, aside from a few sections that get out into the technical weeds. (He is an economist, after all.) An eye-opening look at the value and risks of living in a roboticized world.
Conquered. Occupied. Stripped of power and privilege. Dick’s classic 1962 novel imagines life in an America that lost World War II. The Nazis and Japanese fascists have conquered the United States and divided it into territories, the spoils of war, over which they rule supreme. The Pacific States are controlled by fascist Japan– the South and East states, by Nazi Germany. The Rocky Mountain states lay in between, dismissed and overlooked, a no-mans land where the German and Japanese superpowers struggle for power in a diplomatic Cold War.
Much of the action takes place in San Francisco and the west coast. It’s a horrifying world fraught with deception, cruelty, greed and prejudice cloaked in banality and extreme cultural control. In this nightmare world, the dream of an alternative universe in which the United States England, and Russia won the war captures the imaginations of millions-— sparked by a wildly popular book-within-a-book that describes this mirror world in vivid detail. The book’s central characters struggle to reconcile these twin visions, which are more alike than not, as the plot drives them inexorably toward the climactic confrontation with the book-within-a-book’s author, the Man in the High Castle.
Written in the 1960s, Dick’s novel remains a work of genius however its blunt style and raw depictions of deep-seated racial animus raise the question of how it would be received if it was written in today’s world of reactionary divisiveness and identity politics. Another question is whether he intended his book to be a subtle indictment of the post World War II new world order of the 1960s, which at the time had its own forms of social control, cruelty, deception, greed, and prejudice. The novel’s descriptions of what American life might be like under fascist control leaves no question that a German/Japanese victory would have led to a dystopian hellscape of a society. Yet it subtly hints at a third way, between the darkness and the light, for which we all unconsciously yearn, yet which may only ever be a dream.
The Google search box is the new confessional box for a digital age. A place where deepest fears and forbidden wishes find new, unfiltered expression. In this new confessional, we don’t seek salvation— we seek information. And the questions we ask it often reveal things about us that were previously hidden, or misunderstood.
Subtitled, “Big data, new data, and what the internet can tell us about who we really are,” this book was written by a former Google data scientist who uses “confessional” search data on a vast scale to draw new insight into the human condition. It’s a fascinating and compelling work which kept me reading from cover to cover in one day.
I could quibble with the author’s overconfidence in the power of internet search data to accurately depict people’s true selves, because I believe that our relationship with the digital world is fundamentally a charade, and will one day come to be seen as such. But for now, the newness and sheer volume of this new form of data is electrifying and groundbreaking, and has great potential to shed new light on the previously dark corners of the human psyche. I eagerly look forward to the author’s planned sequel in which he intends to dive deeper into the “small data” that lives between the topline trends. 🔎
I’m bracing myself for a deep dive into this book, which is billed as an unflinching look at the dangers tech leviathans Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon pose to human freedom and self-determination. Author Franklin Foer is the former editor of the liberal New Republic magazine. He was hired in that role shortly after the magazine was bought by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes in 2012. It was a time when clickbait was ascendant and few people understood (or cared about) the extent of personal data collection taking place. The book has its defenders and detractors. Bouncing around the various reviews of the book, pro and con, is not unlike wading through a contentious Facebook comment thread. I’m looking forward to reading it myself so I can form my own opinion 🤔📖
When it comes to drugs, the most powerful one I’ve ever tried, by far, is morphine. I’ve tried others; there’s no honor in pretending otherwise. But it was morphine that helped me understand the true allure — and consequence — of humanity’s long, thorny love affair with mind-altering substances.
Before my experience with morphine, I thought that different kinds of mind-altering substances had different purposes: alcohol to relax; marijuana to alter perspective; tobacco to ease stress; pain-killers to, well, kill the pain. After my experience with morphine, I came to understand that mind-altering substances actually have only one true purpose, which they never achieve: to kill pain. So many different kinds of pain. Physical pain, emotional pain, psychological pain, social pain. The human condition is defined by pain. We are born with it, we live with it, and it lives on in our loved ones after we are gone.
With morphine, I learned that it is not possible to kill pain. One can prevent it, or failing that, delay it — but eventually we all must endure it. What morphine does frighteningly well is put the pain on a very long, very distant, and very soothing layaway. And when it comes due, it comes with a substantial amount of interest.
I wouldn’t be alive today without the modern anesthetics and pharmaceuticals that made it possible for neurosurgeons to slice open my head, vaporize a section of my skull using an insanely fast surgical drill, cut through the labyrinth of my inner ear to expose the nerve bundle behind it, and delicately resect (cut out) the strawberry-sized tumor that had grown around the nerve bundle the way an old tree grows around the wires of a chain link fence. I would have died from the intense pain; I would have died from the trauma; I would have died from infection. There are a thousand reasons why I shouldn’t be alive today, but here I am. And one of my biggest heroes of the whole painful and terrifying affair, besides my wife, my children, my parents and extended family, my friends, my employer, my health insurance, and my amazing, god-like surgical team, was morphine.
The full force of a massive and thunderous waterfall falling directly onto the right side of my head, which is pinned against a rock at the bottom. A hydraulic press bearing down with four tons of force, merciless and unrelenting. A thousand watts of microwave energy screaming pain and emanating inward from the furthest reaches of space, yet outward at the same time. I felt magnitudes of pain after my surgery. I never forgot for a moment it was there. I could see it and touch it in my mind, painfully and viscerally, and I didn’t care. The morphine drip took care of it. The morphine didn’t erase the pain. The pain was still vivid, torrential, devastating. The pain was shredding me into millions of jagged strips that I would never put together in the same way ever again. I just didn’t care about it at the moment.
I tell myself that I am a lucky person, because I have figured out the key to my life: F-sharp, or sometimes G-flat, depending on my mood. It’s the tone that accompanies my day, every moment of my waking life, and deep into the hours I spend asleep.
Ten years ago, the living mechanism that transmits sounds from my right ear to my brain was purposefully destroyed. What may be most surprising about this violent and irreversible act is that when it happened and I lost my hearing on one side forever, I was more grateful than I ever have been in my life. This is because it quite literally saved my life.
But I’d be lying if I said I don’t still feel the loss. I feel it every day, some days to the point of tears, because I’m reminded of it every day, every second of my life — loudly.
Press play to hear what tinnitus sounds like. Remember to turn up the sound on your device. Be careful – the sound can be loud and irritating. This audio is the best approximation I could find of the constant ringing sound I personally “hear.” My personal volume is set between six and seven. Audio file courtesy of American Tinnitus Association
It’s true that the mechanism of my inner ear, called the labyrinth, cannot transmit any sound to my brain — not even a nuclear blast would register even the tiniest audio signal in my right ear because my labyrinth on that side doesn’t function. Still, the brain is nothing if not inscrutable at times, and often responds to signal changes in unpredictable ways.
The day my right ear went deaf to external sounds, I began to “hear” a new sound from within. I began to hear, quite clearly and loudly, the sound of F-sharp (or G-flat), ringing true and high above a constant haze of static noise. So far my brain has held that note uninterrupted for ten years. I’m placing my bet that it will hold for the rest of my life. I hope it lasts a long, long time.
The doctor called me the morning after my MRI scan. Her voice was calm and soothing but purposeful. “I’d like you to come in so we can review the results of your MRI together. Does 2:30 this afternoon work for you and your wife to come in? Very good, I’ll see you then.” She said more than just these words during the call. But of all her carefully framed expressions, these left the most vivid and indelible impressions on the canvas of my memory. We immediately made arrangements for my parents to watch our children, and made the journey to the doctor’s office that afternoon.
They’re passé now, but there was a time when everyone wanted a flip-phone. They were the ultimate in hip and sleekness, a major upgrade from the old “brick” phones. Being able to call people up whenever you wanted, from wherever you were in any given moment — that was an awesome new freedom. And flipping it open and shut was such a cool feeling, like having a Star Trek communicator (if you’re into that), or like being an international jet-setter closing million dollar deals from the deck of your yacht (if you’re into that).
Back in those days, I mainly used my flip-phone to take photos of my children and to talk to my wife while I commuted long miles home from work. My boys were very young at the time, and talking to my wife about the events of their day was by far the best part of my long, slow evening drive across the bridge over San Francisco Bay. Back then, there were no “hands-free” driving laws. In bumper-to-bumper traffic, every other driver had a phone stuck to the side of their face, myself included. It was awesome, and more dangerous than anyone knew at the time.
The other awesome (and dangerous) thing about flip-phones was the camera. I loved being able to take as many pictures as I wanted without developing every shot. Plus, I could upload and share pictures with others — that was a completely new and amazing freedom back then. I started my Facebook account for the sole purpose of uploading photos of my kids, because it was the easiest way to get the photos out of my flip-phone and onto a computer.
Some people think that cell phones can cause brain tumors. Others have gone to great lengths to assure us that they don’t. I personally don’t think that modern cell phones pose a significant risk of brain tumors. To be honest, I wonder but don’t know how much risk there was ten or twelve years ago, back in the wild-and-woolly days of flip-phones.
One thing I remember very clearly is the warm sensation I would feel deep inside my ear after talking on my flip-phone for a long time. But that may simply have been because the phone was warm, and my ear was warm, and two warm things tend to warm each other up even more, when they’re held closely to each other.
Cell phones are a truly great and revolutionary human invention. There seems to be no limit to the technological advancement the human race is capable of achieving. I hope and believe in my heart that this statement is true. I hope that it stays true, and comes true. If within my lifetime the next great human invention is an actual working time machine, one of the first things I’d use it for would be to go back in time to 2005 and tell past-me to never put a flip-phone to my ear ever again. Just to be safe.
“This is an impressive room,” I blurted out through a murky yet uniquely crisp haze of hospital-grade sedative. The operating room gave me the impression of a space capsule’s cockpit, with densely arranged lights and stainless steel instruments and complicated gauges and monitors crowding the walls and suspended from the ceiling all around, except this rocket ship’s cockpit was the size of a living room and everything was focused on a large white operating bed in the center. The room was filled with at least a dozen surgeons in blue surgical gear and masks, standing elbow-to-elbow each at his or her respective station and instruments. They all turned their heads and faced the doorway when I entered the room clothed in a hospital gown and uttered my comment. They paused for only a fraction of a second before turning their backs to their preparations.
Hayward’s new library is taking shape. Crews have begun installing massive glass panels for the three story front window. Primarily built of steel, concrete, glass, and terracotta and powered by solar energy produced onsite, the 21st Century Library is the most environmentally sustainable public building ever to begin construction in Hayward. I feel incredibly fortunate to have a front row seat to its construction – from the window of my office in the old library across the street.
Technology can do so many things, but lest we get carried away, we should always remember that paper is good, and it’s definitely here to stay. Here’s thirty seconds of brilliant advertising which illustrates that perfectly:
Did you know that people who read books in their free time are also more likely to attend a sports event? And readers are over two-and-a-half times more likely to volunteer in their community. Reading books is good not just for the reader, but for the community and the economy. So today, put down your smartphone and close your laptop for one hour, and put your face in a book.
The latest issue of Rotary International’s monthly magazine The Rotarianfeatures a cover story on the allure of books by “negative-styled humorist” and Wall Street Journal columnist Joe Queenan. Of particular note are the accompanying photo illustrations, which I found to be as intriguing and thought-provoking as the article itself.
As a proud member of my local Rotary club, I know how much Rotary supports reading and literacy in communities around the world. For example, here in Hayward the Rotary club raises over $20,000 each year to provide a children’s dictionary to every third grader in Hayward — all 2,200 of them. As a librarian, I know that studies show that children who have access to books in their home do better in school, go farther in their educations, and earn more in later life. But as a Rotarian, for me the best part of the dictionary project is simpler than that — it’s seeing these children’s faces light up when they first get their dictionaries and start leafing through the pages. These dictionaries are beautiful hardcover editions, filled with gorgeous full color photos and illustrations, almost like single-volume encyclopedias. And when we tell them that these books are theirs to keep, the looks of delight and amazement on their faces… well, it is a priceless moment. And when they ask, why is Rotary giving us these books?, the answer is equally priceless — because we care about you, we care about kids in our community, and we want you have everything you need to learn and grow and do your very best in school.
That connection, that passing of the torch of knowledge is one of the essential joys of reading. Learning is a lifelong adventure that deepens and enriches our lives in so many ways. And we all have a part to play in paying it forward to the next generation through the enduring power of books.
Rotary International has 1.2 million members in more than 34,000 clubs worldwide. Rotary members volunteer in communities in every corner of the globe, at home and abroad to support education and job training, provide clean water, combat hunger, improve health and sanitation, and eradicate polio. To learn more, and to find a Rotary club in your community, visit www.rotary.org.