The New Yeoman

Thoughts on Making a Living

Wait a Cotton Picking Minute

From the most excellent Virginia Postrel, “A Slow Motion Robot Takeover.” The robotization of cotton picking and the surprising automation facts of a job nobody wants to do.

I could not agree more with, “Radiologists and store employees have better, more intrinsically human ways to use their work time. … When such mind-numbing tasks disappear, few people will mourn their passing, any more than the children of sharecroppers long to spend their summers hoeing weeds and their autumns pulling cotton bolls.”

Three takeaways,

  1. Full automation was impossible without years of tinkering.
  2. The robot takeover created opportunities.
  3. Even when automation is unquestionably a net benefit, there are losers.

To that 3rd point,

How to help displaced workers is a hard problem. Government checks may save people from destitution but they can also encourage them to stay too long in declining towns—a lesson to those who see the universal basic income as an easy solution to technological unemployment. Adaptation requires more than money.

This concept is not popular among the people who constantly lament the loss of “good jobs” that involve repetitive manual or mental labor, but we humans are made for more.We carry around this heavy lump of gray matter on our pencil-necks for a reason. When we accept mindless jobs as the only legitimate goal for a huge swath of the population, we lessen our humanity. And a universal basic income to do nothing is not the answer either.  We need to quit writing off people as helpless to this technological progress and start delivering much more hard hitting messages about the future of work and education.

Paul Stinnett, A Yeoman to be Missed

Paul Stinnett – The New Yeoman who inspired me

Paul was a logger for most of his life and he owned Stinnett Logging in Fredonia, Kentucky. He died on the job at the age of 72 and may God bless me with the same fate. He and my Aunt Faye owned Stinnett’s grocery in the old river port town of Dycusburg for years as well. If you have ever imagined a country store in your mind, you’ve seen Stinnett’s Grocery. It was a hub of activity for a rural area where supermarkets are tens of miles away. Paul was a member and active congregant at Dycusburg Baptist Church.

Paul Stinnett, 1 February 1946 – 2 February 2018

Paul Stinnett was my uncle by marriage to my mother’s sister, Faye Stinnett. He was always kind to me and took interest in me when he did not have to. Unknown to him, he set the standard for how I was to treat my wife’s nieces and nephew. I’ve always thought you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat non-blood aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews — those binds that can tie if we let them. When you are young, you expect people to be good to you. But as you grow older, you realize that this world is not always good and you learn to appreciate it more. In reality, you begin to understand that people like Paul Stinnett are the only thing standing between a community and a damned mess.

Also unknown to Paul was that he was my model of an ideal man in the art of making a living. Thomas Jefferson thought that America would be a great republic, because of yeoman farmers. These were people who made a living on their own and held a community together without needing a government to step in and do it for them. They did not hold jobs, they made jobs for themselves and others. They created value out of thin air and strong backs. They served their community; They didn’t take from it. All they ever asked for was for the good Lord to allow them to get out of bed each morning. They would provide the day long effort of feeding their families and building a community that would help each other. Paul Stinnett was the modern manifestation of Jefferson’s ideal and thank God for him.

The world is a poorer place today than yesterday, because Paul Stinnett is gone. However, know this for sure… Yesterday, and the seventy-two years prior to it, was a damn sight better than we had right to expect, because of Paul Stinnett.

If you would like to contribute to Paul Stinnett’s legacy, please consider sending a donation to my Aunt Faye Stinnett to help with the upkeep the cemetery that Paul and Faye have administered for years. My parents and many of my relatives are also buried there.

Send donations to:

Dycusburg Cemetery Fund,

c/o Faye Stinnett,

202 Stinnett Rd., Fredonia, KY 42411.

Truck Drivers and Autonomous Driving

Photo Credit: By Steve Jurvetson [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Dan Hanson’s comment over at Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution discussion on sel-driving trucks is spot on. In The New Yeoman’s humble opinion, predictions of wide-scale job losses due to automation show a remarkable lack of understanding of the complexities of most human filled jobs, especially those involving “routine operations” which may be one of the greatest misnomers of all time.

Scope & Tech Hucksters

For those of you who are rolling their eyes right now, let me clarify that I am not saying automation and autonomous vehicles will not “eat” (seemingly the preferred IT term) parts of many jobs, maybe even the biggest parts. However, I generally find that automation and software engineers, by necessity, have to carve out the parts they cannot deal with initially. Then, like all projects, the communications and the terminology overtake the actual scope of the project. What was seen as a limited-scope project with a long-term objective of replacement becomes the “replacement” project. Of course, that is even before the Tech Hucksters get involved.

Why is Customer Service not totally automated yet?

In one of my fields of customer service, the human component has grown considerably while the industry has been simultaneously introducing self-help features at an exponential rate over the last 15 years. Much like Mr Hanson mentions, customer service departments have many of the advantages of factory environments when considering controlled variables, so it is somewhat of an ideal environment for automation. So, why aren’t we done with customer service automation?

Truck Drivers and Autonomous Driving

What I am about to mention is a touchy subject. I also see in some autonomous tech advocates a dismissal of the intelligence of routine operators such as truck drivers or taxi drivers. (See the Uber boss videos with randomly met Uber drivers) We have a problem of both sides not understanding the other. The routine operators often see the automators as egg-heads with no common sense and the the automators see the operators as simpletons who were not smart enough to be one of them. The difference is that many operators do not write press releases or tech articles that the press seem so fascinated by. A warehouse that ships goods? Boring. An Amazon warehouse? Where do I sign up for the tour!

Note to automators; the fact that you scoped out a particular feature does not make it go away. In some ways, it is a very real acknowledgement that the people doing the current job are critical to the functioning of the modern world.

Note to operators; embrace the history of automation. The automation will probably make your remaining job more interesting as long as you don’t mind lifelong learning to stay relevant.

Skynet Smiles, Because Skynet is Still a Simpleton

Until a tech solution can take on the whole operational issue in one gulp, the real issue is not whether there are going to be any human jobs, but will the humans have the skills to fill the (voluminous) jobs that remain. We’ve got a long way to go before Skynet takes over, folks.

Social Media Awkward

Reading this, I thought… is it weird that some of the most socially awkward people on the planet designed  “social media?” What does it say about us that we succumbed to it?

 

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Confucius on the Higher Type of Man

In my morning reading, I stumbled upon two very different passages that presented a  great connection for me.

Confucius, from The Analects – Book II, Chapter XII

The Master said; “The higher type of man is not a machine.”

and Book II, Chapter XV

The Master said: “Learning without thinking is useless. Thinking without learning is dangerous.”

I think these two concepts go to the heart of the modern work world where many fear having their jobs eaten by robots or software. The first is something that all of us need to remember. The higher state of man is not a machine. Let that sink in. We are not machines. We were meant for much more. BUT, we must get over the idea that we can think our way out of the current environment without a true education on the meaning of life and the meaning of work. We must examine where we have been as a people and examine our souls for what is meaningful. Pay, beyond subsistence, is not meaningful. Work that nourishes our soul is meaningful. Work that can be done by robots or software is not meaningful, unless you add something to it that the robot or software can’t do, like empathy or creativity.

Following the post-WWII path to the workplace is high-stakes and increasingly dangerous. What I mean by the “post-WWII path” is doing what everyone else does, because the historical statistics point to it and believing you are a genius for following a formula, i.e. learning without thinking & thinking without learning. However, when everyone tries to follow the formula, it cannot, by definition, lead to higher than average performance in work or happiness. And when the formula requires 5 & 6 figure debt, it is high stakes and dangerous.

Which leads me to this passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance,

If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges and is not installed in an office in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York [or Silicon Valley, Ed.], it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened and in complaining the rest of his life. A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont [or Kansas or Tennessee, Ed.], who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always like a cat falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. [Sounds like a New Yeoman, no? Ed.]

My point? Conventional Wisdom says everyone should go to college, get good grades, regardless of what is learned, and then get a “good” job. It worked for the majority from the 1940s to approximately 1999. Things have changed, but our learning has not kept up. Everyone going to university and then saying, “But I did what I was told was the smart thing!” when things don’t go as planned is not a successful strategy now … or in Confucius’ or Emerson’s times.

Consider becoming a New Yeoman instead.

Photo credits:
Confucius – By Anonymous Chinese painter of the Western Han period [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Emerson – By Schoff, Stephen Alonzo, 1818-1904, engraver. Rowse, Samuel Worcester, 1822-1901, artist. (Library of Congress[1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Now is the Contest

For all of you that are determined to join the New Yeomans in 2018, here is some inspiration;

“And if anything laborious, or pleasant or glorious or inglorious be presented to you, remember that now is the contest, now are the Olympic games, and they cannot be deferred; and that it depends on one defeat and one giving way that progress is either lost or maintained.” — Epictetus, #50, Enchiridion

Get after it.

Expectancy and Control

“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours.”

Seneca, On the Shortness of Life

 

 

Image Credit: I, Calidius [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Self Discipline and Self Employment

Whenever and wherever the client wanted was not a form of self -discipline for me

I have always prided myself on doing the work wherever and however it came. My only requirement was that it be interesting work. I’d travel anywhere and do anything within reason. At one point, that meant working on projects in Kuwait and Los Angeles simultaneously while living in England. Another meant spending every week in Estonia for 6 months. Another meant splitting time in Bogotá, New York, and Cambridge while living in Nevada. It was exciting travel and good work. However, at the age of 52 and with kids in the age range where my being here is critical, I am focussing on core issues again and again. Part of that is my work and what I am willing to accept in terms of what I will do at this point of my life. Another part is trying to live the life that I am encouraging my kids to live. e.g.

  • Find something you love.
  • Commit yourself to doing it well.
  • You can only truly control your own actions and feelings, not anyone else’s.
  • Know your own personality and plan your own actions accordingly. i.e. don’t regularly put yourself in situations where you know you are likely to do things that you’ll regret later.

What I find, though, is that I have developed some bad habits over the years. This was not a problem when I would take work wherever it led me. Now that I am putting some boundaries on the type of work and where it is located, I’m finding that I need to shape up my own ship. Nothing like circumstances and parental guilt to get your ass in gear, no?

Influential people to me on my path to professional self discipline and self knowledge

That’s where two people have influenced me lately. Jocko Willink and Jordan B. Peterson. Willink is heavy on self discipline. Peterson is heavy on self knowledge. If you want to share this with your kids, Willink’s “Way of the Warrior Kid” is a great way to do so. Also look up Willink’s back story on getting this particular book published against a skeptical publisher’s wishes. Peterson’s Self Authoring Suite is for adults. It helps the individual focus on their life and what they want from it, so that a rational psychological bias for action on those points can be built.

I hope these recommendations are of use. They have helped me begin to improve my professional discipline with self imposed restraints that I want to be part of my life.

Amazon.com and the New Jobs Landscape

The New Jobs Landscape

I liked this article from the WSJ on how the e-commerce boom has created better and more jobs. It makes the point that traditional retail jobs’ pay has hardly moved in decades. I think a lot of people still like retail, because you can do little to nothing in many retail jobs while you post on Facebook about something else. It is also generally clean and temperature controlled. However, if you don’t mind doing the physical work of walking around a warehouse and picking goods, you can make a reasonable wage for a starting job. And, with the kind of growth we’ve seen, you can be a supervisor in short order and a shift leader in a year or two.

Those aren’t real jobs

I know, I can hear people scoffing about this already, but I have done this job and loved it. Also, I was no spring chicken when I did so. I loved walking around picking books for Amazon.com when all they sold was books. I’ll admit I liked it less when we moved into CDS, then DVDS, then everydamnthingelse. It was a good job and I saw lots of young people move up the ranks into other things. I saw them become coders, book review editors, customer service leaders, supply chain professionals, and warehouse managers. These were A-Level graduates (UK), Bachelors and Masters degree holders. They were from many places, including many west African immigrants. Some even wrote and sold books on Amazon. 😉

I think these are the “bridge” jobs of the new economy. We have a severe mismatch of job openings and skills as a nation. This gap has proven hard to fill with our traditional education models. However, jobs like Amazon warehouse jobs introduce people to cutting edge technology in the work place. Robotics, sorting technologies, transportation algorithms, etc. are well known in these fields. Proximity to them in the work place breeds familiarity and a level of understanding that is often hard to teach in a class. One can start by being trained quickly as a user of the technology, then move on to be a “manipulator” of locally run programs, then move to be a “configurer” of programs, then finally someone who knows enough about them to actually program them in some way. That is what a relatively short two year stint will get a switched-on graduate at an e-commerce warehouse. Unlike the retail and fast food industries, the new jobs landscape helps develop real skills that come with competitive wages.

If these are not the types of jobs we want for the masses, what would those jobs look like?

“To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.”

  • James Carse, Finite and Infinite Games
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