August 2013 Archives

For the nth time since (at least) Juliet Schor's book The Overworked American in 1992, Laura Flanders points out that Americans are working too damn hard. Flanders notes the upcoming anniversary of King's March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and remarks that "I wish we were marching for less work, not more of it:"

So we'll march. We'll march for jobs but where do you line up for the march for leisure?

The last time US labor unions marched for that, it was for the eight-hour day, after the depression of 1884. Their banners called for eight hours work and eight hours rest and eight hours for what we will.

The "what we will" part seems to have fallen off the map in the 1930s - and we've had no reductions in work hours since...

Barbara Garson, author of the book Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession, discusses how to become a part-time worker:

From the end of an "average" American recession, it ordinarily takes slightly less than a year to reach or surpass the previous employment peak. But in June 2013 -- four full years after the official end of the Great Recession -- we had recovered only 6.6 million jobs, or just three-quarters of the 8.7 million jobs we lost.

Here's the truly mysterious aspect of this "recovery": 21% of the jobs lost during the Great Recession were low wage, meaning they paid $13.83 an hour or less. But 58% of the jobs regained fall into that category.

If wages have dropped, the number of hours worked should decline in tandem--but that has not happened across the board. This brings to mind what David (Debt) Graeber calls bullshit jobs, and his lamentation that "technology has been marshaled...to figure out ways to make us all work more:"

In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

Graeber continues:

But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world's population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the "service" sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

These are what I propose to call "bullshit jobs."

He observes that "more and more employees find themselves...working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organizing or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets:"

The answer clearly isn't economic: it's moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the '60s).

The Economist chimes in on Graeber's "amusing essay" with the speculation that "most office jobs will eventually go the way of the dodo," while reminding us--as if that were necessary--that "most jobs in most periods have undoubtedly been staffed by people who would prefer to be doing something else:"

The issue is that too little of the recent gains from technological advance and economic growth have gone toward giving people the time and resources to enjoy their lives outside work. Early in the industrial era real wages soared and hours worked declined. In the past generation, by contrast, real wages have grown slowly and workweeks haven't grown shorter.

"If we're lucky," the piece continues, our future jobs "will be engaging and meaningful:"

Yet there is a decent chance that "bullshit" administrative jobs are merely a halfway house between "bullshit" industrial jobs and no jobs at all. Not because of the conniving of rich interests, but because machines inevitably outmatch humans at handling bullshit without complaining.

They don't march on Washington, either...but we do.

IEEE's "Making Sense from Snowden" article (PDF) by Susan Landau (h/t: Bruce Schneier) is worth reading:

Many people have urged the formation of a new Church Committee with remit to conduct a full--and public--investigation of the surveillance's extent, the problems with oversight by both the FISC and Congress, the minimization procedures being used, and how to rectify these issues. Such an investigation could well include recommendations for changes in the way that the FISC issues its opinions. The investigation should carefully examine how to conduct collection in our era of big data and cheap storage.

Another issue to be aired as a result of the Snowden affair should be an examination of the "surveillance effort to downsize the federal government, much intelligence work has been moved to the private sector, which some members of government are now rethinking.

Charles Seife's open letter to former NSA colleagues offers a personal perspective, beginning with "my junior year [at Princeton], when, as a bright-eyed young math major, I was recruited to work at the National Security Agency."

I was proud to join the fraternity--one that was far bigger than I had ever imagined. According to NSA expert James Bamford, the agency is the single largest employer of mathematicians on the planet. It's a good bet that any high-quality math department of a reasonable size has a faculty member who's done work for the NSA.

I worked for the NSA in 1992 and 1993 under the auspices of the Director's Summer Program, which snaffles up hot young undergraduate math majors around the country each year. After clearing a security check--which included not just a polygraph exam but also a couple of FBI agents snooping around campus to see what mischief I had been up to--I wound up at Fort Meade, Md., for indoctrination.

"The mathematicians and cryptanalysts I met were from all over the country and had very different backgrounds," Seife continues, "but we all seemed to be drawn to the agency for the same two reasons:"

First, we all knew that the math was sexy. This might sound bizarre to a non-mathematician, but certain mathematical problems just exude a certain something--a feeling of importance, of gravity, along with a sense that the solution is not far outside of your grasp. It's big, and it can be yours if you just think a little bit harder. When I signed up, I knew that the NSA was doing interesting math, but I had no idea what I was in for. Within a week of arriving at the NSA, I was presented with an amazing smorgasbord of the most alluring mathematics problems I had ever seen, any of which could possibly yield to a smart undergraduate. I hadn't seen anything like it--and I never will again. [...]

I worked for the agency for only a very short time, and that was a long time ago. Yet I feel compelled to speak out to say that I'm horrified. If this is really what the agency stands for, I am sorry to have helped in whatever small way that I did.

Josh Levy minces no words in his assessment that "The NSA's state surveillance programs are anti-democratic and unconstitutional [and] could be the most serious attacks on free speech we've ever seen:"

This kind of surveillance doesn't just silence professional journalists. It affects all of us. As we now know, the NSA -- with a big assist from companies like AT&T, Facebook, Google and Verizon, who were already busy tracking us -- uses programs like PRISM and XKeyscore to build files of everyone's contacts, communications, movements and browsing habits.

"The chilling of free speech isn't just a consequence of surveillance," he reminds us--"It's also a motive:"

We adopt the art of self-censorship, closing down blogs, watching what we say on Facebook, forgoing "private" email for fear that any errant word may come back to haunt us in one, five or fifteen 15 years.

"We must return to a place," he implores, "where we feel that we can speak freely without consequence:"

We must roll back the NSA's surveillance apparatus.

Daniel Ellsberg offers a petition to free Bradley Manning, writing that "Nobel Laureates like President Obama shouldn't send Nobel Peace Prize Nominees like Bradley Manning to prison for life!"

After more than 950 days of pre-trial imprisonment by the US military, and multiple instances of outrageous government conduct, it is time to drop the charges and free Bradley Manning!

However, Manning's "I am Chelsea" statement may necessitate some changes:

As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility).

ThinkProgress makes some suggestions about what we can learn from Chelsea Manning's coming-out as transgender: "Unfortunately, Fort Leavenworth has stipulated that it does not provide hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgery to inmates, [but] "Not providing the recommended care for a trans inmate could arguably be considered cruel or unusual punishment."

Xeni Jardin speculated about Manning's situation three years ago:

"To me, the most telling line is 'The CPU is not made for this motherboard," said a source with deep ties in the LGBT community.

"It's such an unusual phrase, and it's the one that jumps out at me most strongly, besides the use of the word 'transition,' which is very prevalent among trans people. We even use it as a verb. That portion of the exchange is pretty tightly packed with trans code words and lingo and analogies."

"It doesn't sound like it's just about gender identity, either, but also about Manning's identity as an aspiring hacker, as a military person, and this transition of social identity from military to civilian. All of it suggests the profile of a person who is clearly at a crossroads in life. And they've unfortunately taken a very troubling path."

I've been thinking more about introversion since reading Susan Cain's book Quiet, and appreciated Carolyn Gergoire's signs of introversion article. It's quite useful, drawing on both Sophia Dembling's The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World and Dr. Marti Olsen Laney's The Introvert Advantage: Making the Most of Your Inner Strengths. Here are some items from Gergoire's list, along with snippets of her text:

1. You find small talk incredibly cumbersome.

"Introverts are notoriously small talk-phobic, as they find idle chatter to be a source of anxiety, or at least annoyance. For many quiet types, chitchat can feel disingenuous."

"Introverts...crave authenticity in their interactions" [and have] "a penchant for philosophical conversations and a love of thought-provoking books and movies"

12. You'd rather be an expert at one thing than try to do everything.

"The dominant brain pathways introverts use is one that allows you to focus and think about things for a while, so they're geared toward intense study and developing expertise, according to Olsen Laney."

22. You're a writer.

"Introverts are often better at communicating in writing than in person, and many are drawn to the solitary, creative profession of writing."

Introverts who might be "over-exerting themselves with too much socializing and busyness," writes Gergoire, might also find themselves "balancing it out with a period of inwardness and solitude." I find myself doing much the same--and often need to go for a run or read a book to recharge.

Thankfully, her article has added two more books to my TBR list.

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This page is an archive of entries from August 2013 listed from newest to oldest.

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