Thursday, August 08, 2013

Work and Power

As my sabbatical draws to a close, and I face the highly complex busyness of a new school year, I think about the relationship between work and power.  Already requests for my time and attention are starting to roll in.  I remind myself that this means I have power.

Remembering from my days of studying physics that these terms have precise scientific meanings within physics, I thought I would look them up again.

In physics, "energy" is the ability to do "work."  And "work" itself is the amount of energy transferred by a "force" acting through a distance.  (And "force," you will recall, is "mass" times "acceleration.")  "Power" is "work" divided by time. 

So, the more work you can do in a given time, the more power you wield?

We are taught to believe that people love and crave power, and that having lots of power is good.

But its goodness really depends on what you do with it.

If you do not have enough power to get your needs met, you are clearly at a severe disadvantage.  I do not begrudge those who crave power because they are not able to get their needs met.  They have good reason to desire power.

Nor do I begrudge those who use their power for good.

Why do I wince at the power, so to speak, that is thrust upon me by all of the demands on my time and attention?  Should I not be pleased to be so valued and entrusted?

To some extent I am, and I take my responsibility here seriously, and try to put my efforts to good use.  I think the problem here is that the things I am asked to do do not always line up with what I most want to do.  Too much power in one respect can mask crucial disempowerment in other aspects of one's life.  That, I think, is my problem.  

My work responsibilities have steadily increased over time, without any of the old responsibilities being relieved.  I think this is true for many (most? all?) working people today.

I cannot help but think of the plight of the Israelites living in slavery in Egypt, when they asked Moses to help them.  When Moses approached the Pharaoh to discuss their concerns and unhappiness, the Pharaoh's first response was to order a doubling of their workload -- in the vain hope that they would now be too busy to think about their plight or organize for change.  The Pharaoh was wrong that this would subdue the people. I don't think that what we are seeing in today's world is as conscious or deliberate, but it is troubling just the same.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Unprogrammed Quakerism and Music: Complementary Spiritual Disciplines

My Quaker Meeting is an unprogrammed one, and so there is no music in Meeting for Worship unless someone is moved to sing (which seldom happens in our Meeting).  Interestingly enough, almost all of the members and attenders of our Meeting are actively involved in music, and we enthusiastically attend each others’ concerts.  The music we share as a group happens exactly once per year:  we gather early one First Day before Christmas, with instruments and voices, to sing and play Advent and Christmas music for about an hour before then adjourning for our regular Meeting for Worship.

Avid readers of this blog will recall that I myself am serious about music.  I play modern flute, baroque flute, Irish flute, piccolo, recorders, and the occasional crumhorn, and have played with an early music group (medieval, renaissance, and baroque music) and currently play with a community orchestra and participate in two local traditional music regular jam sessions.  I sometimes also join a community concert band, and appear regularly as a soloist for events at the university where I teach.  More recently, I have gotten into Shape Note Singing, and our group also occasionally performs (even though Shape Note Singing groups are not really meant to perform.  The tradition started as singing schools and evolved to become a tradition of participatory community music-making).

So, do I wish I were part of a church where music featured regularly in worship?  Surprisingly, no.  Music for me is an important part of my spiritual discipline, and I love that my Quaker friends understand this and can relate to this, loving and performing music themselves.  But I treasure the silence and the occasional brief messages of unprogrammed worship.  I see my musical life and Quaker life as complementary.

I am glad that we do not live in the time that Quakers frowned on music, and yet, at the same time, I do understand their reservations.  One has to take great care about one’s relationship to music.  My own musical life is very challenging, and spiritual dangers lurk on all sides.  I am normally a quiet and shy person who prefers to stay in the background, and so performing is highly stressful to me.  So, why do I do it?  Despite my shyness, I love music so much and feel a strong pull to share it.  And, yet, I feel I never quite do it justice. 

I long to reach a level where I consistently feel centered while performing, effectively sharing the transcendent beauty of music which I am convinced can give people glimpses of God’s glory.  I have caught fleeting glimpses of this, yes, even in my own performing, but only fleeting glimpses.  I have found more sustained views in attending the performances of truly excellent performers.  But, let me tell you, it is a LOT harder than it looks!  The masters make it look easy, and it does become easy when you are centered and are in the flow, but, first of all, what it takes to attain the level of mastery where that becomes a possibility takes a lot of time, patience, and effort, and, secondly, even that is no guarantee that you can attain that state under pressure of performance.

So, my aspirations, as you can see, are quite high -- perhaps even grandiose, and most certainly flirting on the edges of pride (which you may recall is an especially egregious sin!).  And yet, I sincerely ask, what is the point of aspiring to any less?  Music at its best is holy and sacred.  If your primary motivation is something other than honoring that potential, you miss the whole point, and, worse, risk defiling something that is supposed to be sacred.  So, you have to aspire to showing a glimpse of God.  You have to long for that most of all.

But we are mere humans, mere mortals.  Do we have any real hope of ever being able to fully get out of the way enough to let God’s love fully shine through?

I keep trying.  It demands both perfect faith and perfect humility.  It demands all of you, and yet at the same time it demands that you get completely out of the way.  This paradox is a mystery.  And it is a paradox about life more generally:  Who are we in this world? If reality is ultimately all about God, then why are we here, so often getting in the way?  We supposedly each have gifts to bring, yet we must not succumb to pride.  What is our place, our role?  Who are we to each other, and to God?  “Don’t hide your light under a bushel,” but what if our flames catch the barn on fire?

One of the Advices and Queries of Britain Yearly Meeting is to “live adventurously.”  I was present at the talk that I believe inspired this advice, the inaugural George Gorman Lecture given by Hugh Pyper at a Quaker gathering in England in 1986 ("A Sense of Adventure").  This talk had a profound effect on me then, and the Advice continues to cheer me on today when a tendency towards too much hiding threatens to get the better of me. 

And so when people ask me to perform, I keep saying yes.  It’s part of my spiritual discipline to keep going out to that space that actually quite terrifies me, but fascinates me too, because it holds the potential for one of the most profound kinds of sharing that is possible.  I keep audaciously thinking, “this time I can really do it!  This time I will help them see a glimpse of transcendent reality!” 

And after each performance, I realize I have no idea.  I enter that dazed fog that maybe only performers really know (if they face their experience with full honesty):  I have no idea what that was to anybody else.  On a good day, I may emerge from a performance with memories of moments of feeling centered, memories of shining passages, but I also have painful memories of glitches, of notes that were not quite where they could be, of not quite lining up with the other performers as we had at our best rehearsal, etc.  Even though I know, from attending concerts myself, that others may not notice the glitches, and even the noticeable mistakes do not necessarily harm a performance if the overall musicality is strong enough, it is hard for me not to be haunted mightily by the glitches in my own performance long after the concert.  I try to remind myself that these moments are the “pulled threads” that keep us humble, that help us remember that true perfection is reserved for God alone.  At any rate, I have trained myself to respond graciously to whatever feedback I receive, without betraying any of my own uncertainties: honoring the kind things others say, believing that they mean it. Yet, inside, I know that I know nothing. 

This is just how it is, and maybe how it has to be.  You do your best to be faithful, and then you have to let it go.  We never fully know our effect on the world.  Performance is just one especially concentrated form of this more general truth about our lives.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Why Health Care Should Not be the Responsibility of Employers

Today, the public radio program “On Point” featured a discussion about an emerging trend:  employers starting to penalize employees who do not take better care of their health.  Some employers are requiring employees to fill out detailed questionnaires about their health and lifestyles, and employees who do not do so are charged fines.  Others also require employees to commit to behavior changes to enhance their health, or else they suffer penalties as well. 

First, the disclaimers:  it is not that the employer sees the private information about employees’ health -- that information is protected and private.  And, apparently employers are fully within their rights to require such things and charge penalties if they are not fulfilled.  And, finally, not all employers are doing this sort of thing (yet).

But here was my thought:  we have a system where our employers work us harder and harder, and now are also entitled to dictate how we spend our personal time and how we share our private health information, and if we refuse to comply, or if our health begins to break down under all of the increasing stress we are under, our employers can fine us!

One person interviewed did point out that the free market does not care about fairness -- it only cares about efficiency.

Here is what efficiency really means:  work your employers as hard as you can.  But, alas, they sometimes break down under the strain of increased demands!  Economic response:  pressure them to take care of themselves so that you can work them even harder, and if they break down, recoup your losses by charging extra fines!

Will it come to the point where people will start to say, “I can no longer afford to work.  The fines I have to pay exceed my income.  It is more economically advantageous for me not to have a job”?

This is one good reason why it is not a good idea to have our employers be responsible for providing health care.  The market does not care about us as people: it only cares about getting the most economic benefit from us for as little cost as possible.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Et tu, Facebook?

Another follow-up to recent postings:  I am getting tired of Facebook.  Now, I can already see you yawning, because lots of people say this and threaten to leave Facebook and then don’t, etc., etc., etc.  But the boring thing that most people say when they discuss this is, “I’m tired of seeing the trivia of others’ lives!  I don’t care what you had for breakfast!”

My reason for getting tired of Facebook is just the opposite.  I don't see enough of people posting authentically about their lives!  I love my friends, and enjoyed, once upon a time, gaining real glimpses into their actual experiences.

But now, two things have happened.  One is that too many people have been hypnotized into chanting that refrain, that they don't want to hear the "boring" details of their friends' lives. And the second is that too many people have thereby gotten the message that that's not what you are supposed to be doing, and thus have been intimidated and no longer will say anything real, original, or authentic.  Instead, most people have become programmed to do little more than share memes.  Instead of writing their own thoughts, people more and more just “share” the other things they see on Facebook.

Now, these memes can be clever, even thought-provoking.  Of course some are controversial and get our blood boiling.  Many are sensational.  Many are charmingly cute.  For a while, I watched my news feed with avid interest, dazzled by it all, wondering who creates these and how they get them going.  I tried to post my own original clever postings and hoped they would at least circulate among my friends, but they never garnered even one "share," and only small handfuls of “likes.”  I had slightly better success if I “shared” already existing memes -- at least people seemed to see these -- a few more people, anyway.

Gradually it has dawned on me that Facebook is not really about us and our friends; it’s not really about our sharing what’s happening in our lives.  It’s a meme replication system.  I’m overstating things a bit:  there is some real and good sharing (just enough that it kept me coming back).  But I’m now noticing that my experience lately is watching more and more of my friends fall into well-worn patterns of opinion that someone else seems to have carved into sharp and cutting oppositional shapes.

So much on Facebook is now quite painful.  Because I have a diverse array of friends representing a wide spread of the political spectrum, I cannot read my news feed without finding that some of my friends have posted mean, angry memes dissing people like me.  And sometimes my so-called friends attack me viciously for things I have said, even though I did not think that what I was saying was offensive, as such -- maybe debatable, maybe naively optimistic, maybe even wrong (I am always open to being proved wrong), but not offensive.  Yet, I am attacked instead of debated.  For a while I tried to engage in ways that I hoped would turn it into respectful dialogue across differences of points of view, seeking common ground, resolution, or the emergence of new patterns of thought that synthesize the best insights from diverse perspectives.  But most of the time, people seem rigidly entrenched in their views and do not engage in genuine dialogue, but instead resort to fallacious reasoning.  It gets frustrating and discouraging.

So I have decided I need a break.  I’m not deactivating my account, but I think I will refrain from looking at Facebook for a week, and just see what effect that has on my life.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Businesses and the Hard Decisions They Have to Make

As a follow-up to my previous post, some may wonder:  well, don’t businesses have to make hard decisions in order to survive and take care of their bottom line?

We’ve all been brainwashed into thinking like that, nowadays.  We have all been manipulated into complicity with that attitude.  The power of that way of thinking is that it is partially true:  businesses do have to make enough money to survive; sometimes doing so requires unfortunate sacrifices.

But, in this world in which the rich are getting amazingly, incomprehensibly rich while the poor are getting poorer, the problem is not that there is not enough money.  We see desperation growing around us, and assume that everyone is struggling more and more, that something has changed, making money increasingly scarce.  But it is not increasingly scarce for everyone.  Yes, something has changed:  money is increasingly scarce for most of us, but not because it has mysteriously disappeared.  It’s still there.  But where?  It is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the very wealthy.  And it does not trickle down.  The mechanisms of our economy have become ones that suck the money up, instead.

I recently read an interesting book about how this change has happened.  The book is Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, by Chrystia Freeland (Penguin Press, 2012).  Very illuminating!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Demise of Useful Google Products

Happy Spring!

There’s been a lot on my mind, lately.  I’ll start with what is most recent: I just learned that Google Reader is shutting down.  This, of course, is not the end of the world.  Lots of people have far more serious problems.  Indeed, I myself have other more serious problems than this!

But even this problem is more serious than it initially seems, and that is what I feel like writing about at the moment.  Google’s getting rid of Reader follows their getting rid of many innovative, useful, and promising products they have created, such as Notebook, iGoogle, Desktop, Sidewiki, and even Wave.
I especially valued Notebook.  There are other notebook apps out there, but none were so intuitively user-friendly and elegantly integrated with web research as Google Notebook was. 

I also saw tremendous promise in Google Wave, but was frustrated that they restricted the early users and then had the audacity to eliminate it due to “lack of interest”!  Its potential could not be realized without making it easy for lots of users to try it!  They should have integrated it right away with Gmail.  What was brilliant about it was that a “wave” (an e-mail conversation) could function as a jointly edited document.  Anyone who has been frustrated by long e-mail chains where information keeps changing (such as a group planning an event by e-mail) can see the value of Wave:  you can keep editing the Wave to reflect the most up-to-date information (without losing the “history” of the conversation: the history just hides out of the way unless needed for reference).  So you no longer have a long confusing and branching e-mail trail: you have a single dynamic document keeping the most relevant and up-to-date information front and center.

But, Notebook, Wave, and soon Reader are no more.

One of the articles I read about why this is so noted that times need to change, and what is new and emerging to replace apps like Reader is apparently something so advanced that instead of providing us with what we want to read, it suggests to us what we should want to read!

The gist of that article and others I read seems to me to be this:  The web is evolving in a way that cares less about us and our autonomy, and is more about exploiting and controlling us.  The big players are not really interested in providing services that we find useful:  they want to mine our information and use it to manipulate us into seeing what they want us to see, and buying what they want us to buy.  They do it so cleverly (based somewhat on what we are observed to be interested in) that they hope we won’t notice or care -- or, better yet, that we will be pleased and happy to turn over the major decision-making to them, because they do it so well.  The result is that the programs that respect and respond to our autonomy are gradually disappearing, and are being replaced by apps that more and more control what we see.

While overtly Google justifies its eliminations of products in terms of numbers of users not being high enough -- or, note the difference here:  growth in new users not being high enough (but there still is growth!) -- I think that language is carefully crafted to suggest that they care about what their users want, but hides the true significance of their decision.  I suspect that it’s not about the number of users at all.  It’s that the use of something like Reader does not fulfill their purposes of exploiting and manipulating us.  When we use Reader, we, well, read!  More specifically, we read what we are interested in reading, and what we have consciously chosen to read.  What is problematic for Google is what we are not doing:  we are not clicking on ads and buying stuff. 

So, not only is this yet another in a long series of personal disappointments (our “world of opportunity” keeps eliminating products I really like, forcing me to keep spending time looking for alternatives that inevitably I find not as good), it shows a disturbing trend in the evolution of our relationships with computers and the internet.  I have a sense of a golden age having passed, before it ever fully started.  Something sinister is taking hold.  The interests of Big Money are taking over.  It is just another example of a growing change in our world:  of valuing money over people, of valuing profits over serving the common good.

That is why I say this is more serious than it looks.