You Had One Job (and you just lost it to a robot)

{submitted to the editorial staff at University Communications}

I appreciate innovation as much as the next person; and, I appreciate a witty headline. But, the two collide when one chooses humor over acknowledging impact – especially upon some the more vulnerable among us.

Such a collision happened recently when the INSIDE UW newsletter ran a link to the news story “University Housing Launches New Starship Robot Delivery Service” under the linked headline “How much is the standard tip for a robot?” Now, again, I understand the tongue-in-cheek reference here – but I wonder does your staff understand the real and present threat that technological innovation presents to low-wage workers?

Tipping itself is already an under-appreciated facet of service work – as a former waitstaff, I continue to be astounded how many people still don’t understand that the people who wait on you in most restaurants make far below minimum wage per hour and are taxed at 15% of their sales REGARDLESS of how much they actually earn in tips.

This smug headline did nothing to prevent further marginalizing this issue by inferring that everyone benefits from a world where things will be done for us without having to pay a gratuity. Far from it; those who manufacture and sell these machines, and those companies that deploy them because of the advantages of not having to pay workers (or their health insurance) – not to mention the ability to do transactions online and never having to deal with face-to-face interactions with customers (heaven forbid!) are the ones who stand to benefit.

I understand the development of autonomous machines is an important technological advancement; robotics have brought some incredible benefits, and self-driving machines have taken on some of the burden of going into dangerous and even hostile environments, sparing the risks to human life.

But food delivery is not one of those situations. Waitstaff and other service workers are often those living at the lower end of the economic scale. And since such jobs are often a first job during high school, college, or directly after graduation, this population includes the very students whose welfare Starship Technologies claims to have in its best interest.

As for the $40 million dollars of venture capital that Starship has raised, which has given them access to this, and about a dozen other college campuses, I have to wonder what other, innovative solutions they might come up with to address food distribution inequities, wage issues, and poverty. But clearly they’re focused on sky-high returns for their investors, not practical issues here on planet earth. How’s that for a witty closing?

– Stephen Montagna
Madison, WI
UW grad class of ’94

L

“History is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgement and chance.” – Maria Popova

L… 50… fifty… five-oh… 11111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111

Or: MCMLXIX–MMXIX – which is shorthand for “holy shit, doesn’t fifty years go by really, really fast?!”

How does one capture that? The passage of time. The ephemeral experience of existence in a Universe driven by natural laws, but measured by the measly human system of time?

Way back, ten years ago, I marked my fortieth with a blog post, “Moon Child”:

I’m proud of the writing. I’m also ashamed of it. Truth be told, not a lot has changed in ten years. Oh, a lot has HAPPENED… but not a lot – certainly not enough (loaded word, I know, but roll with it) has…changed.

And of course, as with any assessment, the conclusions arrived at are pretty dependent on the scope. I can sit here, frustrated with what I haven’t fixed, addressed, or improved upon over the past ten years, as my forties come to a close; or, I can widen, and reflect on what, if anything, have I learned from a half-century on terra firma? 

And that is… what, exactly?

There are very few absolutes. Gravity. And death. Everything else is frameworks – and by frameworks I mean a system of beliefs, habits, cultural myths – a story – that has been built up over decades or millennia. Money is a framework; a human invented mirage that consumes us. Gender is a framework. Race is a framework.

We go through life following the signposts set down by our culture. We experience and express through the limits of language. The older I get, the more I grapple with the dissonance between existence – what being a living, breathing biological entity is, and “life” – the multiple layers of frameworks that shape our perceptions and expectations. 

Every day, I awake with the anxiety of what I haven’t become; the teaching career that never materialized; the documentary I never fully finished; the vacant space next to me in bed.

I know. They say it’s good to have goals. Well, at fifty I got plenty. And I will continue to “fight the good fight”, but today, I’m going to work hard to keep the regret-monsters at bay and give myself “grace space” to celebrate merely making it this far. It’s farther than many have the chance to make.

Today, I’ll revel in having survived the shipwrecks of judgement and chance.

“Black” Friday…

How like an addict we all appear, promoting “Black Friday” like some sick joke; it is transparent, a desperate plea, a junkie strung out on the thing he thinks will take the pain away. It is sold to us as inevitable.

It is not.

Do not let them fool you. You were born naked and perfect. You do not need stuff. And stuff does not speak love for you to those you hold dear. This consumption is our common affliction, and the larger issues — the wars, the sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, poverty, and oppression — will not go away until we grapple with this disease, this mythology that selling stuff to one another, that using profit and capitol as the gatekeeper of justice somehow makes this a great nation.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. It is a dark time; a bad economy dominated by power mongering elite; federal and state legislatures held hostage by ideologues who want to wrap us in their fear and roll us back to the 1950’s (or earlier); a planetary eco system reeling from millennia of exploitation and neglect.

But give thanks. Give thanks for living, and breathing, and loved ones around you (and those that are no longer with us). Give thanks for the here and the now – they are all we truly have, and they are transitory.

And then, on Friday, remember that it is international Buy Nothing Day.

You will not help the economy by spending vociferously. You will not help yourself. You will not be “missing out” on anything special if you fail to show up. You will not be failing to show your loved ones you care because you do not buy them the best that money can buy at bargain prices.

This is the frenzy that big corporations want, not only because it keeps them “in the black” financially, but because it reifies their world view; it institutionalizes greed and justifies their actions (“we’re just giving people what they want”).

So instead, take the day to breathe. Keep the wallet in your back pocket, or purse. Take a walk outside. Call or write a friend. Contemplate your time on the planet and what impact (positive? negative?) you want to have on it and those that will come after you.

Let’s make this the year that common folk will find their way into the black. Financially. Spiritually.

pilgrimage

[Warning: this will not be a fun post. Sorry.]

It’s hard to believe that it’s been five years.

Today, I will make my annual pilgrimage down county highway M to lay flowers on the very spot where we lost Sam, age eighteen, in a senseless car accident, on March 15, 2005.

When I was there last year, pieces of the automobile could still be seen lying in the grass.

Sam was the only son of my supervisor, coworker, and good friend. She was singlehandedly raising him – never an easy thing to do. When we first started working together, in 1997, her ex-husband had just filed for divorce and Sam was ten. The ex seemed to never get into the spirit of being a father; my coworker turned often to me, asking for advice on how to help her guide this pre-adolescent, then adolescent, son into adulthood.

To say that I was his surrogate dad, or he was like my son, would be over-stating things, a bit. Yet there are aspects of both of those statements that hold true; by coaching and advising his Mom, I had a hand in helping to shape his growth; Sam loved the theatre, was a budding actor, and we went to see each other’s shows; I became a de-facto member of the family, sharing Thanksgiving dinners with Sam and his Mom year after year.

As with any child who comes from a divorced home, High School was difficult for Sam (and, one should add that in addition to the divorce, Sam had to cope with his Dad taking his own life). Nevertheless, he persevered, and was on track to graduate that June. He turned eighteen in January; late in February, he was accepted to Beloit College in their Art program. I started saving up money to buy him an iPod as a graduation present – something that I thought was the sort of gift a Dad would give a son. But then, of course, all of that never came to pass…

After a few moments of reflection at the crash site, it will be on to Forrest Hill Cemetery, where I will lay some more flowers where Sam’s remains are buried.

I recall, last year, as I drove there, a particular Suzanne Vega song – Widow’s Walk – came on the old iPod playing through the car stereo; one part of the lyric seemed to repeat itself over and over again in my head:

“Though I saw it splinter, I keep looking out to sea.
Like a dog with little sense, I keep returning,
To the very area where I did see the thing go down,
As if there’s something at the site I should be learning.”

What is it, I wonder, that I’m supposed to be learning from this tragedy that I haven’t already learned? That life is precious, fragile, and all too short? I was sure I’d learned that lesson long ago. But perhaps some part of it still evades me.

Or, perhaps, there is no lesson to be learned. Maybe this is just the duty that we take on when we love and care about people; when they leave us, we have an obligation to keep the memory of them alive, and to mark their passing. There are, of course, many ways to do this; but for some reason I choose this one. I wonder some times if I will always mark the day this way; will there come a time when my mourning transforms and takes a different shape? I suppose it’s possible.

Until then, I have this; and so tomorrow I will take my annual pilgrimage. I will trace the route, I will stand watch at the graveside, and I will feel the pain of him no longer being in the world and having been taken all too soon.

Dial it up…

O.k., so it’s happened. Scott Brown handily defeated Martha Coakley and will soon be sworn in as the next Senator from Massachusetts. Let the pundit games begin (and they have).

But let us also remain a bit sober about this; I’m reminded of an episode in the 2nd season of The West Wing (those who know me well know that my affection for The West Wing, seasons 1-4, knows no bounds) – “The War at Home”. In it, two of my favorite characters – pollster Joey Lucas (played by Marlee Matlin) and Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (played by Bradley Whitford) have a little exchange about poll numbers; see, Josh is trying to measure response to President Bartlett’s 3rd State of the Union speech in which he laid out a gun control strategy that included a five-day waiting period. Josh wants the numbers from five key districts because he sees the gun issue as a measure of how those states will vote in the upcoming presidential election — in other words, it’s a litmus test (much like the Coakley defeat is already being used to write obits for the Obama Presidency).

Josh insists that the high numbers against mean that he needs to advise the President to dial down the rhetoric on gun control if he wants to win re-election. Joey insists the opposite is true; he says “Numbers don’t lie.”, to which she replies “Numbers lie all the time…  You say that these numbers mean dial it down; I say they mean dial it up. You haven’t gotten through. There are people you haven’t persuaded yet.”

Dial it up, people. The work is hard, but the prize – social justice, fairer government, and a better healthcare system – is too important to let it slip by. There are people we haven’t reached yet. Dial it up.

Ch-ch-changes…

Well, I’m at it again.

If you came here expecting to find StephenMontagna.com, you’re not that far off; I’ve re-located my blog from WordPress.com to my server space here on Dreamhost. In the coming weeks, I’ll be restoring (and building upon) my StephenMontagna.com pages, but I’ll be integrating them with this here blog. It’s my excuse to finally push myself to learn WordPress and all its ins and outs.

Once again, I must therefore say “please pardon my dust.”

Figure 8’s, Donuts – Dec 2008



Figure 8’s, Donuts – Dec 2008

Originally uploaded by sdmonty

Well, Mad Town is getting hit with some substantial snowfall; on the way home from Aikido tonight, I couldn’t resist taking advantage of the empty parking lot at the old Fyfe’s Corner Bistro to do some hazard driving practice; figure eights, donuts, fishtails…

I drove home, grabbed my camera and walked back to snap some shots; these really don’t do it justice – it’s that fun you experience as a kid when you turn a flat, white surface covered with new-fallen snow as a canvas and “paint” something on it.

I wish the weather allowed for some better shots, but I already thought I was risking my Canon PowerShot keeping it out in the cold, wet air. Also, the snow is falling so fast, I suspect the tire marks I etched there will be long gone by the time morning brings better lighting…

Monty w/ pumpkin – Oct. 2008



Monty w/ pumpkin – Oct. 2008

Originally uploaded by sdmonty

Perhaps it’s nostalgia, what with having woken up this morning to find the whole ground blanketed with snow, suddenly the crisp days of Fall (my fav season) seem very far away. P. dropped off this shot of our trip to a WI farm a couple of weeks ago. Yep, that’s me with a pumpkin that I freed from the earth just moments before.

American roulette

Congressman Jim Marshall (D-GA), in a commentary on CNN today, says:

“Deep down, we all know that a financial rescue is necessary. I voted for the plan that was defeated today because, to paraphrase Rep. Spencer Bachus, I’m unwilling to play Russian roulette with the financial lives of my children and grandchildren. Although the bill was imperfect and wildly unpopular, I believed that those of us in Congress needed to suck it up, vote for it and let the chips fall where they may.”

This is what’s wrong with Congress at the moment, both Democrat and Republican; they say they don’t want to “play Russian roulette” and yet they’re willing to “vote for it and let the chips fall where they may?!”For goodness’ sake, show some leadership; sit down, roll up your sleeves, figure out a viable solution that doesn’t give tax breaks to the very people who have derided taxation and gov’t intervention for the last thirty years. Do your #$^&ing job in other words.

We are in this process of American roulette these days. We are victims of our own greed and lack of participation in the process of the very democracy that runs our lives. This is a real mess, it deserves a real solution, not just throwing money at the problem. 

How do you fix an engine while it’s still running? Do you fix a flat with the car still in motion? No, you pull over to the side of the road, turn off the engine, and go to work. This is what we need to do as a Nation. It means that some people will not reap tremendous profits for a few days, weeks, months. So be it; we always talk about sacrifice for our country in terms of losing one’s life in a war; it’s time to think of lower level (but still honorable) sacrifice to the tune of putting the needs of the Nation above those of ones individual financial or corporate profit.

It’s done!



Bascom Hall – OED display case – closer

Originally uploaded by sdmonty

Yes, it took nearly twelve months, nearly a dozen meetings, conflicting opinions, and at times “design by committee”, but it is done, and more than $100 under budget, and it raises the visibility of the Office for Equity & Diversity about 100%.

I am not one to gloat… but I must admit I’ve earned the right to pat myself on the back on this occasion.

If you live in, or are visiting Madison, and you happen to make the hike up Bascom Hill, come take a look.