Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Will A.I. Steal Our Jobs?

Introduction

One of the great things about Artificial Intelligence is how well it drives hype. The media, instead of just delivering bad news about yesterday and today, can now get us really excited—and worried!—about the future. One of the most potent forms of this hype is the widespread suggestion that many of us may lose our jobs to A.I. (My mother-in-law was asking me about this just the other day.)

In this post, I’ll examine the topic. I’m not an expert on A.I., but I’m confident that my credentials as a male will serve me well in mansplaining this to you, regardless of your own sex. And actually, I’ve been blogging about A.I. for over ten years, having produced over a dozen posts (linked at the bottom of this one). I’ve even done some light research for today’s topic. I’ll wrap up by telling you what I think ought to be a much larger concern around A.I. than job preservation.


Which jobs?

Before I can answer your question, “Will A.I. steal my job?” of course I’d have to know what you do. Obviously I can’t just ask, so I’ll have to make some assumptions. I suspect you’re a college graduate to even be visiting albertnet, because my blog posts are long and difficult. Moreover, I researched the most common jobs in America for the non-college educated, and the results—which include “fast food and counter workers,” “home health and personal care aides,” and “stockers and order fillers”—wouldn’t leave any employee with enough energy to plow through this much text.

So, with that assumption in mind, I’ll go with the top five careers for college graduates based on current labor statistics. I’ll also cover the classic professions: medicine and law. It doesn’t matter if your career isn’t any of these; what I cover should be illustrative examples.

The top five careers

The five most abundant job prospects for new graduates in America, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, are as follows (along with the number of openings per year, average, for 2020-2030):

  1. General and operations managers          229,600 openings
  2. Registered nurses                                       194,500
  3. Software developers & testers                  189,200
  4. Accountants & auditors                             135,000
  5. Elementary school teachers                     110,800

I’ll explore, briefly, each of these careers in turn, before going on to doctors and lawyers.

General and operations managers

Now, I don’t know exactly what this rather general label means, but clicking on the BLS hyperlink for it takes me to a page describing what executives do. The summary is that they “plan strategies and policies to ensure that an organization meets its goals.” This would be very difficult for A.I. to do, because it cannot form opinions, doesn’t have the ability to effectively promote ideas and inspire people, and couldn’t have any clue about navigating office politics. The managers and executives at my company do a lot in person, which attests to the company’s conviction that this is necessary (vs. telecommuting). A.I. cannot, needless to say, do anything in person. It produces rivers of text on any subject by regurgitating gobs of highly masticated learning data from across the Internet, but this has nothing to do with forming and fostering creative ideas.

Much of the tech world, in my personal experience and as chronicled widely by the media, is devoted to “disruption”—that is, coming up with a completely new idea that turns existing business models on their heads (like Uber did to the taxicab industry). A.I. is often employed, tactically, in such disruption, but it cannot drive it the way an industry leader does. A.I. is very good at certain tricks, but it’s not good at visionary thinking because it literally lives in the past. (Consider that ChatGPT’s training data hasn’t had an update in over two years, by its own admission.) I think managers and executives can rest easy here (so long as they keep their companies poised at the leading edge of the A.I. zeitgeist).

Registered nurses

I think we can all agree nursing is a hands-on occupation, and for that you need actual hands. But you don’t have to take my word for it. I just asked ChatGPT, “Can you please change the dressing on the laceration on my right leg?” and it swiftly replied, “I’m not able to provide physical assistance or medical care as I am a text-based AI language model. It’s crucial to seek help from a qualified healthcare professional for proper wound care.”

Software developers and testers

The full title of this occupation is “Software Developers, Quality Assurance Analysts, and Testers.” Everyone knows what software developers do; as for the others, the BLS writes (here), “Software quality assurance analysts and testers identify problems with applications or programs and report defects.”

Let’s start with developers. I interviewed a friend of mine on this, who is a manager and software developer specializing in A.I. for an extremely well known tech company. Not only does he know all about developing software, but he knows lots about A.I. He started off by saying that ChatGPT is actually a powerful tool in the hands of a good developer, and can lead to much greater work efficiency. ChatGPT can provide blobs of code that do a specific thing, but of course this is only a small part of the job of a software developer. The developer is essentially a problem solver and has to figure out the right approach to doing so. In theory, the increased efficiency that A.I. enables could reduce the number of jobs, since doing everything faster means needing fewer hands. But, my friend advised, this would only be true if there were a finite number of problems to solve. In fact, the number of problems, and the number of projects, and the number of innovations, are infinite, and it’s a company’s job to tackle enough of them to keep an ever-growing number of developers busy. So not only will A.I. not replace these jobs, but it won’t diminish the number of them.

Moving on to QA analysts and testers, I believe their jobs are equally secure. Have you ever done a CAPTCHA—that simple task of, for example, looking at a 3x3 grid of thumbnail photos and counting the number of traffic lights? That’s a website’s way of making sure bots don’t impersonate humans. CAPTCHAs work because A.I. is stymied by graphical user interfaces (GUIs). So it wouldn’t be able to test software, or at least the type used by humans (which is a whole lot of it). Moreover (and I know this from my own professional experience), software testing is all about how straightforward and useable an interface is to a human. Testers need to be able to imagine the perspective of the human who will use the software. A.I. lacks this capability; although it can mimic human thought or impression, it has no grasp of these things; it’s essentially autistic.

Accountants and auditors

Okay, I’ll confess I’m kind of out of my depth here. I gather that accountants balance the books, and auditors keep the accountants (and everyone else) honest, but that’s about all I know (or care to know). I will say that obviously accuracy is the name of the game here, which is where A.I. needs to be handled carefully. As you probably know, generative A.I. platforms, such as the GPT-3.5 model that drives ChatGPT, are prone to “hallucinations”—where they basically just make shit up and present it as fact. The poster child here is the case (described by the New York Times here) of a dumbass lawyer who used ChatGPT to prepare an argument in a court case, and got into big trouble because his argument cited half a dozen previous relevant court decisions, all of which were pure fabrications—ChatGPT had pulled them out of its ass. As the Times dryly concluded in its article, “The real-life case of Roberto Mata v. Avianca Inc. shows that white-collar professions may have at least a little time left before the robots take over.”

Elementary school teachers

It’s pretty clear that the education of elementary school kids needs to happen in person. Countless articles about the result of distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic recount how far behind students fell. For example, according to this article, half the nation’s students began the 2022-2023 school year a full year behind grade level due to the poor education they’d received during the lockdown. Granted, there was a lot more going on during the pandemic than just distance learning, but if there was one thing Americans could agree on during that time, it was that in-person instruction needed to come back.

Until we have sophisticated, affordable, and ubiquitous animatronic robots, A.I. simply cannot provide in-person instruction as we know it. It’s just a digital tool, not at all what kids really learn from. And robots will never be people, with personalities. Elementary school teachers connect with students, draw them out, encourage them, understand their struggles, and have firsthand knowledge of how humans learn. A.I., of course, has none of this. As described here I tried to teach ChatGPT how to write a proper poem (in terms of a specific meter) and it confessed, “As an AI language model, I do not have the ability to practice or improve my skills in a traditional sense.” All it can do is ingest troves of training data and reference them later. It cannot relate to the human effort to learn. It cannot come up with creative strategies for connecting with kids. Also, it would never settle for the piss-poor salaries paid to elementary school teachers. (Yes, that was a joke. Another thing A.I. can’t really do.)

Doctors

Having completed the top five careers for college graduates, I’ll now move on to a field that affects us all: medicine.

As with nursing, medicine obviously needs to be hands-on. My doctors (and physical therapists) have all relied heavily on touch and (literally) feel in evaluating and diagnosing injuries and health issues. Meanwhile, the important dialogue I’m able to have with them about my health requires advanced “soft skills” far beyond what A.I. could get from training data. The reason I even entertain the notion that A.I. could replace doctors is that I’ve read, here and there, about how well A.I. does interpreting radiology images. I just did a little refresher research and found in this article that it still isn’t as accurate as a human. Moreover, as the article attests, “radiologists are more than just interpreters of images. They connect the findings from imaging analysis to other patient data and test results, discuss treatment plans with patients, and consult with their colleagues.” Meanwhile, the A.I. that performed well had been trained on billions of images from the public Internet, whereas “radiological datasets are also often guarded by privacy regulations and owned by vendors, hospitals, and other institutions”—meaning that advancements in A.I. in this industry will lag behind that of autonomous vehicles or retail.

I interviewed a friend who’s a medical doctor and his dismissal of A.I. as a threat was pretty curt. Alluding to its tendency to hallucinate, he mentioned how poorly the patient community would react the first time A.I. casually told a relatively healthy patient, “You have twelve months to live.” And though I suppose we could entertain the idea of a robot doing a fine job with a surgery, what happens when it hallucinates? “Mr. Smith, I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is, instead of a pacemaker I accidentally installed an ice maker. The good news is, if I pull on your ear you’ll cough up an ice cube.”

Lawyers

What is the output of a lawyer? I don’t work in this field, but I think it’s fair to say the two main outputs are documents and spoken testimony. Let’s start with the latter: A.I., lacking a human presence and thus the ability to provide moving verbal testimony, probably wouldn’t do well in a courtroom. What would that even look like? A person simply standing up and reading an A.I.-generated testimonial? How would A.I. negotiate? What would its powers of persuasion be like? Do you agree we could rule out its ability to testify effectively in a live environment?

If so, let’s move on to documents. A.I. does seem really good at spewing forth gobs of text on pretty much any subject. Now, as I recounted earlier, it does have this little problem of providing fictitious citations as legal precedent, and since nobody really knows how A.I. works there doesn’t seem to be an easy solution on the horizon for such hallucinations. But that’s not its only problem.

Unless I’m just hopelessly na├»ve, the practice of law requires the ability to delve into complexities and tease out the legal basis for one’s position—the point of law on which the case can turn. This is why law school and the bar exam are required, right? Well, how good is A.I. at this kind of analysis, really? I haven’t fed it any legal quandaries to chew on because I don’t have any, but I have experimented with trying to get it to explain something similarly abstract: dramatic irony. How did it do? As detailed here, it totally crashed and burned. Not only did it betray a total lack of understanding of what irony is (though it can spew out a canned definition of it), it fabricated evidence from a children’s book in explaining instances of it. It was just swinging wild, and did shockingly badly. Make no mistake: ChatGPT can assemble basic (if torturously verbose) sentences out of building blocks of reconstituted training data, but it still doesn’t analyze anything in any useful way.

For my family holiday newsletter this year, I sent out a quiz. I asked fifteen questions about what my family did in 2023, and put an A.I. spin on it: for each question, one multiple-choice response was true, another was generated by ChatGPT, and the third was a lie I wrote in the style of ChatGPT. Most of the recipients were able to identify most of the correct responses, but very few were able to reliably determine which of the other responses was A.I. vs. my mimicry of it. In other words, ChatGPT was very bad at pretending to be human, but I was very good at pretending to be ChatGPT. Trust me, humans are still better at actual thought.

What we should be worried about

So what is A.I. really good at? Well, I’m sorry to say, I discovered recently that it’s phenomenally good at faking photos. I took this brief quiz in the New York Times asking me to identify, out of ten photos, which were real and which were fabricated by A.I. I did horribly, getting just 3 out of 10 correct. The friend who turned me on to the quiz scored only 2 points. My daughter and her friend both scored 4, and my wife got 5 right (which is the same as guessing at random). The quiz was based on a scientific study which found that the vast majority of participants were misled by the A.I. fakes. For four of the five fake photos, 89 to 93% of participants erroneously labeled them real. For four of the five real photos, 79 to 90% of participants erroneously labeled them fake.

Fortunately, I don’t think very many of us are employed in a field where generating fake photos is a big part of the job. That being said, the ability of A.I. to fool people is very disconcerting anyway. Referring to one of the study authors, the Times article declared, “The idea that A.I.-generated faces could be deemed more authentic than actual people startled experts like Dr. Dawel, who fear that digital fakes could help the spread of false and misleading messages online.” Indeed, when deployed by bad actors, this A.I. capability could wreak havoc on the public discourse, further befouling the already squalid troll-o-sphere and perpetrating pervasive new acts of societal vandalism. So let’s be careful out there…

Other albertnet posts on A.I.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Ask a Car Critic

Dear Car Critic,

Why do so many modern cars, not just sports cars but sedans and even station wagons, have low-profile tires like you’d see on a racecar? I rode in my kid’s Honda Accord and the ride was so harsh! What’s the point?

Chuck M, San Diego, CA

Dear Chuck,

I can offer you a simple answer and a more complicated answer. The simple answer is: people think low-profile tires look cool. The more complicated answer is: in accordance with mimetic theory, people want to buy the products that would be used by the ideal human whom they admire and wish they could be. They can’t afford the Aston Martin DB10 that James Bond has, but at least they can at least have a car with similarly sporty tires.


Not satisfied with my own hunch on this, I asked a tire guy. (I was at his shop after blowing out my second low-profile tire in under three years.) He said the same thing: low-profile tires look cool and that’s more important to people than having a smooth, quiet ride and not having to worry about big potholes (like the one that destroyed my first low-profile tire).

All this being said, there is a safety benefit to these tires. Because they’re wider they have more contact with the road, which improves traction, and the shorter sidewall means they squirm less under hard cornering. Granted, these characteristics generally benefit a driver who’s going too fast to begin with, but they can help in an emergency situation. (For example, I was driving on an interstate highway when a UPS truck came right into my lane. My extremely sudden swerve into the next lane might not have gone so well with traditional tires.) One other safety benefit is that the larger wheel rim can support bigger brake discs, which (if your car has them) enable faster stopping.

Dear Car Critic,

What is it with drink holders? Can’t people drive across town without their fricking Big Gulp? Cars never used to have these … what changed?

Sandra S, Spokane, WA

Dear Sandra,

While I am appalled by America’s evident addiction to soft drinks, I do find drink holders totally appropriate for road trips. Coffee is a must for very long drives, and I wouldn’t want to hold it in my lap. It would also be hypocritical of me to badmouth drink holders, because I’ve had them on all my bicycles since 1978 (though of course we call those “water bottle cages”). But drink holders on shopping carts … that’s just silly.


Dear Car Critic,

It’s time for a new car and my husband wants an SUV. I’m concerned about the gas mileage and frankly the sheer size of these vehicles, but my husband keeps emphasizing the safety aspect. We have two kids so he may have me over a barrel there—but I thought I’d check with you. Thoughts?

Emily W, San Antonio, TX

Dear Emily,

Of course there are good reasons to buy an SUV (e.g., you ski every weekend, or you’re a tradesman in a snowy, mountainous place and need to haul your tools around, or you have a fragile male ego that needs to be coddled), but safety isn’t among them. It is an absolute myth that SUVs are safer.

I used to work in risk management, and we evaluated risk along two axes: severity and likelihood. It may be true that an SUV protects its passenger effectively in an accident, but it’s also true that SUVs are more accident-prone. The reasons are threefold: 1) higher rollover risk, 2) greater weight leading to slower stopping; 3) overconfidence on the part of the driver. There was an excellent article about this, by Malcolm Gladwell, in the New Yorker twenty years ago; you can read the abstract here and the full article here. As Gladwell put it, “The benefits of being nimble—of being in an automobile that’s capable of staying out of trouble—are in many cases greater than the benefits of being big.” He cited data on deaths per million vehicles, as provided by a study conducted by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in conjunction with the University of Michigan, showing that, at that time, SUV drivers had far higher rates of death than drivers of small and even compact cars.

That data being rather old, and Gladwell being perhaps less than 100% reliable, I have researched more modern statistics about car safety. My first stop, the ratings website managed by the National Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), was not very helpful. I looked up the safety ratings for a variety of SUVs and they were all five-star, which might help explain why SUVs have a reputation for being safe. But then I started plugging in other vehicles at random, and they all got five stars as well. I tried my own car, my family members’ cars, my neighbors’ cars—everything was five stars. (It’s like the useless rating of all maple syrup in America: it’s all Grade A, whether it’s the tasty golden stuff that rises to the top or the murky brown stuff at the bottom.) Everyone gets a ribbon! What a joke. I think for the most part the NHTSA focuses on crash test dummy results, not the likelihood of an accident. The only difference I saw between the Ford Expedition and my car is that my car gets five stars across the board whereas the Expedition gets only three to four stars (depending on year) for rollover rating. (The only vehicle I could find with fewer than five stars was the four-star MINI Cooper, about which the NHTSA cautioned, “During the side impact test, the interior door panel struck the torso of the rear passenger dummy, causing a high lower spine acceleration.” To which I respond, who rides in the back of a MINI Cooper, besides your annoying baby brother who probably deserves a good spine acceleration?)

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an independent, nonprofit organization, is more helpful as it publishes modern data on deaths per million vehicles. It covers a decent variety (though alas, it’s not comprehensive). As of 2020, the Ford Fusion averaged 25 deaths per million and small cars in general averaged 54; the Ford Explorer had 22 deaths with midsize SUVs averaging 27. My first takeaway is that SUVs have gotten a lot safer in the last 20 years. That said, my second takeaway is that SUVs are not safer across the board. If you really want a safe vehicle, don’t assume SUVs are the way forward; simply peruse the IIHS website and find some individual vehicles with good numbers (and/or look up the car you already had your eye on). For example, the Subaru Outback shows just 6 deaths per million vehicle year, while that Jeep Grand Cherokee you might assume would be safe has a whopping 103 deaths per million. (My own car, a basic station wagon, which I assumed would be safe because it’s a Volvo, isn’t listed on the site, but the 4WD version of it boasts just 5 deaths per million.) Suffice to say, limiting your new car selection to SUVs on the basis of safety doesn't make much sense.


Dear Car Critic,

It feels like from a cultural perspective, there was a golden era of motor vehicles that’s now behind us. It was mainly a guy thing … it was just so much fun to sit around and gab away about cars, happy as clams. Where did this go?

Mark A, Grand Junction, CO

Dear Mark,

I hear you, and your letter makes me think of the classic Tom Waits monologue “The Pontiac.” Now, I can’t say for sure that men everywhere have stopped talking about cars (which would be like proving a negative), but I’ve witnessed this shift myself. I would say that historically, and thinking back to my dad’s generation, a big part of what men talked about when they talked about cars was how to fix them, which I think has become less of a DIY thing over the years, with the rising complexity of modern vehicles. My own car doesn’t even have a dipstick and I had to look on YouTube to figure out how to get the digital dashboard to show me the oil level. The cultural change is similar, perhaps, to how men used to talk about navigation at great length, comparing various routes you could take between point A and point B, and how that’s now been made obsolete by GPS. And then you’ve got the younger generation that increasingly doesn’t even drive (for example, my own daughters haven’t bothered to get their licenses). On top of it all, we have endless new entertainment options that take up a lot of people’s attention. So those are a few theories for you, anyway.

Dear Car Critic,

How do you get little animals out of your engine area when they go there to escape the cold? Man I dunno but I think car mammals are funny.

Amanda A, Portland, OR

Dear  Amanda,

I don’t know how seriously to take this question, but I totally agree car mammals are funny. Case in point: a friend of mine finished grad school  and bought his first proper, non-beater, grownup car, a nice Audi sedan. Then he was called away to a postdoc in Sweden for a year, which consisted primarily of doing a lot of testing on lab rats, about which he felt kind of conflicted. Well, he came home to discover that a family of rats had taken up residence in his car and eaten all the upholstery and electrical wiring, costing him many thousands of dollars in repairs. He shrugged it off, chalking it up to karma.

Getting back to your question, it seems like if you could manage not to drive your car for a good while, especially during a cold snap, the animals would leave for warmer environments (though hopefully not the cabin of the car). Or, you could try sending in a very svelte, slinky cat.

Dear Car Critic,

Why are so many modern cars so ugly?

Bruce H, Brooklyn, NY

Dear Bruce,

I know, right? This bothers me a lot … I drive down the highway looking at all the cars around me, noting my reactions to each in turn: “Ugly, ugly, ugly, ugly, ugly, passable, ugly, kinda cool, ugly, ugly, ugly.” I suspect the problem is the endless need that the automotive industry has for novelty. As of 2020, the US automotive market size was almost $900 billion, meaning they’re able to get a whole lot of people to replace their perfectly good cars with newer ones. So, despite how expensive these things are, the industry treats them like fashion products—thus nobody is working really hard at creating timeless, classic designs. That’s my theory, anyway.


I did a little research for you, too. As described in this article, the car designer Frank Stephenson, who “reincarnated the MINI” and designed the (also cool looking) Ferrari F430, says “carmakers have this mindset that bold, shocking designs convey confidence in their brand and product” and “they assume that consumers will eventually catch up to their way of thinking.” Meanwhile, he complains, modern designers have “lost the appreciation for sketching on paper, and this contributes to the new, robotic, cold designs the industry is imposing on consumers.”

Of course, it’s also possible to complain that too many cars look too much alike, which kind of flies in the face of the “bold, shocking” claim. Maybe it’s both. Or may it’s just that, by and large, cars are lame.

Dear Car Critic,

Did Harry inherit more than William?

Wendy C, Granite Bay, CA

Dear Wendy,

I’m sorry, you’ve got the wrong columnist. I know nothing about the royal family (and couldn’t care less).

Dear Car Critic,

What is a PZEV vehicle?

Robert M, Phoenix, AZ

Dear Robert,

It stands for “partial zero emissions vehicle,” which is linguistic blasphemy and a mathematical impossibility. On a less snotty note, this is the class of gas-powered motor vehicles that are the cleanest running.  As detailed here, PZEV vehicles have more sophisticated catalytic converters that turn nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide into less harmful gases, and fancy filters to keep unburned fuel vapors from escaping into the air. Now, if you’re trying to figure out of your own car is a PZEV, good luck with that. I went down that rabbit hole and was lucky to make it out alive (and no more informed than when I went in, alas).


Dear Car Critic,

I’m kind of torn when it comes to cars. On the one hand, I feel like I shouldn’t be swayed by “wow” features I’ll never use, like the cool little paddles alongside the steering wheel to shift gears. On the other hand, I want to own a car I will really love, even if it’s much fancier than I really need. Does that make me a hypocrite?

Lily A, Ashland, OR

Dear Lily,

I wouldn’t sweat the features that you don’t use. I mean, on the most fundamental level, most of us drive around with nobody in the rear passenger seats 90% of the time, but we wouldn’t want to switch to a two-seater. Meanwhile, most modern car tires (but not SUV tires!) could easily handle 100 mph safely even though almost nobody goes that fast (and none of us should). Most cars strike me as vastly over-engineered, but when we consider what’s at stake—literally life and death—perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. (Road traffic accidents, as documented by the CDC here, are a leading cause of death among people ages 1-54, second only to accidental poisoning, which includes overdoses.) I chose my car primarily because it’s safe, secondarily because it’s not ugly, and thirdly for its fuel economy, and although I adore the idea of its Geartronic shifting paddles, I never use mine, either. (I do wish my car were a stick shift.)

Hey Car Critic,

Why do you exist?

Ron M, Boston, MA

Dear Ron,

If I take your question literally, the answer is: because my parents wanted a girl, and my three older siblings all came out male. But I’m guessing that’s not what you’re asking. I’ll bet you’re chafing at the fact that, despite having no credible qualifications or education, I get to have my own column. That’s a harder question to answer, and you’d have to ask my publisher what he sees in me. My best guess is that it’s just because I’m dirt cheap. Meanwhile, though Ray Magliozzi’s “Car Talk” column is obviously far superior to mine, I have to say reading it sometimes makes me sad, as I think back to the radio show Ray no longer gets to do with his late brother Tom. Maybe people would rather read a hit-or-miss column from some rando who doesn’t even like cars.

A Car Critic is a syndicated journalist whose advice column, “Ask a Car Critic,” appears in over 0 blogs worldwide.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2024

New Year’s Resignation

Introduction

Is it too late to suggest a New Year’s Resolution? I’m hoping this is timed just right: those who started too early have already given up on their original Resolutions and need replacements, and those who haven’t yet made theirs are desperate for inspiration. Read on for my earnest recommendation. I’ll describe what I’m even talking about; give a few examples; explain why people disdain the art of resignation and what you can do about it; and touch on why we need it now more than ever.


Tune your resignation engine

Huh? Resignation engine? Look, there’s no really easy way to put this, but I propose that as this year’s Resolution we strive to improve our capacity for resignation. On the face of it, this might sound like “just give up,” which isn’t exactly inspirational or aspirational. But I’m not talking about the sense of resigning from a job or office; I mean the other definition, “unresisting acceptance of something as inescapable; submission” (American Heritage Dictionary, Fifth Edition).

Don’t give me that look. I know this still sounds pretty defeatist but bear with me. Unresisting acceptance sounds weak, largely due to the common phrase “resigned to his fate.” But resignation doesn’t have to involve fatalism. When you apply it instead to a process, instead of to an expected outcome, it can become a superpower.

I’ve blogged in these pages before (here!) about the perils of submitting to a goals-oriented culture that overemphasizes getting results, as opposed to simply doing things well for their own sake. Consider the following notion, which I stumbled across in a New York Times article on parenting: “A Dutch father of three told me about his Buddhist-inspired approach: total commitment to the process, total equanimity about the outcome.” I love this and think it can apply to a variety of human endeavors. If we focus on a process we know is worthwhile, we become more resilient when it doesn’t produce the outcome we’d hoped for.

So the behavior I’m really encouraging is to strive to better at resigning ourselves to the difficulty of a process, not to any specific fate (i.e., outcome). How this capability benefits us is complicated, so I will give an example.

Sunburst criterium, 1986

A criterium is a multi-lap bicycle race on city streets, usually lasting 90 minutes or less. On this occasion, it was like 100 degrees out, no exaggeration. I was a decent racer, generally able to finish in the top ten; in Colorado in those days we usually had at least fifty riders in every race and a lot of talent. What made things particularly intimidating was the 7-Eleven junior team: not only were these the fastest riders in the state, but they had each other—no other team could really stand up to them. To make matters worse, when I got to the Sunburst criterium I found out the entire junior national team was there—like five or six more top guys. To go suffer in the heat against all these big shots was pretty demoralizing.

I pretended to be casual about it, but I could be kind of a head case in those days, not above defeatist thinking, and it almost seemed pointless to go destroy myself out there with little chance, it seemed, of a top ten. But even in those days I had a talent for resignation, or at least I’d developed some capability in that realm, because I resolved to just get out there and hang with the pack for as long as I could, hopefully the entire race. I was well aware that if I got dropped I’d never catch back up, and would probably be lapped, and pulled from the race by the referee, which would be frankly humiliating, but what else could I do?

Sure enough, the pace was brutal. Criteriums never start out mellow like a long road race, and between the 7-Eleven riders (or “Slurpees” as they were known) and the junior national team, a lot of egos were on exhibit. I was in the back of the pack, which in theory would give me the best draft (i.e., break from the wind), but when accelerations are constant and little gaps open up, the inefficiency grows as you get farther back in the group—you’re whipped around like the end of a long tail, working your ass off just to remain in contact. It’s more efficient to move up toward the front, but everyone has that idea, so it’s a constant struggle. I was dying the whole time but just hung in as though I had a chance.

Remember my rhetorical question from earlier—“what else could I do?” Well, there’s actually an answer: I could have dropped out, and after all nobody would fault me too much for that, because as I said it was like 100 degrees out. And before too long, a rider did drop out, and then another, and as the race went on the pack continued to thin out. Every rider that bailed—especially when it was a Slurpee or a national team member—kind of gave others tacit permission to do the same. I myself never considered doing so: I was resigned to suffering because I always suffered, and rote suffering seemed like the entire point of the sport. So I just hung in, and with two or three laps to go the damnedest thing happened: I realized I no longer felt that bad, and I was finally able to move up through the pack. There were fewer riders in it, after all, and most of them were pretty gassed. With a lap to go I’d made it into the top ten, and though we weren’t able to reel in a breakaway of one or two riders, I did a good sprint at the end and took fourth in the race—a really solid finish for me, especially with the junior national team there.

So what’s the takeaway? It’s this: for me, the race went well because I was resigned to suffering but not to defeat. I could have told myself I couldn’t get a top ten and been resigned to that, which would have been a mistake … I never would have made my move at the end. Or, I could have decided I had no chance and dropped out like so many other guys. But I didn’t assume, despite my misgivings, that I was simply doomed. Instead, I was resigned to wretchedly enduring the speed and the heat, and continued as though I had no choice. The reasons I ended up placing high were nothing I’d predicted : 1) it turns out I handle the heat better than a lot of guys (which I’d never realized until that day), and 2) the junior national team had come from all over the country and probably most or all of them weren’t acclimated to the thin air at Denver’s elevation, 5,400 feet, and thus were at a disadvantage (which I didn’t put together until today, thinking back on this almost forty years later). My resignation to just suffer, in this case, was essentially the opposite of fatalism. My willingness to just see what might happen, versus telling myself a clever story about how it would probably turn out, was the right approach. When we’re looking for a reason to persevere in the face of certain failure, we need to remember that failure is never certain.

Resignation as a habit

What I described above is an instance, essentially, of tenacity: I kept going instead of just quitting. There’s obviously an athletic component to this, which is why some people are able to continue a rigorous physical activity when others cannot, but remember: I was not one of the most talented riders in that race. Tenacity often comes down to mindset, and mindset in turn comes down to grit: the kind of grit that can be earned, the hard way, even in the absence of great talent. I did a good many pointlessly hard rides in my teens; for example, a 130-mile excursion over Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous highway in the U.S. at over 12,0000 feet elevation. (It was an out-and-back ride and would have been easy to bail on, but I didn’t.) Every time we embrace resignation and continue striving under brutal duress, we toughen ourselves, in mind and body, and thereby increase our confidence that we can endure next time as well. This gives us the ability to be resigned in advance next time we’re considering a bold undertaking.

This is an important point: there are two forms of being resigned to a process. There’s the type in the moment, which I’ve described before (here!), which I call “climbing stupid.” Instead of asking yourself, on a brutal cycling climb, “can I make it?” you pretend that you literally have no choice, and approach the task one pedal stroke at a time, like a robot. Acknowledging that you could quit is the first step in doing so, and you must not take it. The other type of resignation is when you know something is going to be absolutely brutal, and that you could opt out of committing to it, but instead you recall all the times you persevered, and the grit you know you have, and thus you can resolve to commit, in advance, to something that you know will be really difficult and that will draw on all your powers of in-the-moment resignation.

Here’s an example. As documented extensively in these pages, I did a weeklong cycling tour in the French Alps last summer, which brought me right to the very edge of my capability as a cyclist. The penultimate day completely kicked my ass: not only the fearsome Col du Galibier, which was the devil I knew (having spectacularly detonated on it twenty years before) but also the Col du Granon, the devil I met that day and hope never to encounter again. I finished all four climbs that day through the first type of resignation: climbing stupid. I was just completely knackered after that, but had one more day to go, with three more brutal climbs. During dinner, the tour director came around to see who still wanted to do the full route (the so-called “Epic A”) the next day, vs. dropping down to a more merciful route (the Epic B). Among the tour groups, the week had started with fifteen Epic A riders but had dwindled down to five, and of those five I was probably the most shattered. The director seemed to be addressing me personally when he cautioned our group that the forecast was for drizzle, if not outright rain, the full day. I hate the cold and the wet; as described here I normally eschew wet weather riding altogether. I was sorely tempted to drop down to the B group—after all, hadn’t I suffered enough?—but when my friends promised to hang back with me on the first two climbs, I reconsidered. Calling on my long history of somehow enduring such things, and boosted by my friends’ vote of confidence in me, I resigned myself—in advance—to doing the full route. In the event, the weather improved dramatically during that final day, and the second giant climb, the Col de Sarenne, ended up being the most beautiful of the entire week.



(Did I pay dearly for my boldness? Of course I did. As described here, the final climb of that final day, the legendary Alpe d’Huez, caused me to draw deeply on my entire lifetime reservoir of resignation to finally make the summit, after which I was just wrecked. It was an absolutely brutal day on the bike, which is of course the whole point and what cements the memory as one of my fondest. I mean, duh.)

Obstacles to resignation

If resignation came easily to us, of course I wouldn’t be recommending it as a New Year’s Resolution … I wouldn’t need to. But it doesn’t come easily. Why not? For one thing, because it’s humbling. Sure, describing some heroic struggle in the Alps doesn’t paint it in such a poor light, but so often resignation is more along the lines of being on hold for 45 minutes with an airline because your flight got canceled. It’s so tempting to declare, “I don’t have time for this shit!” and pretend you can seek some other course of action, usually involving anger and aggression.

I’m not trying to imply that resignation is just another word for patience, because they’re not exactly the same. An impatient person can be appropriately resigned if it’s the only way forward. Moreover, there’s a specific impediment to resignation we don’t see with patience: the perception that some principle is being violated, that one shouldn’t have to be resigned to a difficult or tedious process. “Why should I have to be on hold with the airline? I didn’t cancel my flight!” Or, “Why should I have to do tedious, painful physical therapy twice a day? I didn’t cut off a cyclist with my car!” Of course, these strong feelings of principle are pointless. Do you want to avoid changing planes in Houston at 3 a.m.? Do you want to walk normally again? Well then … resign yourself.

My favorite example of resignation being challenged in this way involves parenthood.  When my older daughter was just a toddler, I often had to be on watch duty, which (after an initial period of fascination, wonder, and pride at her dinking with her toys) became incredibly dull and repetitive. My wife and I were determined not to make TV or other electronic entertainment into a babysitter, which made the job even harder. I would sit down with a novel and try to read while keeping an eye on my kid, but every ten seconds she would wander out of sight, or figure out some way to introduce danger into her supposedly childproof environment, or get bored and start crying, or fill her diaper, and I’d have to put my book down, get up, and intervene. Given how sleep-deprived I was, this became annoying as hell. It was often tempting to try to solve the problem by swift, decisive action, such as picking up my daughter and giving her a good shake. (Just kidding, making sure you’re still awake.) I found this work detail incredibly frustrating until I figured out the root problem: I simply wasn’t resigned to the reality of it. I was supposing I could multi-task and get some reading done, but this was pure fiction. Once I became committed to doing just this one thing—watching my kid—it got a lot easier. By focusing on her, I could renew the anthropological study of what she was doing, and/or lie on my back on the floor and let her crawl over me, or otherwise engage with her, and I generally enjoyed it. This is because I was resigned to the process. Again, it wouldn’t be correct to say I was resigned to my fate, because I wasn’t in fact fated to be bored. That had seemed like the likely outcome, but in the event my baby turned out to be far cuter and more fun than any other baby who ever lived (as far as you know) so the single-threaded supervision wasn’t as bad as I’d assumed it would be. Just like the weather on the Col de Sarenne, or my competition in the Sunburst Criterium.

Extending resignation

Mastery of the art of resignation lends itself to more than just enduring a tough or tedious situation. It can help you be more philosophical when life doesn’t go the way you want it to. For example, my younger daughter was home from college for the winter break, and my wife and I faced an all too familiar feeling of rejection when she didn’t spend much time with us. She wanted to be off with her friends, or shutting herself away in her room. But when we bothered to think about it, the idea that she’d want to hang out a lot with a couple of 50-somethings was totally unrealistic. We asked ourselves, what were we like at age twenty? Were we any different? Of course not. Once we resigned ourselves to not seeing that much of our daughter, we no longer felt disappointed or offended, and when she did cook a meal with us, or read aloud to us, or go with us on a hike, that seemed more like a gift than some contract being met.

So it is with ageing. Does my wife tolerate my receding hairline and all the groaning I do when I embark on some really difficult physical task like getting up from the sofa? She does. If I point-blank ask her if it’s okay that most of my hair is now in my nostrils and ears, she laughs with me instead of at me (I think). She has wisely accepted, as have I, that despite what the Anti-Ageing Industrial Complex keeps telling us, getting old and wrinkled and stiff is inevitable, and watching each other’s inexorable decline is, in fact, what we signed up for when we married. So as we age, I’d say we need the capacity for resignation more than ever. If you agree, why not make it your New Year’s Resolution to tune your resignation engine? Starting now? Don’t worry, you have what it takes … if you’ve made it to the end of this post, I can vouch for your grit and tenacity. ;-)

Further reading

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Monday, January 8, 2024

From the Archives - Bits & Bobs Volume XI

Introduction

This is the eleventh installment in the “From the Archives – Bits & Bobs” series. Volume I is here, Volume II is here, Volume III is here, Volume IV is here, Volume V is here, Volume VI is here, Volume VII is here, Volume XIII is here, Volume IX is here, and Volume X is here. (The different volumes have little or nothing to do with one another.)

Before the blogosphere, I didn’t have any audience for my random ramblings except friends and family whom I emailed. Now, I can be largely ignored by five billion people at once instead of just one at a time! O brave new world!

The dispatches below are from ancient emails to my brother G—, when I was newly married and living in San Francisco. He was (and is) living in the Netherlands. Here is a photo of the two of us from around the time I wrote these.


March 4, 1995

I heard from B— about your computer woes. I’m kind of afraid to buy a computer, because the technology gets outdated so quickly. But then again, I only need a simple machine for my needs, except my hard drive is almost full and certain things run slowly. And I really think I’d rather use a different typing tutorial program for learning Dvorak; I mean, the Typing Lobster is cool and all, but the more sophisticated typing software could probably better teach the Dvorak layout. My computer is a 386 running at a scant 16 MHz, with only a single meg of RAM. But it is a 386, darn it, and I could always add RAM. For that matter, I could replace the hard drive. It’s the motherboard that’s a mother to replace. Hence the name, perhaps. Motherboard. What a cool word. I’ll bet every computer nerd gets a little rush when he has the opportunity to use “motherboard” in a sentence. He pauses momentarily for buildup, looks his pal in the eye, and says, “Goddammit, Ralph, we need to slap in a whole new motherboard. Shit.” Then he breaks into a grin, because I’m sure that for a computer geek, replacing the motherboard is like overhauling a nice road bike is for us.

Work is busy, but not too bad and something really cool just happened: our office manager quit, and I got her office! It’s a great office. Fantastic view from 22 floors up. Plus, I have a door I can close when I hold important meetings (which are rare, I admit). More importantly, once I’ve been given an office, I’ll never have to go back to that stupid half-high cubicle, and my colleagues are bound to have more professional respect for a Man with an Office than for a Guy with a Space. Our controller lauded my move, saying, “Big day for the big D … goin’ from the doghouse to the penthouse!”

April 12, 1995

Had a real scare tonight. We went out to Chinese with E— and her niece, S— who is a freshman in high school and spending spring break with us. We found a really good place, the R&G lounge (recommended highly by a Chinese woman we met in a dime store). The place had good food, and a funny fortune (“Be tactful; overlook not your own opportunity,” like who else’s are we gonna overlook?), and pretty good service. The waitress was dumbfounded, though, when S— asked for sugar for her tea. S— has a real sweet tooth: I found an empty frosting tub in our recycling, for example … but I digress. Anyhow, I did a terribly irresponsible thing: you know that beautiful multicolor umbrella that you gave us for Christmas? Well, I accidently left it behind after our meal! I didn’t realize my error until we were already all the way over in North Beach, and it was 10 PM. Needless to say I sprinted back to the R&G Lounge, running for all I was worth, but got there after the place had closed. I hammered on the door; no luck. I ran around back and hammered on the back door; still no response. But I couldn’t face the loss, so I just kept pounding. It was a glass door, so I couldn’t use my foot; just kept rapping with my knuckles, which got sorer all the time. Finally somebody appeared, and let me in. He seemed a bit disappointed that I’d returned for the umbrella, which he did go find for me. He declared, “I thought that umbrella would be my souvenir!” I’m so glad I got it back. I can go on living.

April 26, 1995

I got your e-mail bemoaning the staggering $100 price tag for Levi’s blue jeans over there in Holland, and am excited to help you out. Since you haven’t indicated whether you needed Levi’s blue jeans in particular, I went to the Gap over the weekend to see if they had any sales. No luck on discounted jeans, but I ended up blowing $85 on a few groovy linen shirts. So it wasn’t all for naught.

Well, yesterday on my lunch break I went to Banana Republican and looked around. At first it didn’t look promising, but then I found a section with some discounted jeans. The only problem was, the sizing seemed strange. They had sizes like 34R and 34L; I figured out it meant regular and long, but how regular? how long? I asked the clerk and she said regular was 32” inseam, long was 34”. The weird sizing was in fact why they were on sale: because the sizes didn’t make sense, and nobody understood them, and BR has now gone to a two-number system like everybody else, and have to blow out all the jeans under the old sizing system. So I found some that had little stickers over the “34L” that said “34/34.” I guess that was an unsuccessful solution to the problem.

I couldn’t find any in 36” length but tried on some 34s, and they fit well. I didn’t have E— there to verify that the jeans have that uncanny ability to turn even the most homely guy into a sex symbol, but the length, anyway, was fine. I asked a clerk and she said they always did run long. (Didn’t ask her about the sex symbol thing.) Anyway, I bought three pairs—two for you and one for me. I was tempted to buy more. These aren’t Levi’s, mind you, but they’re called the Ranch Hand cut, which is a relaxed jean.

I should pause here to explain some of the clothing nomenclature to you. If something is cheap and quotidian, it typically has a plural name, e.g. pants, jeans, sunglasses. However, if it is very expensive and chic, it gets a singular name, e.g. “a nice pant,” “a relaxed jean,” “a sophisticated sunglass.” I’ve actually heard sales clerks say that. “These are cheap jeans.” “That’s a nice pant.” Very sophisticated language.

So anyway, these are a relaxed jean. (Staggering grammatical implications here.) Button fly. Made in USA. 100% Cotton Denim. Inspected by #27. Preshrunk. Stonewashed. (Not acid-washed … remember that heinous 80’s teen indoor mall look?) I am told these jean will not shrink more than 1/4” unless you routinely dry them on high heat, in which case they will shrink up to 1/2” over the months. The price? Well . . . $58.00. Ouch. But cheaper than Levi’s in Holland, right? Oh, wait . . . that’s not the sale price. The sale price was a mere $39. Sure, you can get jeans for less—but not a jean! Significant savings. But you know, that apparently wasn’t enough to move these cursed improperly sized jean, for a second sale tag, overlapping the original just slightly, listed the price at an even lower $29.99! Okay, now we’re talking! That’s almost half price! So I’m certain you’ll agree that such a fine jean are well worth $30.

But you know, even with the “34/34” sticker firmly placed over the godforsaken “34L,” the second sale price still wasn’t enough to get these things off the floor and into the wardrobes of San Francisco. Nothing less than a third tag brought the price down even further, all the way down to $19.99! Now, you can’t even get Sears Toughskins for that. For that price, maybe you could do a cheesy pair of off-brand seconds at Ross Dress for Less, stamped “IMPERFECT,” with the crotch sewn in backwards or something like that. But no, we’re talking the Ranch Hand Relaxed Jean. Amazing.

So I’ll send them out. If anybody out there in Holland questions the rich American heritage of Banana Republican, or in any way insinuates that Levi’s are cooler, just say something like, “Well, yeah, sure, Levi’s are great jeans . . . but these are a pant.” (Is your Dutch good enough to communicate such subtleties?)

May 10, 1995

Well, it’s 10:00pm and I still have to ride. The weather’s been crappy so I’ve been riding my Blackburn Mag Turbo trainer. I got a flat tire on it last night. Go figure. Then, when I was hunting for a spare tube in my toolbox, I suffered a freak accident. Remember the trophy from my Burrito Eating World Championship? It had this giant wooden base with an engraved brass plaque, with my name and everything, and then a giant spring-type shock absorber with the shimmering silver burrito atop it. Well, I don’t know if you ever learned what sad fate befell that trophy, so I’ll tell you. Months after the big burrito race, throughout which time the trophy had enjoyed prominent placement on our apartment’s coffee table, I had a fit of pique (unrelated to the trophy, probably over some girl or something) and suddenly grabbed the trophy, jumped up from the sofa, ran out the front door to the railing overlooking our parking lot, and threw the trophy over the edge. The shock absorber exploded on impact, if memory serves (though this is exactly the kind of detail I’d embellish, I confess). My roommate C— cheered wildly because he’d gotten sick of looking at the trophy. Well, I regretted my recklessness immediately, but of course there was nothing to be done for the trophy. I did pry off the engraved plaque, though, and kept it as, well, a trophy I guess you could say. Anyway, last night (as I was starting to tell you before that grand diversion) I was rifling through my toolbox, on a shelf in a closet, and dislodged the trophy plaque, which fell from a height of four feet or so. It hit my bare leg just above the ankle, causing a huge gash which bled profusely. So what do you think … was this karmic retribution?

December 23, 1996

Mom’s down here for Christmas, which is nice. It’s been raining like crazy here, but today it went from cloudy to a clear blue sky in a span of like five minutes. So E—, Mom & I decided to go for a walk, and popped into various shops to poke around. We found this neat bowl at a place just down the street from our apartment, at a little shop called Jade Snow Wong. Jade Snow Wong is the name of the owner; she’s also a creator of ceramics and a writer of nonfiction, and Mom read one of her books when she was in high school! Anyway, this bowl is just the perfect shape. It’s weird, but holding it, cupping it in your palms, brings about a really soothing feeling. So we bought it; it was like $6. We walked all around Chinatown and bought some really weird stuff. Like this really fancy soap, in a colored paper wrapper with a gold seal and everything, the kind of soap that would cost like $5 a bar in our neighborhood; four for a dollar there. We also bought this really strange Ginseng chewing gum. It smells, and tastes, like over-sweetened dirt. I’d thought it might give me a buzz, but no dice. Remember that bean drink we bought once in Chinatown, that was so sickeningly cloyingly sweet, and how the cashier laughed and laughed when we drank it because we couldn’t keep from making faces?

Anyway, we eventually ended up at House of Nanking, and had a typically great meal. The owner, Peter Fang, was there, as usual, working in every capacity you can imagine from host to waiter to cook. You remember meeting him, right? He’s always got this boyish smile on his face, and doesn’t seem in the least bit intimidated by the culture gap, if there still is one, between himself and his customers. He stopped at the bar where we were eating and asked if the scallops were delicious. (Of course they were.) Then he asked, with a slight smirk, if we were going to Macy’s afterwards, and we said no. He said, feigning surprise, “You’ve already bought everything?”

 “We did buy some things,” I laughed. He looked totally interested as I dragged out the bag with the soap in it, and he watched eagerly as I unwrapped it, then laughed his ass off when he saw what we bought. “Let me guess, four for a dollar?” he asked. I said yes. Then I handed him the bowl, but he neglected to cup it properly and thus fully appreciate it. “Uh, four-fifty,” he guessed. “No, six,” I said. He giggled and either said, “You got taken” (which I actually kind of doubt) or simply had the expression that said we got taken. “But we didn’t buy this in Chinatown, we bought it in Russian Hill,” E— explained. “Oh, oh,” he nodded, understanding completely.

We also had their chow mein, which has even ropier noodles than the Gondolier in Boulder, but is great (and cheap, $3.30!). Perhaps the most exciting thing we ate was this Eggplant Szechwan Style, which had the normal green pea pods but also this brilliant, I mean absolutely electric, purple eggplant, of course in a spicy sauce with lots of garlic. It was the loudest looking Chinese dish I’ve ever ordered, and delicious. I asked if it was made from a special eggplant. It was a “young Chinese” eggplant, Mr. Fang said. When they get older they lose some of their quality, he explained, and become less tender. It dawned on me that you can eat the young eggplant without any of the guilt you may feel when eating veal.

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