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Nov 25, 2019

The hell of micro-tasking

None of these things is a big deal. Complete another required training. Approve a request. Sign a contract. Confirm a transaction. Find and send me this one file. RSVP. Complete a survey. Evaluate so and so. Submit your absences, approve absences, now do the same for UEI. Sign the log here. Set a reminder. Enter into the project list. Schedule a meeting. Put together a Doodle poll. Send a message to your faculty. Send a message to your staff. Find that e-mail, and send it to me. Find that form online, complete it, sign in, send it. Build a survey, get a link, send it out.

None of these will take more than a few minutes to do. However, they eventually swell into a huge swarm of micro-tasks. Like mosquitoes, their individual bite is almost imperceptible. All together, they can suck your blood, all of it, to the last drop. All you have to do is to send me your […] once a semester, in this format. Because any single task seems reasonable and easy to do, they do not trigger resentment and do not provoke a revolt at the time of introduction. What is one mosquito bite to me? Gradually, they add to a huge swarm that can darken the sun. You tend to get frustrated and paralyzed, suddenly sending messages too short to be polite, because you cannot afford to write a longer one.

This is the unfortunate side effect of automation. Each individual procedure was meant to remove routine, boring clerical work. And it does – 99% goes to a machine somewhere, but 1% comes back to you, the dean, the chair, the faculty member. Objectively speaking, the management revolution within the higher ed is remarkable. With digital tools, we can now do much more, much faster, with more accuracy, and fewer mistakes. Subjectively speaking, it feels like the special hell of micro tasks. Each requires a tiny thought, a small effort that depletes the brain power one bit at a time. They fill all the small gaps in the day. I pee with a phone in my left hand. I eat my lunch with an eye on yet another dashboard. Something went wrong with automation, probably a few years ago. Half of emails in my inbox are written by computers; no human being wrote the, and I am just another computer in the network.

I have a hypothesis. There is evidence that introducing helmets made football even more dangerous, because athletes believe they are less vulnerable, and take more risks. In the same way, institutions would not dream of doing that much over such short periods if they did not have the online forms, the data processing, servers, mail merge, email, including automatically generated email. We just attempt to do too much, because we know the power of the information technology at our disposal. Human hubris is fed by the believe our brains are as good as the machines we make. They are not; they cannot handle too many easy tasks. The micro tasks make us incapable of handling the real, important tasks. Well, at least this is how I feel right now, on vacation, while looking at my inbox, horrified.

Nov 18, 2019

Is preschool a deniable service?

Karen, and Associate Dean, and I had exactly the same thought while visiting a preschool in Shenyang: “Why they can afford it, and we cannot?” The preschool is a gorgeous building with large windows, a number of role-play areas (a toy kitchen, a supermarket, a hospital). There was a multi-layer crawl construction in the middle, bedrooms for all children, classrooms, a pond with real fish, a fruit and vegetable garden… Whatever stereotypes you may have about Chinese preschool, definitely did not apply – the kids were happy, outgoing, curious, and busy playing and socializing. I specifically asked if this private preschool is an exception. I was told that it is one of the 5-stars, better preschools, but by no means is an exception in the city of 8 million. In fact, many university faculty kids went here. In China, university professors are solidly middle class, of course, making more than an average person, but still one can tell – this is not a place only for the elite.

Now, the median salary in Shenyang is $14,826 per year, while the median household income in in Sacramento is $ $56,943. Those are not the same measures, but still. Why is it again that they can afford such preschool, and we cannot? I actually know all the answers – about the labor cost, about the taxation structure, about the paternalistic state… Yet somehow, none of these answers satisfies. We have the money build and run quality preschool for every child. What we lack is a political consensus on whether such a service is undeniable.

There is a class of services I call undeniable – they are impossible to deny to anyone. And the list of those services have been expanding with time. For example, anyone who shows up at an emergency room will be served regardless of income. That right cannot be denied anymore, even though it is a relatively recent achievement. No one can starve in this country. While some people’s diet may be terrible, there has not been starvation. No child can be denied a K-12 education. Its quality may be questionable at times, but K-12 education is an undeniable service.

As the scope of undeniable services grows, so does the role of the state. You may or may not be a fun of socialism (I am definitely not one), but the practical reality is strikingly obvious: the list of deniable services keeps shrinking, while the list of undeniable services keeps growing. Preschool is still a deniable service, but for how long? Higher education is deniable, but we are not sure if it lasts. Basic healthcare has been deemed an undeniable service in most of the developed world, with the exception of the US, but the exception will not last for long. The existence of disposable wealth itself drive the process. It becomes morally impossible to see a starving person in the middle of an affluent society. There are many socialist and even communist institutions in the US, you only have to make an effort to see them. Public libraries are utopian communist organizations – free to all, unlimited. The military and the police, public education, community health clinics, environmental protection, fire departments, urban infrastructure - all socialist institutions, already here.

As anyone who grew in the Soviet Union, I am wary of all things socialist. A powerful bureaucratic state contains many dangers, including over-rich into private lives, and inefficiencies. At the same time, I cannot ignore the growth of undeniable services, and am not at all surprised at the rise of the Left wing of the Democratic Party. I am not sure what it would do to the next election, but the long trend seems to be towards more socialism, and more redistribution of income. We will have preschools in Sacramento like that one in Shenyang, sooner or later.

Nov 11, 2019

Gingko leaves

In California, fall comes gradually; as if unsure it is welcome. In New England or in Siberia, it invades the world quickly, uninvited, and cocky. But not here: plane trees will start rusting slowly and dutifully long before the first hints of cold. The grass never dies; to the contrary, it gets greener and thicker in the fall. Sequoias ignore the whole seasonality thing altogether. Some ducks leave while others hang out through the winter, if you could call it that. It is a mixed picture; only the sun comes up not as high, glancing sideways at us, changing the tint of every color slightly.

I take my clue from gingkoes. They are the masters of the autumnal arts. Their leaves will greet me with such an honest, naïve, and courageous yellow. Colors normally do not tell me much. Svetlana can see thousands of interacting shades, hear a whole symphony of colors. I barely get the tune; perhaps this is why gingkoes seems to be so loud to me. Their yellow is like trafficс light letting another fall into the city. A gingko leaf is shaped unlike any other leaf. It looks like a delicate insect, or a fairy. If you don’t see gingkoes in the fall, you are missing the season altogether.

Nov 1, 2019

How to avoid being manipulated

If you speak with someone and suddenly start feeling anger, resentment, or irritation against another person or a group, a red flag should always pop up. Your mind just have been hacked, and you are being manipulated. The person you’re talking to wants to use you for their purposes, to fight their fight with your help. In a regular, harmless gossip session, you feel just mildly amused. When you’re being manipulated, you feel a stronger emotion and want to act. Our emotion makes the actual difference.

The mechanics of manipulation are very old. The manipulator links your solidarity instinct with the justice instinct. We all are naturally inclined to emphasize with our interlocutor. That is how social cohesion works. At the same time, human have a deeply ingrained sense of fairness that has been found in animals as well. A manipulator uses two perfectly good instincts to recruit you into something that is good for her or him, but not necessarily for you. Then you find yourself fighting a pointless fight, or being embroiled in something you have no stake in. Once you join a pointless fight, it is difficult to retrieve, since you have already invested your reputation and capital in it. This why the initial hack is so important to notice.

A common pitch is like this: “They (administrators | other departments | junior faculty | senior faculty | T&P committee) are so incompetent | selfish | wrong | untrustworthy | greedy. They just did this (fill in with almost any action).” To manipulate others, you need to hit on a point they are already anxious about. With junior faculty, tenure and promotion always works well. With all faculty, allege violation of shared governance, because there are so many myths about shared governance in the first place. With administrators, exploit the anxiety about their performance. With women, touch on gender bias. With white men, there are too many anxieties to list. All of this could be done with an e-mail, just forward some private conversation, and add a few words to create some toxic context.

Smart people are manipulated just as easily as simpletons. In fact, people with better social instincts can become an easier prey, because their solidarity and fairness are well developed. This is why the Academia is so prone to group conflicts with very little substance. Such conflicts can last decades, and they damage souls of many otherwise wonderful people.

To avoid being manipulated is a discipline, a set of simple rules that many wise people discover on their own. However, some never do. It is not anything particularly new. The Buddhists probably figured it out the best, hence their stance against attachment, or clinging. The Stoics had similar ideas, and so did other religious traditions. A manipulator has invisible tentacles that attach themselves to your emotional veins and insert their fine poison. Imagine brushing off those tentacles, not allowing them to attach to your skin. That is what the Buddha meant.

The inoculation against being manipulated is simple. Ask yourself – why is s/he saying this to me? (This is an amazingly effective simple trick). What would the absent person or group say in response? What is their perspective? Can you be them for the sake of a conversation? Literally walk over to that other person(s) in question and ask for their perspective. Reflect on your own emotions – why am I feeling angry? Do I really care, or this is the manipulator’s agenda? Is the cause for our joined anger really a big deal? Is there too much drama? Are my emotions being hijacked? Don’t be too fast to empathize or express agreement. Do not commit to a possible manipulation stack; take time to think about it.

What about the manipulators? Why do they do it? Some people cannot live without some intrigue going on in their lives. It probably has to do with some unresolved middle school issues, where they had to have a victory over randomly appointed enemies, and collect an ever-greater army of supporters to do that. If you learn a few tricks, you can entertain yourself endlessly by stirring up conflict, outsmarting your enemies, and fooling the naïve to do your bidding. For others, it is an inept attempt to grab more power or at least influence. It never works, because those who fell victim of manipulation will eventually catch up to it, feel silly, and never trust the manipulator again. Manipulators are compulsive; it is a sort of addiction to steering up conflict. They cannot help it, and even more – their intentions are not all that bad. It is just a bad habit, and they are rarely happy because of that.

I have never seen a manipulator who is really good at it, although literature suggests they do exist. Or else, they are so good that I am being manipulated, but am not aware of it.