Leonard Comma, the CEO of Jack in the Box, indicated that the fast food chain will reconsider replacing human cashiers with machines like self-service kiosks as California gradually increases its minimum wage over the next four years, according to Business Insider. “As we see the rising costs of labor, it just makes sense,” he reportedly said on Tuesday at the ICR Conference in Florida. Comma claims that previous tests of automated kiosks at certain Jack in the Box locations, which began in 2006, resulted in greater efficiency and higher checks on average. The installation costs just weren’t worth it at the time. However, California Governor Jerry Brown recently signed a law in 2016 that will raise the state’s minimum wage incrementally each year to $15 by 2022. And California is just a part of a nation-wide wave of minimum wage reforms—17 other states, including New York, Michigan, and Washington, are also seeing increases early this year.
Automation is a familiar threat from executives unhappy with rising labor costs. Andrew Puzder, the CEO of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s who was briefly Trump’s pick for labor secretary, told Business Insider in 2016 that he would be interested in developing an employee-free restaurant if minimum wages keep rising. “[Robots are] always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case,” he told reporters.
We’re shocked — absolutely shocked! — that a CEO would consider automation over human workers.
So much for the promised wage increases as a result of their generous tax cuts.
In an open letter published Monday, more than 20 industry leaders and pioneers skewered the FCC over its plan to repeal net neutrality rules, which require internet service providers (ISPs) to treat all content equally.
“It is important to understand that the FCC’s proposed Order is based on a flawed and factually inaccurate understanding of Internet technology,” the letter, addressed to lawmakers with oversight of the FCC, reads. “These flaws and inaccuracies were documented in detail in a 43-page-long joint comment signed by over 200 of the most prominent Internet pioneers and engineers and submitted to the FCC on July 17, 2017. Despite this comment, the FCC did not correct its misunderstandings.”
The comment referred to in the letter detailed numerous technical mistakes in the FCC’s proposed order, including a flawed understanding of the differences between ISPs and edge providers (content companies like Netflix), and how firewalls function (described in the document as “a stunning lack of technical knowledge”).
The engineers and experts who penned the comment warned that repealing net neutrality could have “dangerous consequences, including stifling future innovation and depressing future investment in the wealth of Internet services that drive such a large part of the U.S. economy.”
This sentiment was echoed in Monday’s letter, whose signatories included Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Mozilla Foundation Executive Chairwoman Mitchell Baker and Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle.
The letter detailed how the FCC has not just ignored experts’ warnings but also the millions of public comments that have been submitted on the issue. The FCC, the letter noted, has also not “held a single open public meeting to hear from citizens and experts about the proposed Order” ― a break from “established practice.”
The letter’s authors urged lawmakers on the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, and the House Energy Subcommittee on Communications and Technology to push FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to “cancel the FCC’s vote,” scheduled for Thursday.
“The FCC’s rushed and technically incorrect proposed Order to abolish net neutrality protections without any replacement is an imminent threat to the Internet we worked so hard to create. It should be stopped,” the letter concluded.
Washington (CNN)President Donald Trump dissolved his much-touted voter fraud commission on Wednesday, attributing the step to various states’ refusal to participate in the board, which was criticized as a misguided step to solve a practically non-existent problem.
“Many mostly Democrat States refused to hand over data from the 2016 Election to the Commission On Voter Fraud. They fought hard that the Commission not see their records or methods because they know that many people are voting illegally. System is rigged, must go to Voter I.D.,” Trump said in a Thursday morning tweet.
In the wake of the announcement, advisers outlined hesitation from within the White House for months about the commission.
“It’s a s–t show,” said one White House adviser to CNN, adding that the commission went “off the rails.”
Trump established the commission in May after claiming without evidence that massive voter fraud had cost him the popular vote, and he appointed Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to lead the panel.
But after months went by and the commission faced pushback from officials across the country, civil rights advocates and even a member of the commission itself — as well as an unclear mandate, according to the White House official — Trump pulled the plug Wednesday.
In a statement, the White House said dissolving the commission would avoid “endless legal battles at taxpayer expense,” adding that Trump has asked the Department of Homeland Security to determine future action.
Another White House official familiar with the matter said the commission was unable to operate as structured under the Federal Advisory Committee Act. That law mandates a degree of transparency around commission activities and was the subject of litigation against it.
The official also suggested the Department of Homeland Security could take up the issue.
A controversial task from the start
The commission has been beset by controversy virtually since it began.
Critics contended Trump was simply finding a way to account for his popular vote loss in the 2016 presidential election, and one White House adviser expressed a belief that Trump simply wanted the commission to deliver a report saying voter fraud is a problem and to offer some directives to address it.
Another senior White House official acknowledged bringing on Kobach was controversial.
“He’s a lightning rod,” the official said.
A source close to Pence said chairing the commission “wasn’t something that (Pence) asked for,” but that the vice president has a “workman-like attitude” about these things, and so he took on the job.
The source said Trump wanted Kobach involved in the commission with the understanding that while Pence would share the chairing role with Kobach, it would be Kobach who would run the commission day-to-day.
There was even concern among some in the White House that some of the requests from the commission, including asking for voter rolls, crossed legal boundaries and might not have been that well thought out before they were announced publicly.
The senior adviser lamented how far down the road the White House and Vice President’s office had gotten with the commission.
“VP’s team, though, should have seen that assignment as a s–t sandwich and treated it like a book report,” the adviser said. “Avoid trouble, cite real instances of voter fraud, address structural and technology problems, make recommendations and move on.”
A spokeswoman for Pence’s office referred inquiries about the commission’s dissolution to the White House statement.
Shortly after his shocking win in the 2016 presidential election, Trump asserted via Twitter, without evidence, that he would have won the popular vote had millions not voted illegally.
“In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” he said.
The President also named hard-liners to the panel who were known for their strong belief in widespread voter fraud, despite no research supporting the idea that fraudulent voting has been substantial in almost any election.
One of those members, the Heritage Foundation’s Hans Von Spakovsky, had also sent an email to the Justice Department prior to his appointment urging the government to not include any Democrats on the panel. The email was later made public.
“We will probably never know the answer to that question,” Kobach said on MSNBC. “Because even if you could prove that a certain number of votes were cast by ineligible voters, for example, you wouldn’t know how they voted.”
Eventually, one Democratic member of the commission went public with his complaints that the commission was not including its Democratic members and his concern that it existed to substantiate Trump’s prior assertion, without evidence, that mass voter fraud took place in the 2016 election.
The US District Court in Washington sided with Dunlap in the lawsuit, which the commission’s executive director, Andrew Kossack, previously said had “no merit,” and ordered the commission to provide Dunlap with the information on commission activities and communications he requested.
Kobach: Not trying to prove Trump’s claims
On those recent headlines for the commission, the source close to the vice president admitted, “A member of the commission suing the commission is not ideal.”
Groups opposed to the commission hailed the White House shuttering the group.
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law executive director Kristen Clarke told CNN it was important for advocates to remain vigilant and cited Trump’s repeated revisions to the travel ban as an example.
“This administration has a track record of refurbishing and reissuing old discriminatory policies as we have seen with the Muslim Ban,” Clarke said.
Dale Ho, the director of the ACLU’s project on voting rights, said in a statement that the commission “was a sham from a start.”
Likewise, Brennan Center for Justice president Michael Waldman said the commission “started as a tragedy and ended as a farce.”
Today, a teaspoon of spit and a hundred bucks is all you need to get a snapshot of your DNA. But getting the full picture—all 3 billion base pairs of your genome—requires a much more laborious process. One that, even with the aid of sophisticated statistics, scientists still struggle over. It’s exactly the kind of problem that makes sense to outsource to artificial intelligence.
And oh yeah, it’s more accurate than all the existing methods out there. Last year, DeepVariant took first prize in an FDA contest promoting improvements in genetic sequencing. The open source version the Google Brain/Verily team introduced to the world Monday reduced the error rates even further—by more than 50 percent. Looks like grandmaster Ke Jie isn’t be the only one getting bested by Google’s AI neural networks this year.
DeepVariant arrives at a time when healthcare providers, pharma firms, and medical diagnostic manufacturers are all racing to capture as much genomic information as they can. To meet the need, Google rivals like IBM and Microsoft are all moving into the healthcare AI space, with speculation about whether Apple and Amazon will follow suit. While DeepVariant’s code comes at no cost, that isn’t true of the computing power required to run it. Scientists say that expense is going to prevent it from becoming the standard anytime soon, especially for large-scale projects.
But DeepVariant is just the front end of a much wider deployment; genomics is about to go deep learning. And once you go deep learning, you don’t go back.
It’s been nearly two decades since high-throughput sequencing escaped the labs and went commercial. Today, you can get your whole genome for just $1,000 (quite a steal compared to the $1.5 million it cost to sequence James Watson’s in 2008).
But the data produced by today’s machines still only produce incomplete, patchy, and glitch-riddled genomes. Errors can get introduced at each step of the process, and that makes it difficult for scientists to distinguish the natural mutations that make you you from random artifacts, especially in repetitive sections of a genome.
See, most modern sequencing technologies work by taking a sample of your DNA, chopping it up into millions of short snippets, and then using fluorescently-tagged nucleotides to produce reads—the list of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs that correspond to each snippet. Then those millions of reads have to be grouped into abutting sequences and aligned with a reference genome.
That’s the part that gives scientists so much trouble. Assembling those fragments into a usable approximation of the actual genome is still one of the biggest rate-limiting steps for genetics. A number of software programs exist to help put the jigsaw pieces together. FreeBayes, VarDict, Samtools, and the most well-used, GATK, depend on sophisticated statistical approaches to spot mutations and filter out errors. Each tool has strengths and weaknesses, and scientists often wind up having to use them in conjunction.
No one knows the limitations of the existing technology better than Mark DePristo and Ryan Poplin. They spent five years creating GATK from whole cloth. This was 2008: no tools, no bioinformatics formats, no standards. “We didn’t even know what we were trying to compute!” says DePristo. But they had a north star: an exciting paper that had just come out, written by a Silicon Valley celebrity named Jeff Dean. As one of Google’s earliest engineers, Dean had helped design and build the fundamental computing systems that underpin the tech titan’s vast online empire. DePristo and Poplin used some of those ideas to build GATK, which became the field’s gold standard.
But by 2013, the work had plateaued. “We tried almost every standard statistical approach under the sun, but we never found an effective way to move the needle,” says DePristo. “It was unclear after five years whether it was even possible to do better.” DePristo left to pursue a Google Ventures-backed start-up called SynapDx that was developing a blood test for autism. When that folded two years later, one of its board members, Andrew Conrad (of Google X, then Google Life Sciences, then Verily) convinced DePristo to join the Google/Alphabet fold. He was reunited with Poplin, who had joined up the month before.
And this time, Dean wasn’t just a citation; he was their boss.
As the head of Google Brain, Dean is the man behind the explosion of neural nets that now prop up all the ways you search and tweet and snap and shop. With his help, DePristo and Poplin wanted to see if they could teach one of these neural nets to piece together a genome more accurately than their baby, GATK.
The network wasted no time in making them feel obsolete. After training it on benchmark datasets of just seven human genomes, DeepVariant was able to accurately identify those single nucleotide swaps 99.9587 percent of the time. “It was shocking to see how fast the deep learning models outperformed our old tools,” says DePristo. Their team submitted the results to the PrecisionFDA Truth Challenge last summer, where it won a top performance award. In December, they shared them in a paper published on bioRxiv.
DeepVariant works by transforming the task of variant calling—figuring out which base pairs actually belong to you and not to an error or other processing artifact—into an image classification problem. It takes layers of data and turns them into channels, like the colors on your television set. In the first working model they used three channels: The first was the actual bases, the second was a quality score defined by the sequencer the reads came off of, the third contained other metadata. By compressing all that data into an image file of sorts, and training the model on tens of millions of these multi-channel “images,” DeepVariant began to be able to figure out the likelihood that any given A or T or C or G either matched the reference genome completely, varied by one copy, or varied by both.
But they didn’t stop there. After the FDA contest they transitioned the model to TensorFlow, Google's artificial intelligence engine, and continued tweaking its parameters by changing the three compressed data channels into seven raw data channels. That allowed them to reduce the error rate by a further 50 percent. In an independent analysis conducted this week by genomics computing platform, DNAnexus, DeepVariant vastly outperformed GATK, Freebayes, and Samtools, sometimes reducing errors by as much as 10-fold.
“That shows that this technology really has an important future in the processing of bioinformatic data,” says DNAnexus CEO, Richard Daly. “But it’s only the opening chapter in a book that has 100 chapters.” Daly says he expects this kind of AI to one day actually find the mutations that cause disease. His company received a beta version of DeepVariant, and is now testing the current model with a limited number of its clients—including pharma firms, big health care providers, and medical diagnostic companies.
To run DeepVariant effectively for these customers, DNAnexus has had to invest in newer generation GPUs to support its platform. The same is true for Canadian competitor, DNAStack, which plans to offer two different versions of DeepVariant—one tuned for low cost and one tuned for speed. Google’s Cloud Platform already supports the tool, and the company is exploring using the TPUs (tensor processing units) that connect things like Google Search, Street View, and Translate to accelerate the genomics calculations as well.
DeepVariant’s code is open-source so anyone can run it, but to do so at scale will likely require paying for a cloud computing platform. And it’s this cost—computationally and in terms of actual dollars—that have researchers hedging on DeepVariant’s utility.
“It’s a promising first step, but it isn’t currently scalable to a very large number of samples because it’s just too computationally expensive,” says Daniel MacArthur, a Broad/Harvard human geneticist who has built one of the largest libraries of human DNA to date. For projects like his, which deal in tens of thousands of genomes, DeepVariant is just too costly. And, just like current statistical models, it can only work with the limited reads produced by today’s sequencers.
Still, he thinks deep learning is here to stay. “It’s just a matter of figuring out how to combine better quality data with better algorithms and eventually we’ll converge on something pretty close to perfect,” says MacArthur. But even then, it’ll still just be a list of letters. At least for the foreseeable future, we’ll still need talented humans to tell us what it all means.
Crispr Gene Editing Explained
Maybe you've heard of Crispr, the gene editing tool that could forever change life. So what is it and how does it work? Let us explain.
(CNN)Earlier this week, amid freezing temperatures, students across Baltimore City returned from winter break to face unheated classrooms. About 60 schools — nearly one-third of the entire system — reported issues, leading to the closure of four schools on Wednesday and early dismissal in two others. The teacher’s union condemned the conditions as “unfair and inhumane.” And teachers quickly took to social media to post images of shivering students and thermostats registering harsh temperatures.
The images brought back memories from when I worked as a Baltimore City educator at one of the schools affected this past week. My third year as a second grade teacher, around this time of winter, I remember waking up to the alarm on my phone, reaching to turn it off and checking my weather app: “7 degrees, fair/windy.”
When I arrived at school, I found my classroom heater had stopped working. It was frigid. I taught two-digit subtraction and led a picture book read-aloud with students sitting criss-crossed on the class carpet, adorned in a colorful array of jackets, hats, scarves and gloves. These conditions lasted several days. Ultimately, my administration moved me temporarily to the library on the other side of the building, where heat was working.
My students were understanding and compliant. We had done several lessons on the value of showing perseverance in the face of adversity. When I think back on that moment now, I think: No, this is wrong. You should be angry. You should demand better. You — we — should not accept this. But I also remember the short-term pragmatism: They were 7, I was the teacher and we had to get through the school day.
Operating within such a strained system, there is pressure to be a good soldier. To carry on and make a way. To some extent, you have to adopt this mentality to do the job; otherwise you’ll become paralyzed with anger and hopelessness. And yet as a young, inexperienced teacher, many days I felt like an accomplice to a large-scale crime, all too aware of the inequity playing out around me but also the limitations of what I could do to combat it.
There are many, structural layers shaping unequal educational opportunity in this country — disparate access to technology, high-quality curriculum and teachers, small class sizes, advanced coursework, summer enrichment opportunities, and more. But the recent reports from Baltimore highlight something more visceral and basic: the neglect of rock-bottom, foundational needs of human beings.
And this problem isn’t unique to winter. The opposite issue emerges in the summer when students face scorching temperatures with unreliable or nonexistent air conditioning. A city of students go without running drinking water because of concerns of lead poisoning. (Administrators later replaced the running water with water bottles.) Cockroaches and rodents scurry across classroom floors.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, New York Times journalist and New America fellow, tweeted, “I say it over and over, and I will say it again. Our children know how much we value them by the schools we build for them.” The recent reports out of Baltimore strike a chord precisely because the message they send to students and families of color is so plainly, unarguably egregious.
How do we right these wrongs? Maryland state officials charge local fiscal mismanagement of dollars as city leaders point to the compounded effects of underfunding city schools for decades. There are valid questions around where promised school funding from a newly built casino in downtown Baltimore is going. We need clearer answers and accountability, but amid all this back and forth, children are freezing.
To be sure, there have been small glimmers of hope and progress, the fruit of civil rights advocates’ efforts over the years. A major win came in 2013 when the Maryland General Assembly approved legislation to authorize $1 billion to renovate nearly two dozen city schools by 2021. The first two state-of-the-art schools of this initiative opened earlier this fall, and officials say they are moving ahead on time and within budget with the rest.
As important as these developments are, they are small and slow, when children are still freezing. Now, Maryland education advocates are again mobilizing for another battle in Annapolis as state lawmakers seek to comprehensively overhaul the school funding system for the first time in 15 years. It is a critical moment for equity with potential for long-lasting impact.
Even still, injecting financial resources and renovating buildings does not address the more fundamental, entrenched problem we all live with. Brown v. Board of Education teaches “separate but equal” is faulty doctrine; schools will never be truly equal if they are not integrated. And as Dr. Alvin Thornton, a Howard University professor, said in a recent interview, “Schools should not be asked to bear the load of desegregating our society. … If we want to have diverse schools, you must have diverse communities.” This work requires grappling with the legacies of white flight, redlining and discriminatory housing practices that have enabled the de facto segregation we see. Indeed, as several scholars have noted, housing policy is education policy.
In 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to an audience at Grosse Pointe High School in Detroit, three weeks before he was assassinated. “America is still a racist country,” he said. “Now however unpleasant that sounds, it is the truth. … I do not see how we will ever solve the turbulent problem of race confronting our nation until there is an honest confrontation with it and a willing search for the truth and a willingness to admit the truth when we discover it.”
A willingness to admit the truth when we discover it. Now is precisely such a moment for truth-telling that lasts beyond a news cycle — in Baltimore, in Maryland, and in our broader American community.
Last week, the company publicly apologized to customers and cut the price of battery replacement services as reparations for intentionally throttling devices. It said the discount was for “anyone with an iPhone 6 or later whose battery needs to be replaced.” While that sounds like a significant benefit to customers, its vague explanation caused confusion over the weekend, with several iPhone users complaining their devices were rejected after passing diagnostic tests at the Genius Bar.
To avoid further backlash, Apple will now replace the battery of any iPhone 6 or newer model, even if it passes the diagnostic test that determines whether a device can hold 80 percent of its original battery capacity after 500 complete charging cycles. That means if, for whatever reason, an iPhone X owner wants to get their new phone’s battery replaced, they could do so for just $29. The discount will only be available for one year, so it may be a good idea to get a replacement battery closer to its expiration. However, Apple may not offer a replacement if it discovers other damage on your device or finds third-party components.
All Apple stores should have received the clarification via an internal memo, reports French tech blog iGeneration. The note also says customers who replaced their batteries at the previous $79 price are eligible for refunds.
Apple was hit with numerous lawsuits after admitting it slows down devices with aging batteries to prevent them from shutting down. While the Cupertino giant has the funds to fight any legal disputes, it can’t afford to lose its fragile customer base. Apple has desperately been looking for ways to win its users back. Not only did it publicly apologize to customers, it also started offering its discounted repairs days before the original January kick-off date.
Robots are the next step in using technology to explore sexuality.
“We expected to need more time to be ready, but we are happy to offer our customers the lower pricing right away,” Apple said in a statement to Axios. “Initial supplies of some replacement batteries may be limited.”
Apple, which relies heavily on iPhone sales, is at serious risk of seeing customers switch to rival devices, especially after Android competitors denied using the same frustrating battery-management practices.
Matt McMullen, CEO of Realbotix, says he’s getting ready to launch AI-enhanced male sex robots.
This follows the release of Harmony, the world’s first interacting female sex robot, last year. The male version, currently unnamed, will have all the software specifications of Harmony, as well as a bionic penis because what would be the point otherwise?
“We’re working on a male version of the robot AI,” McMullen told the Daily Star Online. “We’ll eventually have a male and a female platform available.”
The male sex robot will come in all shape and sizes as “the sky is the limit”.
McMullen has been making silicon sex dolls for about 20 years, and his company RealDoll already sells customizable sex mannequins, including male ones. For under $10,000 you could own your own male sex doll, spanning a range of skin tones from fair to cocoa (as extensive as a standard foundation line, am I right ladies?), detachable penises going from flaccid to extra-large, wigs, personalized eyeballs, and even elf ears if you have a very specific Lord of the Rings scenario in mind.
The Realbotix website goes into particular detail about the characteristics of Harmony, whose launch was in itself a “revolution” as she is capable of having a variety of facial expressions, blinking, and moving her head. Harmony also moves her mouth to match the sounds it produces. The AI interface is exclusively in the robot’s head. It is unclear if the AI would be able to control its bionic penis or not.
“She is a combination of the highest quality doll in the world with advanced robotic components, and is powered with the ultimate customizable AI to deliver the most enjoyable conversation and interaction you can have with a machine,” reads Realbotix’s website.
Harmony’s launch had several scientists considering the ethical implications of having sex with robots and their findings weren’t a particularly happy read. On social media, Harmony was seen by many as bizarre and creepy, with several people commenting how it perpetuates misogynistic ideas about sex and sexuality. The male version might not fare much better.
It’s the end of the year, so we’ll be seeing a lot of these end-of-the-year lists, but this one from Tucker Carlson is a keeper.
Behold, the 100 Racist Things from 2017!
We live in revolutionary times. Wild things happened in 2017, and they'll keep happening next year. In these dangerous political times, it's important you know what is and is not racist. So, we made a list for you. Let us begin. #100RacistThings
I don’t remember what kind of car it was exactly, but I don’t think it was a particularly fancy one—a Hyundai or something like that. And there were some strings, he would buy it, and at some indefinite point in the future I’d have to take over the payments.
Like I said, I don’t remember the exact specifics, but I remember my response: “That’s very generous of you. I appreciate it, but no, thank you. I’m OK.”
It wasn’t just that I was perfectly happy driving a 1997 Volvo with 160,000 miles on it. It was that I have an aversion to debts and entanglements, and however well-meaning the offer was, an entanglement was certainly part of the intention.
In his biography of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro tells the story of Johnson attempting to recruit a man named John Hicks to work for him. At a meeting at a diner in Austin, Johnson made his pitch: “I’m going to lend you ten thousand dollars,” he said, “And I want you to take it and buy yourself a Cadillac car. And I want you to move to a better apartment. I want you to be somebody. Furnish the apartment. Get [your wife] a fur coat. I want you to [join some local clubs] and be somebody here in Austin.”
Hicks was surprised. How would I ever pay you back, he asked Johnson. Johnson simply smiled and said, “Johnny, don’t worry about that. You let me worry about that.”
Certainly offers like this are champagne problems. Most people are struggling to get noticed, to get an opportunity at all. To be able to turn down a gift or a job offer is a privilege. Most of us would kill to have a future president offer us a car, and many people need a car, period. Still, this privileged position is not without its perils.
It’s a dangerous game that goes back further than Lyndon Johnson offering a guy a Cadillac. Seneca, the Roman statesman and writer, spoke often about wealthy Romans who have spent themselves into debt and the misery and dependence this created for them. Slavery, he said, often lurks beneath marble and gold. Yet, his own life was defined by these exact debts. With his own fortune, he made large loans to a colony of Britain at rates so high it eventually destroyed their economy. And what was the source of this fortune? The Emperor Nero was manipulatively generous with Seneca, bestowing upon him numerous estates and monetary awards in exchange for his advice and service. Seneca probably could have said no, but after he accepted the first one, the hooks were in. As Nero grew increasingly unstable and deranged, Seneca tried to escape into retirement but he couldn’t. He pushed all the wealth into a pile and offered to give it back with no luck.
Eventually, death—a forced suicide—was the only option. Money in, blood out.
This is only a slightly more dramatic illustration of the trap we find ourselves in. We take out student loans to pay for an education that will get us a job we hope will make those crushing payments worth it. We go to the bank and ask them how much house they’ll let us buy and then we hope two people working every day for the next forty years will prove them right.
All of us regularly say yes unthinkingly, or out of vague attraction, or out of greed or vanity. Because we can’t say no—because we might miss out on something if we did. We think “yes” will let us accomplish more, will give us more of what we want, when in reality it prevents exactly what we seek. All of us waste precious life doing things we don’t like, to prove ourselves to people we don’t respect, and to get things we don’t want.
I read an article a few weeks ago about a law firm in Houston that pays for a private jet for its associates to fly back and forth to California. It was presented as a perk of the job: Housing prices in San Francisco are steep, so this way the employees can enjoy living in Texas while still benefiting from the brisk technology market in California. This isn’t a perk. It’s a bribe, as Upton Sinclair put it. It’s the normalization of an utterly abnormal status quo—one that to sustain, the associates have to work incredibly long hours in an incredibly unpleasant job. But once the hooks are in? It’s hard to get them out.
The reason we work so hard is for “financial freedom.” Somehow we always seem to end up awfully unfree, don’t we? David “DHH” Heinemeier Hansson has talked about the delusion of “Fuck You Money” (having so much you can say, “Fuck you” to people asking you to do stuff you don’t want to do). How many fuck yous are we hearing from these people, he asks. The truth is: Not many. That’s the trap.
The irony of that offer from Dov, I knew, was that he might be giving me a car but part of the reason was to make sure I wouldn’t go anywhere. Stuck with the payments, grateful for the gift, how could I question things? How could I pursue the life I wanted? The answer was that I wouldn’t be able to. And I saw that happen. Other people who hadn’t been able to say no—for personal reasons, for financial reasons, because they didn’t see the strings—to cars or green cards or apartments or positions of power were stuck when the company began to fall apart. As things spun out of control, and lines—ethical and otherwise—were crossed, they were complicit. They were blinded, too, to what they were doing.
The ancient philosophers understood and warned against this. As Epicurus put it, “Self-sufficiency is the greatest of all wealth.” The Stoic philosopher Epictetus has said that “wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” There is also a story about Socrates. He turned down an invitation from Archelaus, the king of Macedon, because he wanted to “avoid dying a thousand deaths.” Because to him accepting a favor he couldn’t pay back, that created dependency, was worse than death. It was compromising his freedom. It was slavery.
We instinctively grasp the difficulty of Socrates’ position because one of the hardest things to do in life is to say “No.” To invitations, to requests, to obligations, to gifts, and to the stuff that everyone else is doing. Saying yes is so easy…and it feels so good.
Even harder is saying no to less obvious impositions: getting caught up in the status of the job, normalizing yourself at a certain level, the drama, the rush. Why are so many bands from the 70s and 80s still on the road? It’s not only the money, it’s that they need the adulation of the crowd. They can’t go back to regular life. Neither can most of us once we have tasted the forbidden fruits of power or fame or being needed.
Freedom is the most important thing. We’re born with it, and yet many of us wake up one day surprised at the chains we wear. The reason? Because we said yes too many times and never learned how to say no.
Only a free person can decline. Preserving this power is essential.
It’s the difference between a life of subservience and a life of your own, as Lady Bird Johnson, LBJ’s wife knew and often struggled with herself. As Robert Caro wrote, she came to visit John Hicks after he had politely refused her husband’s offer, to let him know she respected, even admired his decision. Because she “had seen other people take their ten thousand dollars and had seen what happened to them.” But Hicks had escaped, as Socrates had escaped, as the brilliant photographer Bill Cunningham escaped and basically all the people who have done truly great work have escaped.
Because if you can’t say no, you’re not powerful or free. You’re a slave.
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