On Helping Financially Unwell Workers in America

(Part 1 of 3)

Wellness Becomes a Thing

The HR Research Institute recently finished a major study on employee financial wellness.

It’s an interesting topic during these weird financial times, so I thought I’d provide a short history of employee wellness programs in general, put financial wellness in its current context, then talk about other ways we can improve the financial well-being of more people.

If you’re not familiar with it, financial wellness is one of the newer forms of worker benefit offerings. The basic idea is that if an employee is financially unwell, then they are a lot less likely to be productive and engaged at work.

This is both an intriguing and a “no-shit-Sherlock” kind of assertion. It’s interesting (to people like me) because it’s case in which the concept of wellness is being expanded into yet another area of employee’s lives.

So, before we get into financial wellness (aka, well-being), let me lay out a brief history of employee wellness.

A Brief History of the Long Struggle to Keep Workers Fit Enough to Survive the Treadmill

The Stupidly High Costs of U.S. Healthcare

When I first started researching HR issues, wellness initiatives were fairly new (yeah, I’m getting up there), and they typically focused on physical wellness.

Back then, the idea was to distinguish between healthcare benefits, which were the status quo, and wellness benefits, which were a way to reduce healthcare costs. After all, the U.S. is—and even then was—virtually alone among so-called industrialized nations in terms of not providing universal healthcare to all its citizens. My father was a doctor and not exactly a liberal, but when I was growing up, even he thought our system was stupid and needlessly cruel.

As a result of the sheer weirdness of our U.S. health insurance system, which largely rests on the shoulders of employers, organizations have a vested interest in keeping healthcare costs low so that they are not paying as much to provide health insurance to workers.

The fact is, however, that U.S. has the most expensive healthcare system in the world on a per capita basis and gets pretty crappy results for all the money it spends. That’s not the fault of employers, however. It’s the fault of the frankly stupid way our system is set up.

In my opinion, the vast majority of voters should be mightily pissed off about this, voting out every self-serving, money-grubbing politician who is not in favor of fixing our expensive, busted system, but the majority of voters still aren’t there…yet. So it goes.

Making the Best of a Bad Hand

A lot of Americans like our employer-sponsored system of health care, but most employers surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation think our current system is so broken, expensive and usustainable that in the near future the government is going to need to step in to fix things–or at least help the current creaky system limp along.

For now, though, employers are as about as stuck with current system as the rest of us.

Although employers get tax breaks and can shift a lot of the costs to their employees, they still spend an absurd amount of money to provide that health insurance (assuming they do, of course).

So, employers have long since decided to encourage their employees to raise their level of wellness so that they, the employers, can reduce the costs of providing health insurance.

Back in the Day

When wellness benefits first emerged (the term ‘well-being’ came later), they were mostly focused on getting employees into better shape physically. This basically meant getting them into better aerobic shape (heart disease being a killer, both physically and financially) and getting them to stop poisoning themselves with legal substances (such as tobacco and alcohol) as well as the illegal ones.

So, employers started paying for, or at least contributing to, things like gym memberships and smoking cessation programs. And, they started offering financial incentives, such as lower health insurance costs, to employees if they cut down on the cigs and the booze.

It all seemed pretty obvious at the time.

Did It Work?

Maybe, sometimes. Studies differ, and success probably depends on the execution of those programs. Today Americans tend to smoke less than they did 30 years ago, but that probably has less to do with wellness benefits and more to do with government packaging warnings and restrictions on advertisements.

It hasn’t been all good news. During the same interval, Americans’ consumption of alcohol has risen and fallen, whereas obesity has generally ballooned. Of course, the global obesity epidemic (pandemic?) is driven by a lot of different factors that wellness programs have not been able to prevent.

Then Came the Mental Side of Things

Once you start pulling at the wellness thred, however, you start to see how entangled it is with other kinds of wellness, especially mental. After all, people smoke and drink not just because it feels good (getting high has deep biological roots not only in humans but other animals as well) but because they’re stressed out and suffering emotional/mental tribulations.

To get people to cut down on their smoking, drinking, and/or eating, sometimes you need to address their mental issues. And so, employers started putting greater emphasis on employee assistance plans (EAPs), addiction treatment, and eventually things like mindfulness.

And Don’t Forget the Work Environment

We shouldn’t forget about environmental wellness, either. When I first started out, ergonomics were all the rage. Personal computers had entered the workplace and suddenly people were sitting in front of screens more while clicking their keyboards and mice. This led to backaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, eye-strain issues and more. There was this big push for ergonomically designed office furniture.

There was also the crappy air in office buildings where all the windows were sealed and god-knows-what chemicals were oozing out of printers, ceiling tiles, acrylic floors, etc. That’s when “sick building syndrome” became a thing.

Of course, the concern with the work environments started much earlier, when plant workers were suffering from sundry issues related repetitive stress injuries, machine accidents, chemical exposures and more. A lot of employers didn’t want to think about these things, but the combination of broken employees and union representation tended to concentrate their focus.

Social Well-being Joins the Fitness Team

If you keep pulling at that wellness thread, it’s not long until you realize there are social elements at play as well. Some of this stems from the research into employee engagement, especially by Gallup. Their studies suggested that the social environment at work also affects employees.

Of course, in retrospect, this is another one of those “no duh” moments in HR. Obviously, if you have friends at work and good relations with your boss, you’re more likely to be engaged and productive.

So sum up, your physical wellness is influenced by your work environment and your mental health, which is in turn influenced by your social well-being at work and outside of it.

Okay, so that’s my very brief history of wellness programs. In my next post, part 2 of 3, we’ll focus on another step in wellness evolution: today’s financial wellness initiatives.

Are Humans Still the Smartest Beings on the Planet?

These new AIs are smart. Or at least seem to be. After all, they are excelling at a wide range of tests typically used to gauge human knowledge and intelligence. Which leads me to ask, “Are humans still the smartest beings on the planet?”

Maybe Not

There are some reasonable and growing arguments that we’re no longer the most intelligent entities on the planet. Let’s go to the exams.

Even before the company Open AI launched its ChatGPT-4 chatbot, which is considered considerably more capable than ChatGPT-3, a study looked at the AI’s ability to match humans in three key areas: general knowledge, SAT exam scores, and IQ.

The outcome? ChatGPT wound up in a higher percentile than humans in all three areas.

AI expert and author Dr. Alan D. Thompson suggests that GPT-3 displays an IQ above 120. If ChatGPT were a human being, it would fall into the “gifted” category, according to Thompson.

And then there’s ChatGPT-4. Open AI has published extensive data about how it performs on a wide range exams. For example, the firm claims that the AI passes a simulated bar exam (that is, the one that tests knowledge and skills attorneys should have before becoming licensed to practice law) “with a score around the top 10% of test takers,” which compares very favorably with GPT-3’s score, which was around the bottom 10%.

Maybe We Never Were

Of course, one might argue that we never really were the smartest beings on the planet. We don’t have a way to truly gauge the intelligence, for example, of the huge-brained whales, some of which live for up to 200 years.

I explored this in a previous post, so I won’t delve too deeply into the details. But the truth is that we can only guess at the intelligence of cetaceans such as the humpback, beluga and killer whales as well as various dolphins and porpoises.

Maybe the Question Makes No Sense

One of the interesting things about the large language model (LLM) AIs is that we’ve trained them on human langugage. Lots and lots of it. We are language-using animals par excellence. Now, we’ve harnessed machine learning to create tools that at least imitate what we do through the use of neural nets and statistics.

We don’t typically say that we are dumber than a calculator, even though calculators can handle mathematics much better than we typically can. Nor do we say we are “weaker” than a bulldozer. Perhaps we are just shouldn’t apply the word intelligence to these recticular models of AI. What they do and what we do may not be truly comparable.

Maybe So, For Now

I’m certainly no expert but have had considerable experience with ChatGPT and Bing chat. I was an early adopter in both cases and have seen how humblingly smart and yet puzzlingly dense they can be.

For example, I’ve had to convince ChatGPT that the year 1958 came well after the World War II, and I’ve seen Bing be stubbornly wrong about prime numbers and basic multiplication. In other cases, I’ve asked Bing to give me information on a topic from the last week and it’s given me articles several years old.

As for the AI art generators, they are also amazing yet often can’t seem to count limbs or digits or even draw human hands in a non-creepy way.

In other words, there are times when these systems simply lack what we might consider common sense or fundamental skills. We can’t yet trust them to get the details right in every instance.

At the same time, of course, the LLMs are able to write rather good prose on virtually any topic of your choice in seconds. Imagine knowing just about everything on the Internet and being able to deftly and almost instantly weave that information together in an essay, story or even poem. We don’t even have a word for that capability. Savant would not cover it.

Once these systems truly develop “common sense,” however we define that, there will be precious few tasks on which we can best them. Perhaps they are still a long way from that goal, but perhaps not.

Maybe We’re Just Being Extended

In that past, I’ve written about the “extended human” and Kevin Kelly’s idea of the technium, which he discusses in his book What Technology Wants. Many people would not call any one of these LLM AIs a “being” at all. Rather, they’d say they are still just tools made up of silicon, fiber-optic cables and electronic blips of 0s and 1s with no consciousness or even sentience at all. They are little more than mechancial parrots.

In this view, the LLMs are glorified search engines that put together word pattens with no more thought than when a series of ocean waves create elegant undulating patterns of sand on the beach. These machines depend on our words, ideas and works of art in order to “think” at all, so they are mere extensions of our own intellects: bulldozers of human symbols, so to speak.

Maybe It Doesn’t Matter

Maybe they will out-intellect us by wider and wider margins, but perhaps it doesn’t really matter if we are no longer the smartest entities on the planet.

For decades, some scholars have argued that we can’t compare our intellects to those of other beings: anthills and beehives, corvids and cephalopods, elephants and grizzly bears. Each animal’s intellect is uniquely good at the things that keep them alive.

Squirrels are geniuses at remembering where they’ve hidden their acorns and negotiating the complexities forest canopies. We can’t do what they do, but does that make us their inferior?

No, comparing the two is nonsense, this argument goes.

The AIs will never be better humans than humans because we are uniquely ourselves. Perhaps the era of AIs will give us both the humility and the wisdom to finally understand this.

Which is all fine and well until, of course, the machines learn to dominate our world just as humanity has done in the recent past. If this happens, perhaps we will need to learn to live in their shadows, just as squirrels and crows and coyotes have lived in ours.

Feature image from CrisNYCa, April 17, 2018. Le Penseur (The Thinker) in the garden of Musée Rodin, Paris

God as Dread Pirate Roberts

The classic romance comedy The Princess Bride has one of my favorite existential lines.

It occurs when our hero Wesley is recounting his life as an abductee of the Dread Pirate Roberts, explaining how Roberts made him a valet.

“You can try it for tonight. I’ll most
likely kill you in the morning.”
Three years he said that. “Good
night, Westley. Good work. Sleep
well. I’ll most likely kill you
in the morning.”

Dread Pirate Roberts is an intriguing stand-in for the universe or, if you prefer, God.

The universe is a harsh, dangerous and crazy mysterious place. Bad shit happens to everyone at times. Some deserve it. Many do not. And life is always uncertain until it ends in the certainty of death.

You might well die today, or tomorrow, or the day after that.

But if you’re canny and lucky, it might let you live for another day.

So, watch for snakes in tall grass. Look both ways before you cross the road. Eat right and exercise. Generally speaking, avoid stupid mistakes that could turn deadly.

Of course, even if you do all that, the universe will get you in the end. It’s designed that way.

Maybe there is, after all, an afterlife. Or maybe there will come a day when we live in immortal bodies powered by bioceramic minds (or whatever). Perhaps at that point the Dread Pirate Roberts will not be quite so dreaded … though I doubt it.

Until then, however, offer up your good works as God’s valet. Do what you can. And sleep well, friends.

Featured image from RootOfAllLight, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

The Rapid Erosion of Free Speech in Florida

The Florida legislature, led by Gov. DeSantis, seems intent on chilling freedom of expression in the Sunshine state. This rapid erosion of free speech in Florida has dark portents for the rest of the United States.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that it protects freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and the right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Well, in our increasingly unfree Florida, we have a few grievances.

Let’s look at the evidence.

Exhibit Number One: Punishing a Business for Voicing an Opinion

Whatever you think about Disney, it has a right to free speech, as was famously reinforced in the U.S. Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. So when Florida dissolved the company’s debt-issuing district in retaliation for speaking up against the popularly termed “Don’t Say Gay” bill, it was clearly, even blatantly, infringing on the company’s right to free speech.

Here’s what happened

When Gov. DeSantis signed the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which prohibits teachers from discussing gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade, employees at the the Walt Disney corporation urged their employer to speak up against the new law.

The company put out this statement on March 28:

“Florida’s HB 1557, also known as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, should never have passed and should never have been signed into law. Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that. We are dedicated to standing up for the rights and safety of LGBTQ+ members of the Disney family, as well as the LBGTQ+ community in Florida and across the country.”

Less than a month later, on April 22, 2022,  DeSantis signed a law passed by the Florida legislature that revokes the self-governing status that Disney has held in Florida for over half a century. Many people saw it as a direct violation of the corporation’s First Amendment right.

The Free Speech Center Weighs In

The Free Speech Center, a nonpartisan public policy center at Middle Tennessee State University, notes that this all originated with politics, not with schools. There was no massive effort to teach matters related to sexual orientation to young grade schoolers. What’s more, local school boards have control over what’s taught in their districts, so the state has no business interfering with these boards. This was big government encroaching on local control.

The Free Speech Center notes:

The cause and effect was clear. Disney expressed its opinion and the state used its power to punish Disney and discourage other corporations from taking a stand – about anything…This is a full-blown assault on the First Amendment rights of business leaders – and by extension their employees. Its clear intent is to chill free speech in the Sunshine State.

For other points of view on this, see “Ron DeSantis and the Charade of Free Speech in America” and “Ron DeSantis’s attack on Disney obviously violates the First Amendment.”

Exhibit Two: Book Bannings in Florida

In July 2022, the Florida legislature enacted a law, House Bill 1467, that says “each district school board must adopt a policy regarding an objection by a parent or a resident of the county to the use of a specific instructional material…” The idea, as I understand it, it to ensure that materials are removed if they are “not suited to student needs and their ability to comprehend the material presented, or is inappropriate for the grade level and age group for which the material is used.”

The problem, of course, is that there’s so much subjectivity built into the law that almost any book could be objected to and then, temporarily or permanently, removed from book shelves.

Even ChatGPT Gets It

Just for fun, I put the first hundred lines of the law into ChatGPT and asked it questions pertaining to the law. One of my questions was, “What might be an unintended negative impact from this law?”

It responded as follows: One unintended negative impact of this law could be censorship of important and relevant information from students. Books and other materials that may provide valuable knowledge and promote critical thinking could potentially be removed from school libraries, limiting students’ access to diverse perspectives and ideas. Additionally, this law could create an environment where authors and publishers may self-censor their work to avoid potential objections, limiting the scope of literature available to students. This could also have a chilling effect on academic freedom and intellectual inquiry.


Take Them All Down!

In Duval County, Florida, one parent who was interviewed by The New Yorker discovered that a school had papered over bookshelves to hide school books and another school had removed books so that bookshelves were bare. Why? An abundance of caution, apparently.

Communications officials in Duval County stated that the Florida Department of Education “has trained all Florida schools districts to ‘err on the side of caution’ in determining if a book is developmentally appropriate for student use” and that Duval schools are working “to ensure compliance with all recent legislation regarding books and materials available to children through school media centers and classroom libraries.”

In other words, they made books inaccessible because they were afraid someone would take offense at something. Books were essentially banned, or at least removed, due to fear of the state.

So, Which Books Have Been Taken Away?

PEN America, an organization with the mission of defending the liberties of free expression, has put together a list of book ban instances occurring from July 1, 2021 through June 30, 2022, “where students’ access to books in school libraries and classrooms in the United States was restricted or diminished, for either limited or indefinite periods of time.” Many of these bans have occurred in Florida, of course. Pen America has also put together a fact sheet to challenge the claims made by Gov. DeSantis.

This has turned out to be a very creepy way of getting books pulled off school library shelves, not relying on the state itself to ban books but on whatever “parent or resident” (as the law says) takes a dislike to some book, however much of a classic it is. Vonnegut’s great novel Slaughterhouse-Five, for example, makes Florida’s Brevard County schools banned list.

But, really, the system ultimately hinges on self-censorship by schools “erring on the side of caution.”

In every society where censorship thrives, it thrives because people are so frightened (I’m not saying without reason, by the way) that they self-censor for fear of the state.

Exhibit Three: Attacks on Academic Freedoms

Florida’s government has already tightened its already white-knuckled grip on the state university system. This is not illegal. Our duly elected legislators have the right to weaken or even destroy that system

But can the politicans completely muzzle university as well as K-12 teachers? The Washington Post describes it like this:

[T]he gravest threat to academic freedom comes from a legal argument Florida has advanced in defense of the Stop WOKE Act. The legislation is part of a wave of “educational gag orders” banning the teaching of “divisive concepts.” Violations can trigger disciplinary action against faculty and enormous fines for their universities. In a brief filed in federal court, Florida’s lawyers contend that faculty at public universities are government employees, in-classroom speech is “government speech” and the state “has simply chosen to regulate its own speech with the Stop WOKE Act.

So far, the courts aren’t buying the Florida argument. Last November, a federal district judge issued an injunction blocking enforcement of the law, and this month three judges on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling.

“Professors must be able to discuss subjects like race and gender without hesitation or fear of state reprisal,” a spokesperson for the  the advocacy organization Foundation for Individual Expression told Law&Crime in an email. “Any law that limits the free exchange of ideas in university classrooms should lose in both the court of law and the court of public opinion.”

Despite Growing Teacher Shortages, Florida Keeps Scaring Its Teachers

Florida laws on teacher speech are so vaguely worded, many teachers are simply afraid to teach. Indeed, a poll by the nonprofit Stand for Children “found that a third of the 2,000 K-12 educators surveyed cited new state laws restricting classroom discussions on race, gender and sexuality as a reason for leaving the profession.”

Market Realist reports, “The FEA estimated in May that the state would have a shortage of 9,000 educators going into the 2022–2023 school year. The organization stated, ‘For far too long, certain politicians have underfunded students while restricting educators’ freedom to teach.'”

And the Hits Just Keep Coming

An opinion piece in The Palm Beach Post helps sum up the problems faced by Florida teachers:

[In addition to laws pushed by DeSantis], there are other bills that may not have the priority of the governor’s initiatives, but nevertheless send a troubling signal to Florida educators. HB 1055, for example, would have school districts place video cameras in classrooms and require certain teachers to wear microphones. While the bill might have good intentions of curbing abuse and crime in the classroom, it would only add hardship to an already difficult job.   

The Republican push to gain greater influence on local school boards includes HJR 35 and SJR 244, which would change the Florida Constitution to make nonpartisan school board races partisan. HB 1467 would make school board membership an unpaid position. Both bills would weaken the one part of school district operations that is directly accountable to the public, by either tethering local school boards to hardline partisan political agendas or by turning over the oversight of a complex, multi-faceted government operations like school districts to unpaid volunteers.

Exhibit Four: Trying to Silence the Press, Including Bloggers

Another opinion piece, this time in The Guardian, notes that attempts to prohibit free speech are not solely directed at teachers and businesses:

Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, and his cronies, not content with destroying free speech in public schools, have set for themselves a new target: destroying press freedom and every Floridian’s right to criticize public officials. Along the way, they aim to overturn the most important first amendment US supreme court decision of the 20th century.

The latest bill to raise eyebrows sounds like it’s made up by the opponents of Florida Republicans to make them sound ridiculous. Unfortunately, it’s real. The proposed law, authored by state legislator Jason Brodeur, would – I kid you not – compel “bloggers” who criticize the governor, other officers of the executive branch, or members of the legislature to register with the state of Florida. Under the bill, anyone paid to write on the internet would have to file monthly reports every time they utter a government official’s name in a critical manner. If not, they’d face potentially thousands of dollars in fines.

This law would, of course, apply to conservative, moderate and liberal bloggers alike. Senate Bill 1316: Information Dissemination would mandate that any blogger writing about government officials to register with the Florida Office of Legislative Services or the Commission on Ethics.

Given our First Amendment rights, this kind of thing would be laughable if it weren’t, given Florida’s current status, so weirdly plausible.

The Real-Deal Threat to Free Speech

But even if that blogger bill never becomes law, there are other ways to attack the free press. More plausible ones. One of the most important stems from a DeSantis verbal attack on New York Times v Sullivan, the crucial Supreme Court decision that gave journalists as well as citizens wide latitude to investigate and criticize politicians.

As often seems to happen these days, the governor’s many allies in the Florida legislature went to work on the issue not long afterward. A bill was introduced in February 2023 by Florida state legislator Alex Andrade.

The Tampa Bay Times reports:

Now, Florida lawmakers — with the support of the governor — are taking aim at the media, pushing legislation that would dramatically weaken legal standards in place for more than a half-century that protect the freedom of the press to report on politicians and other powerful public figures.

The bill would make it easier to sue media outlets for allegations of defamation and make it harder for journalists to do their jobs by undermining the use of unnamed sources, an important reporting tool — particularly for media trying to pull back the curtain on the dealings of elected officials. Many First Amendment advocates and legal experts say it is clearly intended to muzzle reporters who serve as watchdogs for the public.

The objective of the Florida legislation (HB 991) is to challenge New York Times v. Sullivan, which requires that a plaintiff prove “actual malice” in defamation disputes, a high bar to clear.

Closing Statement

This post is already long, even though it only covers the proverbial tip of the iceberg in regard to Florida’s attempts to erode and, arguably, end free speech. I’ve spent a lot of time citing sources and instances because it’d be easy to blow off these claims as hyperbole.

But they’re not. Gov. DeSantis learned from Mr. Trump that if what you try to do is outrageous enough, many people won’t take your actions seriously. But we’ve discovered the hard way that just because something sounds crazy doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Not anymore. This the U.S. circa 2023. Anything seems possible.

Featured image: Eleanor Roosevelt reads the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949; FDR Presidential Library & Museum 64-165; 20 December 2016; Source 64-165; Author FDR Presidential Library & Museum

On Pat Schroeder, Whom We May Not Have Deserved

In the U.S., we are focused on things like stubborn inflation rates, bank failures, narcissistic billionaires, and our often ridiculous but alarmingly divisive culture wars. This leaves little time to mourn the passing of giants, so I just wanted to pay a quick tribute to one of them, a person who actually made our lives better instead of just more acrimonious: Pat Schroeder.

What Did Patricia Schroeder Accomplish?

Even if you didn’t always agree with former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder (assuming you knew who she was) on all the issues, it’s hard to deny that our lives wouldn’t be considerably worse without her. Here’s a list of some of her major accomplishments:

  • championed the Family and Medical Leave Act, which was approved by Congress in 1993 and provides job protection for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the care of a newborn, sick child or parent (and for up to 26 weeks to care for a covered service member with a serious injury or illness)
  • was a major driver behind The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA), a law that prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions
  • was a primary sponsor of the National Child Protection Act of 1993, which established procedures for national criminal background checks for child-care providers and encouraged states to improve the quality and accessibility of their criminal history and child abuse records
  • introduced the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA), a law aiming to prevent and respond to violence against women, such as domestic violence; it provides:
    * funding for investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women
    * legal protection and services for victims of violence
    * education and prevention programs to raise awareness and reduce violence
  • was a strong advocate for the Breast and Cervical Cancer Mortality Prevention Act of 1990, which provided lower-income women with breast and cervical cancer screening and post-screening diagnostic services in an effort to enhance early detection

But Wait, There’s More!

Most obituaries of her are bound to focus on trivial cultural crap that sticks in people’s memories, such as the fact that she coined the term “Teflon president” for Ronald Reagan and cried (how dare she!) when she dropped out of her presidential bid in 1987.

But she was a legislator and I think that’s what we should focus on. Schroeder fought hard and accomplished much for her country. Much more than most of us ever will. She tried to do what was right, such as when, as chairwoman of a Post Office and Civil Service subcommittee, she advocated for federal employee whistleblower legislation.

She served 12 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was the first woman to serve on the House Armed Services Committee, where she advocated for arms control.

We should devote more space in our minds to heroic public servants like Pat Schroeder, but instead we tend to focus on the exhausting, petty, misinformation-laden outrages of our age. Sometimes I think that, as a nation, we don’t deserve the people who serve us best. But I’m so very glad they’ve lived their lives anyway.

Upskilling, Deskilling and the Rise of Polylearning

Upskilling is all the rage these days in Human Resources, at least as much as any HR issue can be said to “rage.” But as I’ve thought more deeply on the topic, I’ve come to realize that upskilling in one area tends to lead to deskilling in another. Not only that, but these two dynamics could result in more polylearning and less monolearning in coming decades.

What’s Upskilling?

First, let’s talk about upskilling. At a recent HR conference, I presented my organization’s research on the topic of upskilling. Overall, I think it’s a good survey and report, but I’m still not sure how the term upskilling differs from regular old learning.

My take is that upskilling is a subset of learning, a moderately fashionable and vaguely useful term meaning “learn new things so employees can continue to do their jobs well or take on other jobs that’ll help them successfully contribute to their organization and/or careers.”

So, yeah, it basically means learning but contains those some useful nuances all in a single word.

Learning Defines Our Species

Learning is, of course, something people do day-to-day anyway just to get by. For example, we meet new people and learn a little about them in order to successfully interact as human beings. Or we learn that our cat is sick and so call the vet to help it get better. Or we learn that our digital clocks are flashing and so determine that the power went out when we were asleep.

Sometimes our learning is more complicated and takes longer. For example, let’s say we need to use a new technology at work. Sometimes it only takes a few minutes to learn. Sometimes it takes months or even years, such as when we’re trying to master a new programming language. And, of course, there are a lot of things in between, such as when we’re learning the ins and outs of a new work process.

In short, we’re always learning. We need to learn just to survive. In fact, though all animals learn, humans are exceptional at learning new things, which is why we consider ourselves wise–though clearly not humble–enough to call ourselves homo sapiens sapiens, or wise, wise humans.

The Three Drivers of Upskilling

So, why are we just using the term upskilling now? There are three primary reasons.

Technological Change

First, technology is changing every day. This is part of the human condition circa 2023. We have always been “extended humans” to some degree, even before we became the species we are today. That is, we have long extended our natural capabilities through tool usage.

The people from whom we are descended, homo erectus, were also tool users, even if their tools were more “primitive” (I put that in quotes because there was a craft to creating such tools that often requires subtle skills that most of us lack today).

These days, many of our technologies are so complex that no single living human being could create them from scratch. These fancy tools not only require teams of experts and craftspeople to make them, they also require vast and complex mining, manufacturing and distribution chains to bring to them into the marketplace and workplace.

Thanks to capitalism, another human invention we’ll get to in a minute, we are always busy building and producing new tools. This ongoing process requires continuous learning.

Whether we truly need this system to survive as a species is debatable. In fact, one could argue that, with the creation of new weapons, biological agents, and other technologies, we are doing more to endanger than to promote our species’ existence.

But we’ll leave that debate for another time.

Organizational and Cultural Change

Another primary reason for upskilling is that, partly in response to the constant churn of new technologies, our organizations are also changing. This is especially true if we broaden our definition of technology to inventions such as new work processes, business paradigms, approaches, etc. Some have referred to this constant churn as “creative destruction.”

Because of my job, I tend to think in terms of business organizations, but the same thing is more or less true for whole societies. Our manufacturing, transportation, healthcare and other systems are constantly evolving.


A third reason for the rising importance of upskilling is our capitalistic system. Perhaps we could, as a species, live in a more slowly changing society that meets the needs of most people via other forms social and economic arrangements. But most of us do not.

In capitalism, one must compete for one’s place within society by earning money (yet another human invention). This means that each person must somehow sell or otherwise leverage their skills to produce capital in order to survive and thrive.

Of course, there are lots of other socioeconomic systems (feudalism, colonialism, socialism, communism, libertarianism, anarchism, minarchism, etc.), but capitalism is globally dominant at the moment. This has a huge impact on learning. So, for example, if I want to succeed in my job or career, I need to continuously learn new skills that make me “marketable” within the capitalistic system.

Amid this state of constant churn of technologies, organizations and people strive to stay relevant in the capitalistic marketplace. Extraordinary amounts of learning are required. That’s why we coin terms such as upskilling, a word first used in 1983 and especially popular right now. It helps us conceptualize our need to continuously learn in order survive and thrive.

Then There’s Deskilling

One seldom mentioned outcome of all this change is that we are also in a constant state of “deskilling.” That is, we lose or just never learn skills that our predecessors (or even our younger selves) took for granted.

For example, how many of us could quickly, if at all, start a fire without matches or a lighter? Oh sure, there are a few who still have that skill. But, for the most part, we have deskilled ourselves in this area.

This can happen quickly, even within a single lifetime. When I was a kid, for example, every child was taught to read a conventional analog clock with its round face and two hands of different sizes. These days, however, it’s common for kids to lack this skill, being only able to read the digital clocks with which they’ve grown up.

Today, we have new technologies coming to the fore such as generative AI, which include tools that create both graphic art and reasonably well-crafted prose as well. Will these new technologies drive a deskilling trend in which fewer and fewer human beings learn to draw and write well?

And, if so, what will the reskilling trend look like? For example, will more people need to become extremely adept at writing prompts that get these new AIs to produce the best possible works of prose or art?

The Age of Abundance and Leisure

With the advent of powerful AIs and almost limitless cheap sources of power, we might be approaching an age when energy, material wealth, information and knowledge are so abundant as to be virtually free. If that’s true, then we’ll need to learn something new: how to live in an age of abundance and leisure.

Learn for Learning’s Sake

We can’t know what the future will bring, of course. Maybe society will collapse for some reason (e.g., wars, pandemics, global warming, etc.) and we’ll need to learn how to scrounge resources to say alive. Perhaps being able to start a fire without matches will again become a major survival skill. In that case, we won’t be upskilling, we’ll be reskilling ourselves with age-old, essential capabilities.

Or maybe, if there is an age of abundance when most wealth is generated with machines rather than human labor, we’ll be able to pick and choose what we want to learn as never before. Perhaps we will do more learning for learning’s sake, for the sheer joy of learning, rather than for the sake of a job or career.

The Decline of Monolearning

Think about agriculture today. For the most part, our primary foods are based on monocrops—that is, crops of plants that are virtually identical genetically. We call this monoculture and there some huge advantages of this type of farming. For example, you can grow the most nutritious, largest form of a plant and use the same farming approaches (in terms of soil tilling, fertilizers, pesticides, etc.). You are, in effect, mass producing the same valuable plant over and over.

But there are also serious disadvantages to monoculture, with the primary one being that crops become very vulnerable to disease and pests. Once a plant disease learns how to attack that form of a plant, it can essentially destroy whole crops all over the world.

So, I’m going to coin the term “monolearning,” meaning the teaching of a single skill over huge swaths of humanity using essentially the same pedagogical approach. For the last several centuries, we have engaged in more and more monolearning as political superpowers, communication technologies and international markets have proliferated.

In these kinds of environments, standardization of learning becomes incredibly useful. Standard metrics facilitate global trade. Learning international languages (most recently English) encourages commerce and the exchange of scientific and social ideas. Monolearning becomes a net good.

The Rise of Polylearning

But what if we moved away from such monolearning in many areas? For example, today’s translation software is already quite good. So, why should people all over the world learn the “monolanguage” of English if they don’t need to? In fact, it’s possible we could eventually see a proliferation of new human languages and dialects (which have been declining for decades) because we have artificially intelligent tools that do all the translation for us.

This could apply to other areas as well. For instant, these days few of us even consider that there are many alternatives to the decimal number system. There’s binary, octal, hexadecimal and many other systems—and perhaps many more that we haven’t even dreamt up. Why should we all be users of the decimal system if, again, we have artificial intelligence that can easily translate from one type to another?

“But why,” you’re asking, “would we want to do that?”

Well, because we can. Because it’s interesting. Because it sets us apart. Because humans remain tribal animals and these differences can both join and distinguish us in interesting ways.

And because polylearning (the opposite of monolearning) is as potentially robust and fascinating as polyculture is in the field of agriculture. Polylearning might even make humanity more robust and resilient as we let “a thousand flowers bloom” in terms of human perspectives, ideas, cognition, and ways of living.

Sure, this could bring centripetal chaos, but if we have new technologies allowing us to bridge these gaps, then perhaps we get the best of both worlds: the virtues of monolearning balanced against the rich tapestry and creativity inherent in polylearning.

The Backlash to Polylearning

In this post, we’ve come a long way from our not-so-radical concept of upskilling. I don’t know if the future will bring more polylearning, but I think there’s a reasonable chance something like it could evolve. And, if it does, it’ll be terrifying to some people. Consider how many people are now shaking in their respective boots in the face of rising waves of gender fluidity and transsexualism even though these trends do not limit their own choices.

Now imagine if polylearning leads to dramatically more diversity in thought and lifestyles. It could even lead to a fracturing of nations as radically different ideas pull people apart.

Living in Florida, I can see how dangerously reactionary the backlash against such trends becomes. True diversity scares many people. In fact, it often scares them worse that tyrants do, despite the fact that the latter tend to be far more dangerous, as history clearly shows. Pretty soon you have authoritarian politicians demagoguing to gain power, stirring up hatred and outrage against alternative choices and lifestyles.

If that’s true now, at a time when we still have a great deal of global standardization, just imagine the eventual backlash against polylearning. Things could get ugly as people battle against nonconformity.

Of course, I don’t know if these conservative backlashes will ultimately contain the rise of polylearning. Indeed, if people must flee reactionary systems, this could fan the flames of global polylearning.

Stay tuned. At the very least, I suspect we will all be learning a great deal over the next several decades, whether we want to or not.

Huginn and Muninn as Space Ravens

You probably remember Odin, the one-eyed king of the Norse gods. You might even remember he had a couple of ravens always swooping about, sometimes perching on his shoulders and whispering in his ears. You might not, however, remember their names, which happen to be Huginn and Muninn, which mean, respectively, “thought” and “memory.”

This old myth (and I’m a sucker for mythology) was recently reincarnated as a new science fiction conceit in Adrian Tchaikovsky‘s latest novel Children of Memory.

I’m not going to review the book. There are already hundreds of reviews and I’m not a huge fan of book reviews in general.

But I did want to quickly mention something that’s not highlighted in the book itself or in anything else I’ve so far read about it. That is, Tchaikovsky was blatantly and, I’d say, mischievously ripping off Norse mythology when he created the corvid characters of Gethli and Gothi.

Space Ravens

The literary conceit that Tchaikovsky uses in the book is that these two space ravens, as you might call them, are two parts of a whole. Neither one is sapient in itself but together they represent a creature that’s about as sapient as your average human being.

Tchaikovsky is not shy about his exploitation of the Huginn and Muninn myth. More than once, he alludes to the neurodivergency of the two birds, with one being excellent at recording the details of day-to-day life and the other being wondrous at seeing how all those details fit together into a conceptual whole. Apart they are cognitively crippled but together they form a kind of genius.

The two birds are part of a much larger corvid population that evolved to form the same kinds of pair bonds again and again. At one point, the author writes that Gethli and Gothi are citizens from a civilization “made from independent halves of thought and memory.”

The reference to Huginn and Muninn can’t get much more explicit than that.

Does It Matter?

Why does it matter? Well, it doesn’t really. People are enjoying (or not) the book regardless of whether they get the reference. Heck, even an egghead like Erza Klein did a whole interview about the fictional ravens without once alluding to Odin’s avian companions.

But it is interesting to see how a modern author is able to lift from whole cloth a mythical idea, turn it into a science fiction conceit, and then have people talking about it like it’s a modern innovation without acknowledging that it’s a very old, pre-scientific idea.

Of course, that’s not the first time it has happened. In fact, the whole zombie genre stems directly from folklore, though there is usually a psuedo-scientific explanation for them in modern sci-fi horror. Likewise, the vampire in Peter Watt’s Blindsight is another example of a creature from folklore appearing in hard science fiction.

The Ongoing Cycle

I suppose that it’s an ongoing cycle. Just as we continue to pull from mythology for science fiction (the creatures in the Alien franchise are basically just space dragons, after all), the sci-fi creatures of today become a part of tomorrow’s folklore. The movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for example, both pulls from and continues to nurture our modern folklore about big-headed aliens surreptitiously visiting Earth.

And on we go. The science-fictional Iron Man and Captain America fight alongside the mythical Thor to defeat an army of aliens led by (what else?) another Norse god, Loki.

And we take it all in stride, even as the lines get ever blurrier and more surreal.

So, welcome, Gethli and Gothi, to our new pantheon of ancient mythical creatures who can comfortably inhabit the undiscovered terrains of our science fictional future.


P.S. Note that, apparently like Tchaikovsky, I’m also a fan of corvids, which feature prominently in my short story The Municipality.

Featured image: From Ranveig. Odin hrafnar: the two ravens Hugin and Munin on Odin's shoulders. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Odin_hrafnar.jpg

The Absurdity of the Wokeness Wars

In 21st century America, we’re addicted to our political outrage. We’ve got to have it first thing in the morning to stir it into our coffee. Makes it so sweetly bitter, you know?

This season our outrage-laden coffee topping of choice is “wokeness.” In fact, every morning our electronic media seems to be humming with updates from the latest skirmishes in the “wokeness wars.”

Now keep in mind we live in the age of rising seas, dying oceans, and impending nuclear doom. There’s deadly drought, apocalyptic wildfire and sudden spates of superstorms. Our democracies are disappearing, global inflation is still rampaging, and…well, you get the idea.

And there’s amazing stuff, too, that we need focus on, such as the fast emerging age of fantastically powerful AIs.

So, why do we focus on wokeness of all things?

The Tar of the Demagogues

Look, I get it as a political tool. Wokeness is damned convenient if you’re a demagogue without much of a moral compass. You can harp on it all day long without saying anything of substance.

You grab the headlines and juice up your supporters with shots of outrage each morning. What’s more, it’s not just addictive to your supporters, you can boil it down to a tarry substance used to paint your “lib” enemies as hopelessly out of touch and dangerously radical.

That Sense of Threat

Some folks on the right eat it up, thriving on the thrill of outrage. Others recognize it as partisan rhetoric that nonetheless has an element of truth. They really are annoyed if not downright threatened by talk of “defunding the police” even as crime grows or of kids considering gender change before they’re old enough to drive. It all looks weird and radical and sometimes menacing.

Come On, Grow a Conscience

Meanwhile, the left thinks being woke mostly means having some semblance of a social conscience. It means staying aware of appalling injustices and acknowledging our systems are often used to maintain age-old inequities. It means sticking up for the little people. There’s nothing especially radical or controversial there.

Of course, some on the left actually do hold more radical views but they are nothing like the majority. When coming from the right, however, the term woke is intended to paint all non-rightwing views as radical.

A Word to Divide and Unite

So, the word woke is meant to divide Americans. But it’s also used to unite partisans. If I use the word woke as you do, then I’m in your group. You and I are buddies, friends, comrades in arms. We speak the same language, even if that language is so amorphous as to be meaningless when you try to pin down its meaning.

Ironically, though, it’s a also sign of fearful insecurity on both sides of the political aisle. On the right, those who fear change in values see wokeness as a threat to their more traditional mores and power structures. On the left, those who fear being marginalized and oppressed see wokeness as a way gain greater representation and recognition. In both cases, the fear of the other side is what drives the conflict. There’s typically little genuine desire to listen and understand.

A Bridge Too Far

So the wokeness wars represent an absurd and largely manufactured conflict that distract us from the important issues we should be focusing on. Instead of engaging in unproductive culture wars, we should be working to address the systemic problems in our society and find common ground where we can. This means moving beyond fear and insecurity and engaging in genuine dialogue with those who hold different views.

But that’s bloody hard and humane work. It’s so much easier to get our morning jolt of outrage and move on, our sense of insecure superiority intact. Don’t make us actually think and listen! Bridges to the other side are just bridges too far!

The Municipality

A short story originally published in Entropy magazine

I did not find them. They found me.

I was on the roof in the late afternoon, trying to fix one of the rotors on Municipal Drone-40. I’ve never been the mechanical type, but I’d spent my whole first week in The Municipality screwing around with generators, electrical panels, computer networks and now a drone repair kit after mashing the damn thing into the side of a building on one of my first test flights.

The Facetime chats with my supervisor were already filled with sighs and questions about when I’d finally start doing the job I’d been hired for. In frustration with the broken drone, I kicked white gravel over the edge of the building.

Up rose a terrible, throaty cry that I interpreted as a mixture of outrage and pain.

I crept to the edge.

Just as I did, up rose this explosion of black havoc that so startled me I fell backward on my ass onto the rocky rooftop.

“Jaysus,” I said as the bird flew over me and settled down on one of the capped venting pipes.

As I stood up and brushed the pebbles off my rump, it cawed at me. I flipped it the bird, which made me chortle to myself. Flipping the bird, get it? These are the kinds of things that amuse one when one spends his days utterly alone.

The bird hung out there while watching me work on the drone. I’d removed one of the evil looking 3-blade propellers so that I wouldn’t lose a finger as I worked on the malfunctioning rotor. I felt self-conscious under its beady eyes.

“Why don’t you go away and come back nevermore?” I asked.

It didn’t respond but did cock its head a bit, which I suppose is the universal language for, “Hmm, that’s puzzling.”

At some point it flew toward me and I instinctively threw up my arms to protect my face. But instead of attacking, it made a beeline for the drone propeller, deftly picked it up out of the white rocks and took off again for its perch.

“Dude,” I said, “I need that!”

With what I sensed was amusement in its dark brown eyes, it then flew over the edge of the roof, looked back at me and dropped a couple of stories down to the tiered roof of the next building.

If I couldn’t get the prop back, then I couldn’t fix the drone without cannibalizing one of the others. Which wouldn’t make sense, of course. I should just haul out one of the others, which would mean this one was totally out of commission. Which was not something I wanted to explain to my supervisor.

“Bring it back, asshole!”

It put the prop down, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Nevermore.” Then it whisked the prop back up and lit out for parts unknown as dusk descended on my amazed and flummoxed self.


People ask me how I can possibly be the only caretaker of The Municipality. My response is that there’s just not that much to do.

“But it’s so big!” they say.

Indeed it is, already the population of Tampa, FL and growing by the day. Downtown has been densely populated for over a year and now the suburbs are starting to fill out as well.

Of course, I’m the only Liver, as we jokingly call ourselves, residing permanently in The Municipality. Everyone else commutes. Both my apartment and my workplace are located in an old office building in the central part of the city. It used to belong to a major defense contractor, whose name I’m not supposed to disclose, though you can still see the ghostly silhouette of its dismantled corporate logo on the front of the building.

The government chose it as my headquarters because it has industrial generators that can keep the power on in the building indefinitely as long as the diesel keeps flowing. Since I only power up my quadrant of the top floor when I need to, the massive receptacles of fuel in the basement seldom need renewing. In fact, most of my actual energy comes from a Tesla Powerwall fed by the solar panels on the roof.

When I first arrived, they expected this building to be a hub of activity. There were plans, mock-ups, models, etc. The top floor was going to be manned by a team of drone operators and first responders who would have the entire municipality under observation 24/7.

Indeed, I still have a fleet of 39 camera-bearing drones that sit collecting dust in a large storage room near the stairwell to the roof. The fortieth I keep on the roof in a small hangar for when I need it, which is not all that often. Oh, sure, I fly it around a little daily to gather footage and tracking signals for the Powers That Be. That seems to keep them happy enough. But my primary genuine use for the drone is to follow the corvids, who are always the first to detect trouble in their domain.

My official title is Municipal Manager of Security, though when people ask me what I do, I generally tell them I’m The Municipality’s chief caretaker. Even that’s an exaggeration because I’m not really the chief of anyone. I could probably have a staff if I requested it, but the Powers That Be like that I’m able to keep my operating costs so low. It makes it that much easier to justify the continued existence of The Municipality, which requires billions to maintain when you add up all the other costs.

Anyway, I try to stay under the radar of both the Powers and the media, but there is a Twitter account called @SheriffOfDeadTown that somehow takes my intentionally dry reports, which are a matter of public record, and turns them into snappy little tweets that are rife with inaccuracies and exaggerations. There’s another called @MayorOfDeadTown that just makes up gothic tales of ghosts and zombies.

The former is annoying because it drives the steady trickle of unwanted media inquiries. The latter is a bigger pain in the ass because it often inspires the wacko incursions we get. “We” as in me, the daytime Livers and, of course, the fish crows.

Let me just say that most people have been respectful of our boundaries. As a species, we human beings tend to be stupid, gullible, mean and hostile. But we also tend to respect the dead. Most graveyards, after all, go unmolested. The Municipality is simply the world’s largest, most unusual graveyard, one inhabited by legions of citizens who, it is widely assumed, are determined to enlist us into their ranks.


A couple of days after my first visit by the black bird, I was on my electric bike going to check on a fallen tree called in by one of the undertaking crews. I found it exactly at the GPS coordinates they provided: a large live oak had tipped over onto the porch roof of one of the still empty ranch houses on 45th Avenue. It could have been worse but was beyond the scope of the city landscaping crews. I’d need to call in both a tree service and a carpenter.

As I was taking pictures with my phone for the benefit of the insurance company, I saw another black bird roosting on one of the larger limbs of the fallen tree, peering down with apparent interest. I zoomed in and snapped a picture, then took a closer look.

After my first encounter, I’d gone online to figure out if what I’d seen had been a crow or a raven. On one hand, ravens don’t really live in cities. They’re more country birds. On the other hand, The Municipality was no longer your average city. Still, based on the size, sound and beak of the creature, I’d concluded it was just a large fish crow.

It turns out fish crows have always been common in the city, which abuts the Gulf Coast and is replete with small lakes and retention ponds.

“Are you the talking prop-thief bird?” I asked, but it just took off.

Not much later, I was headed back downtown on my trusty Tern cargo bike when another black bird appeared in the road in front of me. Don’t be paranoid, I thought. It was probably just eating of roadkill. Except, of course, there wasn’t much roadkill in The Municipality, where traffic was scarce.

I slowed and swerved to avoid the bird but, as I passed by, saw it had a propeller in its beak. So the prop thief was following me around just to taunt me, apparently, which I found both amusing and slightly menacing.

I stopped the bike and slowly approached my avian nemesis.

“Nevermore,” I repeated, hoping it would say the word and so drop the propeller, at which time I would scare it away.

It stared at me until I was within a few feet and then flew down the street, never getting much above eye level. It landed back in the middle of 17th Street probably 50 yards or so away. It put down the prop and cawed at me.

The shadows were already starting to get long in the city and I wanted to reach home before dusk. After all, the Powers didn’t waste money on lighting for its one lone living resident. There’s regular dark and then there’s city-at-night-with-no-street-lights dark. I’d found the latter was spooky as all get out.

So, I weighed my options, trying to remember what I was carrying in the emergency pack I kept strapped to the back of the cargo bike.

“Screw it,” I said, got back on my bike and followed the bird.

I won’t bore you with the whole tale of how every time I rode down the road and got off the bike, the crow would again fly down the 17th the other way, apparently toying with me for its own amusement. At some point, I got pissed off enough to consider unholstering my taser and trying to fricassee the little bastard from 10 feet away.

I probably would have given up if the bird hadn’t taken a right turn on 23rd Avenue and waited for me. This time I rode up in front of it, not bothering to get off the bike and said, “Listen, if you’re leading me somewhere in particular, then let’s do it. I’ll just follow on the bike. Otherwise I’m going home to my crappy microwave meal and newest Zelda game. Maybe I’ll also put in an Amazon order for a shiny new BB gun. Getting my drift?”

It flew right up to the bike and landed on the milk crate strapped to the front. Cocking its head once, the prop still in its mouth, it then flew down 23rd Street a ways. Now it was just a matter of following, as if my bike were tethered to its tail.

As I rode on, I started hearing other crows cawing around me, making me shudder.  After my first encounter on the rooftop, I’d googled crows and ravens. As I understood it, they were corvids, in the genus Corvus and the family Corvidae. Some of what I found out unnerved me, such as the fact that a group of crows is technically called a “murder.” So, there I was envisioning an enormous dark “murder of crows” engulfing me Alfred-Hitchcock-style, picking out on my eyes first and burrowing into my brain before popping out my chest like in that old children’s rhyme about four and twenty black birds baked in a pie.

That was nonsense, of course. Crows will kill other birds and small animals, but they don’t mob and murder people. I couldn’t start fleeing 10-ounce birds and still do my job. So, when when it started getting truly dark, I just flipped on my headlamp and soldiered on.

A couple of miles down the road, the crow disappeared. Did I pass it somehow? It was alarmingly dark in that leafy, bushy neighborhood. Even starlight was scarce. It brought out all those instinctual fears of ambush. I guess that’s why, in a city of the dead, I nonetheless whispered, “Where you’d go bird?”

There was an “uh-uh” call to my left. I pulled out my phone and shook it twice to turn on the flashlight. There was the bird sitting on the roof of a beat up compact car parked under a tree. That set off my internal alarms. There are no cars in The Municipality unless some living person drives them there, and the Livers should be gone at night. The landscapers, mortician crews, maintenance people: everyone goes home in the evenings except for me.

Of course, there were possible innocent explanations. Maybe the car broke down and the owner got a ride home with someone else. But, if that were true, why was it parked under a tree rather than in a driveway? Was the owner trying to hide it from the drones that, at least according to our public relations, were supposed to be the sentinels of The Municipality?

Once it knew that I’d spotted it, the fish crow did a sort of feathery Superman leap onto a wooden privacy fence.

What to do. One part of me wanted the whole thing to be a stupid farce that would one day make for a good anecdote among yet-to-be-made friends: the time a brazen black bird sent me on a wild good chase. The other part of me was sure something was wrong. Did I really want to know what? Should I put my life on the line in order to safeguard the citizens of the world’s largest crypt? Nobody would ever know if I just turned around and went home to my well-lit downtown enclave.

What the hell. Whatever I was–chief caretaker or Sheriff of Deadtown or designated witness to unspeakable global calamity–this was the job.

But I didn’t call it in, not wanting to explain the whole chasing-a-fish-crow-across-the-city thing. My supervisor was already losing his confidence in me. If I told him this crazy story, he’d think I was nuts rather than just inept.

So, I parked the bike in the driveway and, though feeling absurd, knocked on the door. I should mention that I had access to a database of virtually every property in the city. By typing the address of the place into my phone, I knew it was a two-bedroom ranch where a Deborah Whitehaven, age 66, was interred.

The crow sat on the fence gate, which was latched but not locked. I pushed it open while announcing my presence so I didn’t get shot by somebody—this still being America, after all.

“Hello, anyone there? This is Davante Jordon, Head of Security for The Municipality. I saw the vehicle out front and am coming into the backyard to make sure no one needs my help.”

My first impression was of a baffling tumult of twisting shadows as I panned my phone to take in the yard. On my right there was what looked like a wide ladder leaning diagonally onto a tall privacy fence. On it perched two crows, one of which flew off into the darkness when I caught it in the beam of my phone light. The second turned out to be a painted wooden statue of a crow.

Moving leftward, there were a number of long, black poles of various lengths with horizontal bars on the tops. On one of these bars roosted another crow decoy. There was also an artificial pond with a perimeter of natural stones and with an impressionistic corvid statue in the middle that had to be four feet tall.

Further to the right was a huge, appalling object that made me take a step backward before I recognized it as the roots of some great tree that had been plucked from the darkness of earth and placed here like an enormous, frozen tentacled sea creature with writhing arms.

The only object in the yard that didn’t seem like part of the set of some gothic horror film was a small gazebo under which was planted a cement picnic bench.

“Hello,” I said again. “Anybody there?”


“How about you, Nevermore? You brought me all this way to see the backlot of your Dr. Caligari remake?”

There was a beat, followed by a black blur angling down toward the monstrosity of roots, or rather just behind it.

Then a woman’s scream, which sent me scrambling for my taser.

“Let go, you asshole,” she shouted as she stumbled from behind the roots, her long hair being pulled upward by a crow pulsing with wing flaps and a series of loud, high-pitched caws.

As the woman batted at the bird, it let go and flew out beyond the perimeter of light.

“You okay?” I said.

“Most uncool Huggin, you little bitch!” she shouted into the darkness.

I approached her cautiously, my taser drawn even though it was useless at a distance. 

“This is my mother’s house,” she said, sounding like she might start crying, like she was nearing the end of her rope. “My childhood home.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s going to be okay.”

“No, it really isn’t,” she sniffed.


Juanita Whitehaven was a bit of a mess, which is to say she was like most everybody else these days. I sat her down on one of the concrete benches next to the concrete picnic table, which was crusted with bird shit over a mosaic inlay of triangular pieces of tile.

“Nasty,” she said, apparently referring to the guano.

“Yeah, I guess beggars can’t be choosers.” I said, walking over to the French doors and giving them a tug. “You haven’t been inside, have you?”

She shook her head.

After checking her driver’s license, I grabbed my pack off the Tern and set up an emergency candle. Next I broke out the first-aid kit and checked her wounds with an LED flashlight. The scratches were pretty deep yet barely bleeding. I dabbed them with hydrogen peroxide anyway. She bore it like a nervous dog, clearly tense at my touch.

“You sure you just got these?”

She shrugged.

Her wavy black hair was mussed up from the crow. When I mentioned it, she dragged her fingers through it in a half-hearted way.

“Here,” I said, handing her a granola bar, which she ignored.

Sitting across the table from her, I ripped open my own bar, took a bite, and waited her out.

“Am I under arrest?” she finally asked.

“I’m not a cop,” I said, “just a glorified security guard. I could detain you, I guess, but that seems like overkill for trespassing on your own Mom’s place.”

“So, I can go?”

“Sure,” I said, wondering how much trouble I’d get into if I didn’t call in the incident soon. “But we could also just chat for a bit if you want to tell me why you’re here.”

Juanita just sat there, her shadowy face staring down and her ample forehead glowing in candlelight, as if she were a tragic saint in chiaroscuro painting. She had a prominent nose sticking out from sunken cheeks. I had the impression she hadn’t been eating well.

“How about if you just tell me about your mother and these crazy birds? Did you know one can talk?”

She raised her face toward me, her dark brown eyes shining out of deep cavities.

“They talked to you?”

So I told her my story of the propeller thief, which seemed to animate her.

“That had to be Muggin,” she said. “He’s a scamp. Mother adored taught him a dozen or so words. ‘Nevermore’ was more a joke, of course. They’re no parrots or myna birds, but corvids are pretty fair human mimics.”

She went on to tell me the tale of how her mother, Dr. Deborah Whitehaven–who was apparently an ornithologist of some repute–had raised the crow couple that came to be known as Muggin and Huggin. After reaching adulthood, the mated pair made the professor’s back yard their home base and nesting area, and they raised several generations of offspring who often visited.

They were an especially convivial pair who spent a great deal of time interacting with the professor, as did their offspring. In fact, their whole extended family often used her mother’s back yard as a roost.

“She was obsessed with them for the last five years of her life,” Juanita said.

The professor had lived in the city was before it evacuated and renamed The Municipality. In fact, she was among the first thousand Praeser-24 victims. When she realized she was dying, she requested that her family position her remains seated in her favorite vintage armchair gazing through the French door windows into her backyard.

“It’d be lovely to watch my darlings and their offspring throughout eternity, almost exactly my idea of Heaven,” she had written in her will.

“Typical,” Juanita said. All her life, she and her brother had taken a backseat, often literally, to all the birds in their mother’s life.

It had been a kind of family joke. In the morning, their mother would be whistling, chattering, clucking and knocking away at whatever birds were in the enormous cage in the front passenger seat of their ancient Taurus wagon. Meanwhile, the kids would be in the backseat bickering with one another, their mother so oblivious to them that she often forgot to drop them off at school on her way into the university.

“Those cages were always, and I mean always, secured with a seat-belt. But our own seat-belts were buried so deep between the seat cushions that it took us years to realize they existed at all,” Juanita said with a little laugh. “God, how we hated those damned birds.”

It never really got any better. In the last several years of her mother’s life, as Juanita’s marriage was falling apart and she struggled with an opioid addiction, her mother barely noticed.

“I’d go to her house and try to get her to dredge up a little motherly sympathy, but she’d just sit there with her binoculars talking about the latest antics of the Huggin and Muggin clan. In a way, there were her legacy. She wrote hundreds of articles on corvids, especially fish crows, demonstrating just how smart they are. Did you know their their total brain-to-body mass ratio is as high as those of the great apes and cetaceans? That they are tool users and excellent problem solvers?  No, no, I couldn’t compete with that.”

Even as Juanita told her story, her laughter metamorphosed into a kind of manic hysteria. I couldn’t smell any liquor on her breath, but wondered about drugs.

“But you know what? Sometimes she’d take my hand in hers and we’d sit there in silence, watching those damned birds. When something happened, she’d squeeze my hand and smile. ‘Aren’t they delightful?’ she’d say. ‘I’m so glad you’re here.’” I think that was the only time she said those words to me:‘so glad you’re here.’”

Just then, a crow flew down and stood at the end of the table, as if calling a meeting to order.

“Hello Huggin,” she said. “I suppose you want me to take off so you can have her all to yourself again.”

Huggin, who looked the same as Muggin to me, flew up onto her shoulder and nuzzled Juanita’s hair with what looked like affection.

“Too late,” Juanita said. “Too late for that.”


At some point that I can’t remember, as the candle slowly burned down, the conversation turned to me.

“So how did a nice boy like you….”

“Wind up as the caretaker for the largest cemetery in history?”

She nodded. I almost answered with the requisite, “Just lucky I guess.” But she had just spilled her guts to me and it didn’t feel right to just blow her off.

“I volunteered,” I said.

“You must have immunity.”

“All the Livers who work here do.”

“Do you mind if I ask? How it felt, I mean?”

A natural question, of course. Praeser-24 doesn’t spread as fast as a lot of viruses, but it’s especially lethal, so people are always curious about survivers. And there are those inevitable questions behind the question. What did you do differently? What vitamins were you taking? What treatment did you get? What makes you so special? The answer, of course, really comes down to dumb luck.

I shrugged.

“Same as with most people, I guess. Luckily, I didn’t get the sudden onset variety so had time to get to the ER. At first you feel like shit, normal flu stuff. You shiver, then the shiver gets worse. Your whole body kind of vibrates. Faster and faster until you’re stuck. You can’t move and it’s hard to breathe and you’re scared but also not normal scared because your brain kind of freezes up, too. Hard to explain. Did you ever have a dream that seems to go on all night, one you just can’t shake even if you wake up multiple times? Like you can’t find the exit? It was kind similar to that, except the dream was a dark thought that moves slow as a glacier. The way a sick tree thinks, I suppose.”

An extended, crystallized feeling of horror, unnatural as a frozen flame.

But I didn’t say that. Juanita swallowed and looked away. People think they want to know these things, but they don’t really. Can’t blame them.

“Do you think, you know, could some of them still be alive?”

I shake my head. All the doctors who aren’t just kooks say there’s no way. No brain activity. No heartbeat. No blood flow. But also no decay. As if they’ve been turned to wax or plastic. They’re still not sure how. So, families don’t want to bury them. Or cremate them. It’s not logical, of course. They’re dead, but there’s that tiny spark of doubt and minuscule hope of resurrection. The tiny spark that inflamed the public imagination into a bonfire of massive protests and political demagoguery that ultimately became The Municipality.

So even the people who didn’t die here at ground zero of the pandemic are boxed up and moved here, each abandoned home becoming a crypt for the thousands of new victims.

“You should go home now,” I said. “Why don’t I call you one of the special Ubers allowed into the city. Sometime tomorrow we’ll get your car back to you.”

She shook her head.

“I’ll go sleep in the car and leave in the morning. I just want to see her and the ole homestead again in the daylight, you know. One last time.”

“Okay,” I said, feeling too tired to argue. The morning was soon enough, yet seemed so far away. Interminable.

When she left for her car, I snuffed out the candle, folded up my arms on the cold, stony table and put my head down.


Even corvids sleep, I suppose.

They’d gone to so much trouble to bring me there. Perhaps once they’d brought Juanita to my attention, they figured that she was my problem, that a fellow human would be able to save her from herself.

In this, they were mistaken.

I was jolted awake by this deep, terrible rattling sound, as if someone were quickly dragging hollow bones across an endless series of fleshless rib cages. I was muddle-headed and bathed in clammy, dewy dampness, unable to piece together the weird scene presented in the dim dawn light. There was a crow, its beak parting like the black blades of hedge clippers, its call abrading the stillness of the bizarre yard. It hopped and sidled along a piece of baroque scenery I’d somehow missed in the darkness. A lumpen figure sitting in front of the French doors. Another statue? I blinked, raised a knuckle to my right eye, squeegeeing away moisture as I stood slowly, at first just to shift my point of view, to grasp this blurry, poorly lit tableau.

When the scene finally clicked, I jerked up, bashing my knee on the underside of the concrete table.

“Shit, shit, shit, shit,” I cursed as the bird flew away over my head so closely I felt the wind of its wings.

There sat Juanita in a folding, aluminum yard chair, staring straight ahead through the French doors at her mother’s posed and un-decomposed corpse.

I shook her shoulder.

“Juanita,” I said, quietly. Then more loudly, “Juanita!”

But she was still. Unflinching and unblinking. I felt for a pulse and got none.

“You idiot!” I yelled, not knowing which of us I meant. “You absolute moron!”

I understood all of it all at once. How had I missed it?

Those wounds on her shoulder hadn’t been fresh wounds. The bird had only been tugging her hair. No, the scratches had happened earlier in the day, which is why they’d mostly stopped bleeding.

I stood and tried the doors again. They were still locked. Walking around the perimeter of the house, I found what I now knew had to be there: the window that she’d broken carefully in order to get at the latch. The window she’d crept through in order to see her mother. The window that had cut her shoulder?

No, maybe not. The wounds really did look like claw marks. So one of the crows, then, did attack her. Maybe trying to pull her away?

If so, unsuccessfully. Because Juanita had gotten in, had touched her mother, perhaps hugged and kissed her, the professor who’d paid her little heed, who continued to stare through the glass at her beloved, dark companions.

And she’d become infected, of course. Because somehow Praeser-24 lives on within the corpses, keeping them from decay indefinitely once the immune system is defeated, cleverly biding its time until it has the opportunity to infect again long after other viruses would have died away.

Juanita had just gotten unlucky or, maybe from her viewpoint, lucky to be struck with the sudden onset variety of the virus. The “quick freeze” as it’s known on social media and the tabloids, not to mention that still controversial Saturday Night Live comedy skit.

So there she sat, enthroned on a beach chair, victorious over my clumsy, tepid ineptitudes.


Which left me in a bad position, of course. Me, the bumbling caretaker whose main concern now was taking care of my own worthless ass.

I couldn’t just leave her, but also couldn’t report things the way they’d happened. The Powers would want to know why I hadn’t called it in as soon as I discovered her, how I’d found her in the first place, and why I’d shown such terrible judgment.

So I did nothing. Just sat cross-legged next to her, reached up to the arm of the chair and covered her cold and rigid hand with my own, awaiting the full break of day. There would be time to ride back to my tower, fly a tracking drone over the city, and pretend to find Juanita’s car on my own. Then I’d investigate, find her corpse, and call it in.

All the correct procedures would be followed, all electronic breadcrumbs would be in place, and the Powers That Be would be satisfied, perhaps even pleased, with my performance. They’d especially love that one of their pricey fleet of drones had been put to good use.

Time enough for that. In that moment, though, I just sat there with her, peering through the darkened glass at the professor whose dead gaze was now fixed only on her daughter.

For more fiction by Mark R. Vickers, see the Fiction/Poetry page

The Takeover of the Florida University System

The right-wing takeover of the Florida university system is nearly complete.

In Florida, the governor has virtually total control now. This makes it easy for him (and it’s always been a him) to politicize that control if he wants. And, Gov. Ron DeSantis badly wants to, judging from his actions.

I expect this to become a roadmap for other red states in the U.S. If I’m correct, then academia had better wake up to the fact and formulate strategies to protect their academic freedoms while they still have a few.

Who Selects the Board of Trustees in the Florida University System?

Let’s start with the Florida State University Board of Trustees. This is a 13-member governing board first created in 2001. It sets policy for the entire system.

How are these trustees appointed?

  • Six members are appointed by the Governor of Florida
  • Five members are appointed by the Board of Governors
  • One member is elected by alumni (that is, the Chair of the Faculty Senate)
  • One member is elected by students (that is, the President of the Student Body)

So, who Appoints the Board of Governors?

Alright, so the governor appoints six members of the Board of Trustees, but there are seven others. So, that’s not complete control, right?

Well, this raises the question of who determines who sits on the Board of Governors. I imagine you can guess.

Of the 17 members of the Board of Governors (which manages the Florida public university system), 14 are appointed by the Florida Governor. So, in effect, the governor determines 11 of the 13 members of the University Board of Trustees.

Has the Governor Always Had Total Power Over the Florida University System?

Nope. There used to be a Board of Regents, but that got abolished by back in 2001 by then Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida legislature. The Florida university system has been increasingly politicized ever since. It’s a pretty ugly story that goes like this, according to Yahoo!News:

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, state Sen. Charles Johns led a committee that attempted to identify civil rights activists and communists in the universities; eventually, the Johns Committee also expanded its witch hunts to include people in the LGBTQ community.

Many lives were ruined, and the intellectual climate on Florida campuses became very chilly indeed. This abuse of power was so egregious that the Florida Legislature established the Florida Board of Regents in 1965 to serve as a buffer between the state’s universities and its politicians.

However, even that buffer could be eliminated. In 2001, Gov. Jeb Bush wanted to abolish affirmative action in Florida’s universities, and the Board of Regents resisted the move. In frustration, Bush persuaded the Legislature to dissolve the Board of Regents and establish a Board of Trustees for each institution in the State University System. (All of its trustees were appointed by Bush.)

What Happens from Here?

From here, the governor seems determined to wield his nearly absolute power as aggressively as possible.

He has proposed a legislative overhaul that shifts even more power to the Board of Governors while limiting academic freedom and dismantling diversity initiatives at state universities. CNN reports:

The bill would put all hiring decisions in the hands of each universities’ board of trustees, a body selected entirely by the governor and his appointees, with input from the school’s president. A board of trustee member could also call for the review of any faculty member’s tenure.

In short, Florida academics’ freedom of thought and expression as well as any independence of action will continue to be whittled away for the foreseeable future. As in other increasingly authoritarian systems throughout history, academics will likely be targeted if they stick their heads above the political parapet.

The Impact

The result will almost certainly mean a weakening of the state’s higher education system, but I don’t think that’s a concern for the Florida GOP. Indeed, they may believe that a less educated population will help ensure their long-term state dominance.

So, expect Florida politicians to give a lot of lip-service to idea of “strengthening” STEM (that is, science, technology, engineering and match) disciplines at universities while undermining anything that even subtly whiffs of art or culture-related issues (sociology, political science, history, anthropology, literature, liberal arts, etc.)

Anyone who is willing to think outside a very constrained and state-defined academic box will increasingly, I believe, be a target who lives in fear of being terminated from their positions, both at the university and K-12 levels of education.

Absolute power corrupts, and the power of Gov. DeSantis, who will likely soon run for president, grows more absolute by the day.