Monthly Archives: April 2017

Automatic or the people?

Automatic or the people?

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the passing of Hoosier author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. For me and many, his themes and observations on the human condition stand fresh and relevant as when he wrote them.

I mark today by revisiting his first book, Player Piano, published in 1952. In it, Vonnegut explores the theme of automation and its impact on people displaced by technology. For American workers caught up in “foreigners stole my jobs” fervor, automation represents a much more impactful threat to their work.

Currently, David Brancaccio (who interviewed Vonnegut a few years before his death) is airing a feature titled “Robot-Proof Jobs” on American Public Media’s Marketplace Morning Report. Great news for astronomers, veterinarians, historians, mathematicians, musicians, miners, and models, Robbie the Robot won’t be threatening your livelihood anytime soon. But for lumberjacks, projectionists, masons, and meat packers, Rosie the Robot may be coming for your job. This series expands on Brancaccio’s 2012 series of stories “Robots Ate My Job,” which documents a cross-country trip he took with no human contact. It’s great stuff and worth a listen.

Couched in all of this, I really wanted to explore two news stories late last year that created that buzz in the news cycle and quickly dissipated. They’re more than fluff presented at the end of your local broadcast. They can produce a devastating impact if—and when—industries implement them.


In late October 2016, Uber-owned startup Otto (get it?) in partnership with Budweiser outfitted a big rig and hauled 2,156 cases of the King of Beers 120 miles across I-25 from Fort Collins through Denver to Colorado Springs. The Belgian-based AB InBev said it could save upwards of $50 million each year with automated deliveries. (The news articles do not report whether all those cans were emblazoned with “America” in place of “Budweiser.”)

So let’s run some numbers. The American Trucking Association estimates that 3.5 million truck drivers haul freight in the United States. puts their average salary at $62,608 per year. So in aggregate, companies could save $219 trillion a year or more. That’s scary tempting, folks, and there’s not a damned thing a Teamster can do about it.

More: AP video of Otto


In December, we heard about that Amazon Go grocery store in downtown Seattle where you walk in, tap your app, grab your things, and go. The store keeps track of what you take off the shelf and what you put back. Now, I can’t seem to use those self-service check-out kiosks without them beeping for an attendant every five seconds, but automated checkout is definitely coming, and maybe faster than driverless Mack trucks.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015 the United States employed 3.4 million cashiers at an average annual salary of $20,670. In aggregate, retailers could save $70 trillion per year.

More: Amazon Go promo video

Whither the writers?

Even writers and content creators like me are vulnerable. The Associated Press uses a platform called Wordsmith that reads box scores and spits out a sports story. Google’s AI is writing poetry.

With news organizations still dreaming of an economical way to churn out SEO-garnering hyperlocal content, automation presents a chilling solution. Picture a computer program taking the audio from a city council meeting, instantly transcribing it, and feeding a completed story online and then into the next day’s edition. No reporter needed.

Failing to prepare

After the election, I heard a report from Coal Country where an unemployed miner groused about training for a different job. “I’m sick of hearing about retraining,” he said. “I want my old job back.”

Well, I thought, I’m sure the folks making VCRs, pagers, and CB radios felt the same way. Sometimes you just have to adapt. But, to what? I followed. You know companies will just downsize all of these workers with no plan for repositioning them within the company or retraining them. And I then asked the really naïve questions: Who’s responsible for retraining and outplacing these people to new jobs? Can industry create new jobs for these workers? Without a plan, we face a future of Vonnegut’s dystopian vision where we exile those displaced by technology to a new Homestead.

Here’s where I dead-end in proposing a magical solution. I only know that we as a society need to prepare better for it. So let’s quit devaluing our educational institutions, arguing about unproductive ideas like standardized testing and competition, disregarding the trades, underpaying our teachers, and falling behind the rest of the world in providing quality education to everyone. Again, I don’t have the answers here, but I do know that we’re spending too much time, as Vonnegut puts it, “farting around.”

If you haven’t read Player Piano, I’d recommend picking it up at a public library or local independent bookstore. Or you could have an Amazon drone deliver it to your house.

Photo credit: Vinally2010 Robot via photopin (license)

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Posted by on April 11, 2017 in Cuture Shock, Uncategorized


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My mom, a sweatshirt, a new tradition

My mom, a sweatshirt, a new tradition

Four years later, my phone still reminds me of her birthday…twice. Though she was born in 1940 (which made the math easy), she was always evasive about when her birthday was when we were growing up.

My mom would have been 77 years old today. Four years ago, in honoring her, I inadvertently started a Wabash tradition.

On her birthday, we buried my mom’s ashes beside my dad in Greenlawn Cemetery in Franklin. (Well, half of her ashes, actually.) That same day, my fraternity chapter held its annual auction and Mothers & Brothers pitch-in. I contributed an item and attached a note.

A Red Sweatshirt

Both sides of my family were Greek, and most of the Vandivier men, including my grandfather and namesake, were proud brothers in Sigma Alpha Epsilon at Franklin College. Though I bucked tradition by becoming a Wabash Phi Delt, my SAE dad and Chi Omega mom were incredibly supportive as always.

From football weekends to the Parents Club Auction to Mothers & Brothers (which started my sophomore year), my parents loved Wabash and this house, especially in its power to supplement their steady guidance and help transform me into the man I am today.

At Homecoming 2012, I bought a red Wabash sweatshirt for my mom, and I gave it to her at Christmas.

She bravely fought cancer on the three occasions, starting after Finals my first semester. In 2012, a new tumor had developed, and though she didn’t feel it, I knew she was worried. For me, Linda Gates Vandivier embodied the spirit of Wabash Always Fights, and I wanted to convey that to her as she faced this new threat.

Though she had few symptoms, the tumor perforated her stomach wall, and she died quite suddenly on February 20, 2013. On her birthday on April 7, we buried her ashes alongside my father in Franklin, the same day as Mothers & Brothers that year.

She never had a chance to wear the sweatshirt, so I have offered it as part of this chapter auction.

I hope that one of you moms can wear it with great pride. Our mothers’ love for their sons is one of the greatest and most unsung traditions we Wabash Phi Delts have.

Wabash Always Fights,
Hugh Vandivier ’91
Bond #1436

Donna, the mother of Alex Hawkins ’15, won the sweatshirt. The next year, she brought it back to the auction along with a three-ring binder and my note on the first page. Each year since, a Phi Delt mom has bid on the sweatshirt, and each year her son writes something special about his mom to include in the binder and put into the auction the next year.

Naturally, I’m touched. So on my mom’s birthday, I’m grateful and inspired that her spirit and love reinforces the mother-son bond of others.

If you’re mom is still with you, give her a call. It’ll surprise her, I’m sure. Tell her you love her. Just as I’d love so much to do so today.

I love you, Mom.


Mothers & Brothers 2017: A great Wabash Phi Delt tradition continues.

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Posted by on April 7, 2017 in All in the Family


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