Lead Poisoning

When I was in junior high, I had a class called Problems of Civilization (today it would probably be called Social Studies). One of the things I learned was that the Roman Empire collapsed because of plumbing.

You see, the word plumbing comes from the Latin plumbum which means lead; plumbing was made of lead. Which meant that people who could afford plumbing (the rich Romans) and the members of their household, were exposed to lead poisoning — which causes mental retardation and various forms of dementia. Hence the notorious Roman stories about Caligula and Nero and others.

Wikipedia attributes the lead poisoning to the use of lead acetate as a wine sweetener. But the idea that a technological innovation that seems so indispensable (like plumbing) could be the cause of the collapse of an entire civilization, is a much more intriguing meme. It suggests the following question: What ubiquitous and seemingly indispensable technology is potentially the cause of the collapse of our civilization?

I think the answer is advertising. Wikipedia’s entry is quite damning. Here’s a quote — the rest of the exposition is equally disconcerting:

Over the years, the public perception of advertising has become very negative. It is seen a medium that inherently promotes a lie, based on the purpose of the advertisement – to encourage the target audience to submit to a cause or a belief, and act on it to the advertising party’s benefit and consequently the target’s disadvantage. They are either perceived as directly lying (stating opinions or untruths directly as facts), lying by omission (usually terms or conditions unfavorable to the customer) or portraying a product or service in a light that does not reflect reality.

Spam and splogs are merely the latest incarnation of lead poisoning. (Advertising is about generating leads). That’s why we don’t have television at home. We’re trying to protect our children from lead poisoning. It’s not easy. There are a lot of transmission vectors.

As long as people want to get paid for providing content, the money has to either come from viewers or advertisers. I favor charging the viewers; like cable television or Netflix — then we get to decide what we see. I’m also hopeful that ideas like AttentionTrust can divert the money flow in ways that will provide more control to the viewers.

As long as we rely on advertising to fund content, we’re going to get advertising in our content. And if viewers are unwilling to pay for content, isn’t that a comment on the value of that content to those viewers?

I wonder what an ad-free Google account would cost.


Childhood's End

We’re in the process of getting only three children off to college this month. (Our household style and usage guide requires the use of the modifier only in any phrase that enumerates children.) Consequently, the “growing up” meme has been circulating vigorously. Into that ferment, the monthly insurance statement arrived. ( It’s a statement because the premium is transferred automatically from the checking account. ) Gina opened it. She noticed that males under 25 and unmarried females under 25 pay higher rates. And it was the inclusion of the word unmarried that sparked the train of thought which followed.

Why unmarried? ventured Gina. Because the most likely reason a woman would be married under the age of 25 is that she had kids. And, if she had kids, she would be responsible enough to drive safely. So it makes perfect sense. Except that people and organizations (other than insurance companies) increasingly discourage women from having children under the age of 25.

The effect of this discouragement is part of a broader pattern of extending childhood. Not so long ago, people at 16 years of age were considered adults — now that age is closer to 26. This continuing infantilization of young adults is having a corrosive effect on our society. (Listen, if you were raising only seven children, you’d be looking at process re-engineering, too).

And this is where the discourse turned into a rave. Gina began raving. (Our household style and usage guide requires that an animated soliloquy by r0ml is ranting, but the same for Gina is raving. We are very particular about usage. )

<rave> And why is it that women are discouraged from having children under the age of 25? Because they need to finish school and start their careers before they think about children. It is physiologically and psychologically better for both the children and the mother for the childbearing years to be earlier. Yet, we encourage the delay. Why not have the children first, and then go to school? Because after the children, the mother may need to get a job, and then there wouldn’t be time for school. Or child-rearing. And why is that? Because we insist on doing school full time, then work full time, where full time is defined as five days a week. Whereas if the work week were three or four days long, then there would be time for work and school, and we wouldn’t need to defer child-bearing.

There is only one effective counteragent to a raving Gina. And that, of course, is a ranting r0ml. It was at that moment that I jumped in with: “It’s the same with open source software.” which is always good for a quizzical look and a brief pause while trying to puzzle out the connection — all the opening I need to seize the initiative and launch a rant.

Open Source projects have a long tradition of volunteerism — people contributing programming (or other) efforts in their spare time. Women, in fact, responsible as they are for child-rearing, don’t have that spare time; hence the limited involvement of women in the open source movement. But even beyond that — it has become clear that the fruits of this “volunteer” labor are positive net contributions to the entire software economy. Hundreds of companies are being formed to capitalize on these contributions. Yet, there is limited time to work on these projects — the work week for a full time job being so long and all. Why, if the work week were shorter (three or four days), then there would be much more time to create economic value through the open source community. Think of the increased productivity!


The forty hour week, after all, is not divinely inspired. God rested on the seventh day only. I am old enough to remember the six day work week. I remember as a young man reading want ads in the Estado de São Paulo — the great benefit for programming jobs was that it was only a 48-hour work week — because programmers worked 8-hour days (as opposed to most jobs that were 10-hour days / 60 hour weeks). The Federal government (with some encouragement from the Labor movement) gave us the 40-hour work week fairly recently (well, for most people). But 40 is not a divinely inspired number either. More enlightened places in the world have a 35-hour work week. And it could be 34. Or 32.

In fact, if we think about a 35 year timeline that involves 7 years of college, followed by a 28 year career, we could structure our society to either do them “full-time” in sequence (as we do), or, alternatively, “part-time” in parallel. Coincidentally, that would mean working four days a week and schooling one. Lifelong learning without losing a day of productivity.

Google has a policy of allowing workers to spend twenty percent of their time (one day a week) working on projects of their own devising. Sort of on the theory that if people work four days a week, the fruits of their labor “in their spare time” will pay off.

Yes, indeed. More open source. More women bearing children under the age of 25. A more mature society. Lifelong learning. The problems are related. The solution is the same.

Shorter work week.