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What happens when something completely unimagined touches our lives?

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In his book, The Unexpected Universe, writer and naturalist Dr. Loren Eiseley (1907-1977) tells of hunting fossils on a rainy morning in Nebraska’s Wildcat Hills. There, he encountered an immense and finely crafted web occupied by a large, orb-weaver spider. Following a moment of study, Eiseley gently touched the web with a pencil tip.

To a spider, any vibration is a red alert — it signals food, danger or damage.

Therefore, the brown spider quickly moved to the yellow pencil, the unknown intruder, but then stopped, suddenly, and reactively backed away, her front legs and pedipalps defensively raised as she withdrew.

Observing, scientist Eiseley realized that no pencil-tip precedent existed for this out-of-the-way spider. The yellow pencil was as alien to the spider as, for us, would be a giant monolith descending from the cosmos. “In the world of that spider, I did not exist,” Eiseley wrote.

He saw the spider as a symbol of man. He said man, too, resides at the heart of a web — one that extends through both sidereal space and the dark realms of history.

He asked, what happens when something completely unimagined touches our web?

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Working guys
A recent Associated Press (AP) study reported on technological automation and its impact on jobs. The report said technology is replacing jobs that, historically, have formed the backbone of the middle class in the U.S. and developed countries.

The study said approximately 7.6 million mid-pay — working guy — jobs have disappeared since 2008 and many positions were replaced by machines and software that do the same work better and more cheaply.

In a May 21, regional economic briefing, William C. Dudley, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said the Great Recession was the worst post-war downturn in U.S. history. He said the economic recovery had been strong in some places, but weak in others. He also said, as of April, the nation had recovered nearly all of the lost jobs.

I believe he measured the job count, not the actual job category.

Dudley said a weakening economy had caused businesses to change the way they utilize workers and this affected the kinds of jobs created during the recovery. Companies were forced to look for new ways to be efficient, he said.

Such efficiency adjustments usually affect middle-skilled employees — specifically, construction workers, machine operators and administrative support personnel.

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The present, official (U3) April unemployment rate is 6.3%; the U-6 unemployment rate, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ “most widely defined” count, said unemployment is more than 12%.

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) disagrees with the government figures. It says, because of “missing workers,” the government’s unemployment rate understates the weakness of job opportunities. The EPI defines missing workers as potential workers who, because of weak job opportunities, are unregistered, unemployed and not actively seeking a job.

This count — estimated at more than six million (April 2014) — isn’t reflected in the government’s unemployment data.

Dudley said all workers need higher skill levels to obtain a good job — more education, training and skills.

He didn’t suggest any fixes.

Potato soup
Yesterday, Sunday, I visited the local supermarket to buy some fresh dill, to add to the potato/scallion soup that simmered in my kitchen crockpot. The Meijer supermarket, a Wal-Mart look-alike, has more than 25 cashier stations, but only three were open. Nearby
stood a dozen self-checkout lanes, each thickly crowded with Sunday shoppers — those who chose to scan and bag their own groceries.

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I boycott self-checkout lines. Therefore, I stood in the regular cashier line and contentedly chatted with the grandmotherly cashier — a carpel-tunnel brace on her wrist and white tape holding her glasses together — as she processed my groceries.

I didn’t ask her about the 22 empty cashier stations.

That evening, I heard a television commentator say people who’ve suffered job losses should retrain in new career fields. “They need to pull themselves up,” he said.

I thought of displaced grandmotherly store clerks and questioned what he’d suggest for them.

Endangered, technology-threatened jobs comprise check-out clerks, of course, but forecasters also highlight management and financial staffs, computer pros, scientists, teachers, lawyers (and lawyer aides), designers, media reporters, healthcare practitioners, office workers, sales staffs, farmers, construction, maintenance, repair, production and transportation workers.

Today’s most desirable jobs: civil engineer, computer programmer, computer systems administrator, computer systems analyst, database administrator, information security analyst, IT manager, mechanical engineer, software developer and web developer.

For now, anyway.

Up and downbeats
In May, Hewlett-Packard Co. announced its intent to cut 11,000 to 16,000 jobs by October. The layoffs fall within a planned program that, HP said, may affect up to 50,000 employees. The company implemented the layoff plan “because [it] sees further opportunity to cut costs” and not, it said, because of a forecast decline in demand. HP announced the staff reduction program in 2012, when the company had approximately 350,000 employees.

Also in May, the Seattle Times said Boeing expects to save more than $100 million a year by transferring 1,100 research-engineering jobs to new centers in the southern states. It said Boeing will offer critical skill employees relocation expenses and incentives, but others can apply for jobs at the new sites. The Times said wages, on average, are 28% lower at the new locations.

Lockheed Martin cut 4,000 jobs in 2012; that same year, Pepsi Co. dropped 8,000 workers and, through “increased investment in manufacturing automation,” saved Pepsi $4 million in wages. It plans to cut even more, one report said.

KPMG Intl., a worldwide, tax and consulting group, in its 2014 Global Manufacturing Outlook, foretells of an “Era of Disruptive Complexity,” which, it said, will expose new technologies and developments in the material science, manufacturing and operations fields.

GMO interviewed 460 senior executives across six industrial sectors — the Americas; Europe; Middle East; Africa; and Asia-Pacific. Most said they plan to increase R&D spending, and will search for new technologies.

Interestingly, 85% plan to invest in product or service cost-improvement systems over the next few years.

Perhaps what’s needed alongside profit-making cost improvements, is a reasonable level of, other than taxes and church tithes, social responsibility, because a consumer-based economy requires balance between its social/economic stratas — otherwise, the system can go off balance which, over time, causes (almost) everyone to suffer.

No salaries, no sales; no sales, no profits.

Think 2008.

Like bank president Dudley, I don’t have any answers.

And, unfortunately, expansive social responsibility is a challenging task for small businesses. However, even small steps may make a difference. Like, we can’t — nor would any of us want to — stop technological progress, but, in a small way, we can possibly influence its outcome.

One way is to boycott self-checkout lines.

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