[Leonardo da Vinci: Diagram of a proposed flying machine (1789). Toronto Public Library, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons]
Fallen Leaves by Will Durant contains a series of personal, short essays. The manuscript was discovered after the Pulitzer Prize winning writer, historian and philosopher died in 1981. The outcome of a lifetime’s work and thinking, this is one of those books that must be consumed slowly because it offers much. Consider this extract from his essay on death and the purpose of life.
“Three thousand years ago, a man thought that man might fly, and so he built himself wings, and Icarus—his son—trusting them and trying to fly, fell into the sea. Undaunted, life carried on the dream. Thirty generations passed, and Leonardo da Vinci, spirit made flesh, scratches across his drawings (drawings so beautiful that one catches one’s breath with pain seeing them) plans and calculations for a flying machine, and left in his notes a little phrase that, once heard, rings like a bell in the memory—‘There shall be wings’. Leonardo failed and died, but life carried on the dream. Generations passed, and men said man would never fly, for it was not the will of God. And then man flew, and the agelong challenge of the bird was answered. Life is that which can hold a purpose for three thousand years and never yield. The individual fails, but life succeeds. The individual is foolish, but life holds in its blood and seed the wisdom of generations. The individual dies, but life, tireless and undiscourageable, goes on, wondering, longing, planning, trying, mounting, longing.
“Here is an old man on the bed of death, harassed by helpless friends and wailing relatives. What a terrible sight it is—this thin frame with loosened and cracking flesh, this toothless mouth in a bloodless face, this tongue that cannot speak and these eyes that cannot see! To this pass youth has come, after all its hopes and trials, to this pass middle age, after all its torment and toil. To this pass health and strength and joyous rivalry (this arm once struck blows and fought for victory in virile games). To this pass knowledge, science, and wisdom. For seventy years this man with pain and effort gathered knowledge, his brain became the storehouse of a varied experience, the center of a thousand subtleties of thought and deed; his heart through suffering learned gentleness as his mind learned understanding; seventy years he grew from an animal into a man capable of seeking truth and creating beauty. But death is upon him, poisoning him, choking him, congealing his blood, gripping his heart, bursting his brain, rattling in his throat. Death wins.
“Outside on the green boughs birds twitter gaily and Chantecler sings his hymn to the sun. Light streams across the fields; buds open, and stalks confidently lift their heads; the sap mounts in the trees. Here are children; what is it that makes them so joyous, running madly over the dew-wet grass, laughing, calling, pursuing, eluding, panting for breath, inexhaustible? What energy, what spirit and happiness! What do they care about death? They will learn and grow and love and struggle and create, and lift life up one little notch, perhaps, before they die. And when they pass they will cheat death with their children, with parental care that will make their children a little finer than themselves.
Does Big Tech spy on us?
This is a question Rahul Matthan investigates in his column Ex Machina. “When people find out I’m a technology lawyer, the conversation inevitably meanders towards privacy. In most instances, there is a 50:50 chance that someone will ask me if it is true that our phones are always on, listening to everything we say. Before I get a chance to respond, someone else chimes in with an example of how they got an ad related to information so personal that it had to be from someone or something listening in on private conversations.”
Matthan cites data that has it that most people believe this is true. But is it?
He points out, “To be able to extract useful signals from the cacophony of casual conversation, we need voice recognition and natural language processing capabilities far in excess of what’s currently available. Human conversation is incredibly complex—filled, as it is, with innuendo, short-hand and nuance—for any existing artificial-intelligence tool to understand. Even if we could record every conversation that takes place within hearing range of the nearest mobile device, we do not have the technology to be able to extract value from it—at least not at a price that advertisers would be willing to pay.”
Making hybrid work
As the Omicron wave recedes, many are looking forward to returning to office at least part time. Some businesses have been planning for a hybrid model. But, experience suggests it won’t be a smooth ride. A BBC essay points out: “In theory, hybrid offers the best deal for both employer and employee. It combines pre-Covid-19 patterns of office-based working with remote days, in a working schedule that would allow both in-person collaboration and team building, as well as greater flexibility and the opportunity for focused work at home. It seemed a win-win for workers; in one May 2021 study, 83% said they wanted to go hybrid after the pandemic.
“‘There was a feeling that hybrid would be the best of both worlds,’ says Elora Voyles, an industrial organisational psychologist and people scientist at Tinypulse, based in California. ‘For bosses, it means they retain a sense of control and that they can see their workers in person. For employees, it offers more flexibility than full-time in the office and means they can work safely during the pandemic.’
“However, as the novelty of hybrid working has faded, so too has workers’ enthusiasm.”
Many who embraced it found shifting work between home and office emotionally exhausting. Besides, the terms were set by the employers, rather than by employees, which added to the friction. These teething problems might eventually come down, but it will take time. That shouldn’t discourage businesses.
The story quotes Gail Kinman, a psychologist: “Both people and organisations claim they want hybrid. So, there is a great opportunity to change how we work. But it has to go further than the hours bosses set—it has to be a mindset that works for both employer and employee.”
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