Anticipation

My work computer was recently upgraded.  I, for one, am quickly tiring of uppity software assuming it knows what I need it to do.  This is most evident in Microsoft products, such as Excel, which no longer shows the toolbar unless you click it every single time you want to use it (which is constantly), and Word, which hides tracked changes unless you tell it not to.  Hello?  Why do you track changes if you don’t want to see what’s been changed when you finish?  The one positive thing I’ve noticed is now that when you highlight a fine name in “File Explorer” and press the forward arrow key it actually goes the the end of the title rather than just one letter back from the start.  Another goodie is when you go to select an attachment and Outlook assumes you want to send a file you’ve just been working on—good for you!

The main concern I have, however, is that algorithms are now trying to anticipate what we want.  They already track our browsing interests (I once accidentally clicked on a well-timed pop-up ad for a device for artfully trimming certain private hairs—my aim isn’t so good any more and that would belie the usefulness of said instrument—only to find the internet supposing I preferred the shaved look.  I have an old-growth beard on my face and haven’t shaved in over three decades, and that’s not likely to change, no matter how many ads I get).  Now they’re trying to assume they know what we want.  Granted, “editor” is seldom a job listed on drop-down menus when you have to pick a title for some faceless source of money or services, but it is a job.  And lots of us do it.  Our software, however, is unaware of what editors need.  It’s not shaving.

In the grip of the pandemic, we’re relying on technology by orders of magnitude.  Even before that my current job, which used to be done with pen and paper and typewriter, was fully electronic.  One of the reasons that remote working made sense to me was that I didn’t need to go into the office to do what I do.  Other than looking up the odd physical contract I had no reason to spend three hours a day getting to and from New York.  I think of impatient authors and want to remind them that during my lifetime book publishing used to require physical manuscripts sent through civilian mail systems (as did my first book).  My first book also included some hand-drawn cuneiform because type didn’t exist for the letters at that particular publisher.  They had no way, it turns out, to anticipate what I wanted it to look like.  That, it seems, is a more honest way for work to be done.


Lions Among Men

Facial follicle emasculation, i.e. shaving, has some interesting religious implications. A recent Associated Press story highlighted this when students at Brigham Young University began a protest against the ban on beards at the school. Shaving has a very long pedigree but, as one who doesn’t shave I feel obligated to point out, not as long a pedigree as not shaving. Nobody knows for certain where or when shaving began, but it has been suggested Egyptian priests began the tradition. Others suggest it was an attempt among some early societies to control lice. Homophobic religions, it used to be, promoted beards as signs of masculinity. Alexander the Great, however, noted that beards are easy to pull during battle, although, for those who don’t fight it isn’t such an issue. Of the major monotheistic religions, Christianity is the only one that generally promotes shaving as the norm, and here it is only the practice in the western branch of the religion. Eastern Orthodox churches still retain bearded clergy. It has been suggested that the Roman preoccupation with shaving led to early Christian preferences for this practice, and there may be something to that.

Having an old-growth beard (I last shaved over a quarter of a century ago) I have often found myself in the minority. While beards—mostly highly styled or glorified stubble—are making a bit of a comeback in New York City, they are still not as common as the alternative. In one of my many preprofessional jobs (that of a bag-boy at a Pittsburgh grocery store) I was told I had to shave. “Customers don’t trust a man with facial hair,” my manager told me. Delving into this a bit, I was told that beards mask the facial nuances that an honest man wants to show. What’s a beard trying to hide? Watching what clean-shaven presidents and Wall Street moguls get away with as “honesty,” I think I’ll stick with my beard, thank you.

I'd trust this man.

I’d trust this man.

Evangelical traditions, such as Mormonism, I long ago noticed, wish to control nature. Lawns must be manicured and trees, with their sloppy abundance of leaves, must be few and carefully spaced. Faces should be rid of the hair that Jesus and the disciples were said to wear, and clothes must be neat and tidy at all times. It’s an image thing. Among the evangelical crowd, those with beards keep them neatly trimmed, tamed, and penitent. For me, scraping my face with a cold bit of metal first thing in the morning is about the least civilized thing I can imagine. Spending too much time shaping and toying with DNA’s dictates seems to go against nature. Much of my beard may have gone white, but I have nothing to hide. Neither orthodox nor evangelical, my beard simply represents what it means to be human. Trust me.