Necessary without being important: chores

During this month, I have been keeping up a pace of one post per day. These posts do not contain anything that deserves preservation, but some reader will come across them because I treat the Internet as my trashcan.

I get value from writing the posts. They are part of my attempt to re-invigorate a long dormant passion for writing. I have been writing many posts and when converted to audio, they take as much as 20 minutes to read. This does not come close the passion for writing I had when I was much younger. Another reason for writing is that I learn something by writing about it. When I write long enough, I will eventually write something that I hadn’t before expressed. Clearly the idea came from my mind, but it came as a result of my mind trying to make sense of the words I had already written. There is novelty of thought that comes from trying to rationalize what I have already written. That is valuable.

The primary reason why I have been writing each day is because it is a residual habit from when I was working. When I was working, I was always busy from the time period between breakfast and lunch. There were meetings to attend, or there were some report that needed some last minute touching up. Even when there were no meetings or any outstanding tasks, I kept busy just reviewing the data for the previous day, or for the start of the current day. That effort mostly just confirmed that everything looked normal, but it had the benefit of giving me a better sense of what normal looks like.

This morning process became a habit, and that habit persists now in the form of writing a blog during the interval between breakfast and lunch.

Finding normal things behaving normally is not a notable achievement but it is in some sense necessary, especially if the goal is to recognize what is normal. Such activity is more of a chore than a job. A chore is necessary but in the grand scheme of things is not important. A chore relates back to the activities I had when I was growing up. I had chores to do at very regular intervals ranging from daily to annually. This was particularly the case when my family had a very small farm that at various times had animals or cash crops that needed tending. Included in the chores was the need to get up early in the morning during winter to thaw out the water trough for the animals, or even to kindle a fire in a coal furnace. There were essential chores, but failing to accomplish them would not affect the neighbors let along the larger society.

My concept of a chore is that it is an obligation. Monetary compensation is not required, and often is not expected. The chore has to be done because it is the time to do it. Also, a chore does require a reminder. If someone does remind someone else of a chore, the reminder is more of a reprimand because the chore is not something that someone can forget. Even when a person gets very busy with some other task, he still is expected to cover his prior obligation to his chores.

In my example or working during the morning, I included actual work such as meetings that I needed to attend, or reports I needed to finish. These were directly tied to my job and the reason why they hired me. Even when these would be adequate to fill my morning, I still multi-tasked to check the daily data and consider how normal things were working. On days with fewer work obligations, I would just spend more time studying the normalness of the data to try to find something subtly abnormal, or to try to come up with a better presentation of the data.

I keep the mornings at a steady level of busy work. Either I was doing some assignment, or I was doing the chore of just checking the data to confirm everything is still normal. This habit lingers even though I am no longer working. I need to fill the gap between breakfast and lunch with a steady level of effort. Perhaps the reason is to justify the concept of a lunch.

I am trying to break this habit. Although I describe the blogging as a chore, I have several other things I can be doing instead and are more justified. It would be better to channel this writing energy into writing something that can be published in the traditional sense. Even better would be spend some more time practicing piano.

Breaking the habit is hard. There is a kind of a relationship between myself and my laptop. I feel obliged to give this kind of attention to my keyboard and screen. It would be great if I had a similar relationship with my piano. This is difficult because I can type better than I can play piano.

Recently, I did change things a bit by rearranging my daily meals. Now, I am eating a dinner at lunch time. I am no longer having a sandwich for lunch. Instead I cook something I normally would have had for the evening meal.

This posts is emphasizing the concept of a chore, and distinguishing it from a task. The measure of our work concerns how we do our tasks. It is much harder to assess the chores, if chores are assessed at all. Negligence of chore does eventually affect one’s ability to do an assignment. In the illustration I described above, the presumption is that the work on the task would recognize if something were no normal about the data. That recognition requires the prior chore of learning what normal looks like. Chores are essential because tasks are important.

I am distinguishing the two terms around the expectation for compensation. We are paid to complete our tasks properly. We may spend a good part of our time on chores, but at the end of the time period, we report our tasks, not out chores. Our managers assess our tasks, not our chores. The quality of the chores is reflected in the quality of the finished product for a task.

Because money is involved with tasks, there is an expectation that a task deliver something important, something we didn’t have before. An announcement that everything is still normal is not new. We expect everything to still be normal. The effort is recognized only when we find something is not normal, and we identify what exactly is not normal. This may happen only a few times a year, but many discoveries can only happen with the daily chore of learning what is normal.

In my jobs, I had to provide a report of my activities for each time period. In the most recent job, it was a list of assignments I completed each day with billed hours. In earlier jobs, it was more of a summary narrative that describe the broader accomplishments without being specific about the days when they happened. In both cases, the evaluation of the value of my work was based on the value of the outcomes of my assigned tasks. There needs to be a sense of advancement or of discovery. At least for me, I always had to identify something notable happened in the past reporting period. If nothing of note happened, then I was not working.

This distinction of chores versus tasks has a corrupting influence on work. It is form of the corrupting influence of money because we tie compensation or continued employment to the progress made during tasks. This is different because money is not a factor. Greed is not the cause of the corruption. Instead, it is the corruption of having to justify one’s position. It is the corruption of being gainfully employed. To justify employment, we need to show the gain. Our work has to be important in some larger sense.

My last job was more operational in nature. Our task was to keep things running, or to get things to run more smoothly. There were tasks, but they had more of a maintenance focus. The tasks were close to being chores, except that the tasks were quantifiable. We did things when we were told to do things. When we did things, management would acknowledge that those things needed to be done. These were legitimate tasks, but the progress was in the sustainment of what already exists.

Earlier jobs were different where the tasks needed to show progress. We needed to be doing something new in a way that can be measured incrementally during each reporting period. Each increment needed at least the appearance of being important to a larger progress.

This demand for progress works in many contexts, but it does not work in all contexts.

This demand for progress becomes corrupting when the demand is applied to salaried scientists who job is to do science. Science broadly involves designing experiments to test theories and revise the theories when needed. In this broad sense, the scientists should get credit for an experiment that confirms that the current thinking is correct, or that some new theory is not needed. Such results do not fit with the progress expectation. Confirming that we do not need to change anything is not a return on investment for their labor. It should be legitimate work. It should be valuable to have confirmation that everything is fine just they are currently. Instead, we insist on something that shows advancement.

The corruption becomes most insidious in the context of government funded science, and government employed scientists. They need to select the science project bases on their prospects of making some new claim, or to justify some new policy. There is no reward for showing that there is no need for a new claim, or a new policy. The result is that scientists do not even pursue such questions. They work almost exclusively on finding something that needs a new government policy, or to provide more justification for an existing proposed policy that is not yet enacted.

The following are some examples.

Global warming study is exclusively focused on showing that it is happening and what dire consequences await if nothing is done about it. There are competing analyses that show that the situation is not bad enough to require a response, or that the policies would make matters worse. The distinction of is the nature of the scientist’s employment. The advocates of global warming largely depend on government funding or employment and thus need to show a advancement-type benefit to justify their costs. The competing analysis comes more voluntarily and pursue their analysis more as a chore because they are supporting a claim that nothing needs to change.

In recent period, we had a new infectious disease. All of the government funded science agreed that this was a dire existential threat to humanity that required a response by government. The same group concluded that there was nothing in the medical arsenal that could deal with the disease. They proposed and backed up the novel approaches to population control in the project of protecting the population. All of this came from government funding, and all the results consistently pointed in the same direction. The disease is extraordinary and only something new and different would solve the problem. There were alternative views that used science to show that the disease was not extraordinary and that we had adequate treatments and approaches so that new policies were not needed. These alternative views almost exclusively came came scientists who did not rely on government funding. They were not paid to produce science that makes some change. They were free to study the counter argument that no change was needed.

Following the disease was the rush to produce and now to universally distribute a vaccine. The same pattern exists. The government funded scientists are in near perfect agreement that the vaccines are absolutely necessary for the entire population and that the vaccine benefits far outweigh any risks. There are alternative views that point out that the emergency does not require a vaccination program for healthy people, or that the vaccines are not effective, or that the vaccines are dangerous to significant number of people taking them. In summary, this alternative view makes a case that the better approach is to do nothing in terms of vaccines for this instance. This alternative view comes almost exclusively from people who do not rely on government funding.

We are told to follow the science. The problem is that science has a selection process that produces a variety of incentives that prefers answers that require government intervention. The selection process discourages and dismisses any science that supports that claim that nothing needs to be done. With the growth of government spending on science, and the expectation that government should be the primary funder of science, we are experiencing the consequence that every scientific finding support the notion that the current status-quo is not sustainable. The science always concludes something must be done, and that conclusion has widespread agreement among the similarly funded scientists.

In recent decades we have elevated the government funded science as the more reliable form of science. As a result, contrary science is readily dismissible if it does not have government funding that can be withdrawn. Science that disagrees with the government-funded scientists are labeled as misinformation peddlers or conspiracy theorists.

The government funding provides incentives for science to pursue tasks that produce or support new policies. The other scientists approach their work more as a chore, something they are obligated to do.

There is no conspiracy to ignore the counter argument. There is just an incentive to promote something new instead. Government funded scientists have a task to do, a progress report to write that must show progress. The scientists arguing against the government funded scientist have no task assignment and they are making compelling cases that no policies are needed. The consequence is the same. The approved science is corrupted toward concluding that everything that is normal is actually a potential catastrophe if government does not act in some new way.

Elsewhere in this site, I discuss an alternative form of government that can eliminate this bias toward always adding new permanent policies to override the natural order. I described it as government by data and urgency and gave it a name of dedomenocracy. In such a government, the default status is to let things be normal. Government only intervenes when a super-majority of the population expresses some urgent request for action. The action that results is only temporarily. Algorithms instead of men select the optimal policy for the moment given the best information available at the time. The optimization dispassionately considers the population’s prior expressed priorities both for benefits and for fears. The algorithm has no incentive to prefer a new policy over no new policy. Its primary objective is to calm the population so that things can return to normal. The normal state with no government interference is optimal for this form of government because this is the state the permits the collection of data unbiased by government policy.

A dedomenocracy focuses on chores, not tasks.


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