Eliminating human interaction

I’ve only this week become aware of a retail revolution that causes me significant anxiety the more I learn about it.

The poster child of this revolution is Amazon Go, a cashier-less grocery store in downtown Seattle which opened to the public on 22 January 2018.

There are cameras and sensors, to detect when you’ve walked in and when items are removed from shelves, and there are check-in kiosks near the entrance for scanning your phone to register your presence via Amazon Prime. (Nick Statt on The Verge)

For an idea of what the sensors are like check out the article: Amazon Go cashierless convenience store opens in the Seattle Times. The idea of computers and artificial intelligence tracking my every movement in a shop has a distinctly Orwellian tone to it, but on the other hand being able to just walk in, pick up what you need and then walk out without waiting in queues is appealing.

Amazon is not the only online retail giant playing with this sort of technology, Alibaba  has also trailed a checkout-free store which uses facial recognition to charge customers for their purchases automatically: Alibaba’s cash-free Tao Cafe

I want to emphasise that I am not a conspiracy theorist, I think the development of ways to avoid checkout queues and reduce staffing costs is an obvious progression based on human nature. Customers want secure ways to pay that minimise waiting times, and retailers want whatever mechanism they can find to maximise profit, reduce theft and streamline accounting. The hardware and software used in these cashier-less stores facilitates advantages for both retailers and customers.

For the majority of people, convenience subtly but strongly influences behaviour, gradually altering social norms with things like cars, ATMs, and contactless payment now quite normal. It’s not difficult to envisage a progression to biometric and implanted technology which enables people to completely do without credit or debit cards, cash or cheques. A completely cashless society is still decades away in my estimate (it was predicted when the first EFT-POS machines arrived), but probably inevitable.

The convenience of not having to worry about carrying cash or cards would be nice, but I do have some concerns about the whole thing. Obviously for Christians there is the scary spectre of Revelation 13:16-17, but even without that I worry that our technological ‘progress’ is taking us too quickly into realms in which our psychological wellbeing is unable to cope.

Humans have always lived in community, to be alone is risky for survival and useless for propagating the species. Because we are social beings, we are finely tuned to the reactions of people around us and the relationships we have with them. By automating everything they can get their hands on, engineers are interfering with this dynamic and may end up driving increasing numbers of people into serious psychological distress. Maybe this seems like an over reaction, but it is not difficult to find reports of people who live alone and only really interact with shop attendants and bus drivers, is it a good thing to eliminate even these few personal interactions?

A few relevant links:

A theory of relativity

Ancient Roman Bronze Coins - The Widow's Mite

Once upon a time there was a golden land of equal opportunity, universal free education and profound egalitarianism. A level playing field ensured that everyone could be fully productive and reap the fair reward for their labours.

(Oh, and nobody got sick so they all remained equal.)
(Also, everyone had the same IQ.)
(Furthermore, the government and leaders were impeccably fair to all.)
(And nobody had social disadvantages stemming from inept parenting.)
(There were no inherited diseases.)
(Accidents never disabled anyone.)

You probably get my drift – “Life isn’t fair. We tell our children that it is, but it’s a terrible thing to do. It’s not only a lie, it’s a cruel lie. Life is not fair, and it never has been, and it’s never going to be.”1 This applies not only in good books and movies but also in real life. Some folks are bigger, stronger, more intelligent, better looking, luckier, and wealthier. Regardless of where you are at in life, there will be somebody who is better off than you according to whatever standard you choose to measure such things by.

Fortunately, in God’s economy the ideals of fairness and justice are based on better foundations than the incomplete measures we generally use2. Jesus describes God’s assessment of how well we have done in both absolute (see John 5:30) and relative terms:

And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41–44)

God will certainly hold us each accountable, but it will be in accordance with the gifts, abilities and opportunities we have been given rather than in comparison to what others might achieve. In this sense, God uses relative standards to measure our achievements.

In these days of Facebook and Pinterest comparisons, this is a huge comfort and corrective for those of us who perceive ourselves to be somehow disadvantaged in the popularity and ‘success’ contest. God will judge me, not according to what I achieve in comparison to others, but according to what I do with what He has given me. Will I be a faithful servant to Him or will I slack off and waste His gifts?

Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required (Luke 12:48)

Who would want to stand before God in judgment fumbling for excuses to justify wasting the life He gave? When I consider this it opens my eyes to understand how much I have been blessed with, in contrast to wallowing in self pity as happens when I look at my weaknesses compared to the apparent strengths of others. In fact, even weakness may be given by God for purposes only He knows:

…I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:8-10)

What I must keep in mind is that the strength God gives in my weakness could be a ‘just enough’ strength; enough to get through but not so much that I begin to boast in having strength to cope with anything life throws at me.3


1. Quote from The Princess Bride by William Goldman 
2. Romans 2:16 and 2 Corinthians 5:10 illustrate this.
3. As with the widow of Zarephath; God blessed her with enough to feed herself, her son and Elijah but the provision was only ever just enough and by our standards quite meager (see 1 Kings 17:8-16).

My greedy heart


While on holiday in Wanaka recently, the abundance of overt wealth and expensive SUVs being driven around got me wondering how some folks can end up with so much money?

A well paying job obviously helps, I recently searched on the internet to see how my own salary compared to what is possible and came away rather demoralised! Yet salary alone is not the way to make lots of money. Business acumen, avoiding debt, high return investments, and the real estate market are all proven paths to riches.

So my envious heart jumped to wondering how I could enjoy part of the pie being so lavishly consumed by the wealthy. How could I generate a better income?

Most of the really high paying jobs are beyond my reach, even those on oil rigs or mines (no doubt to my wife’s great relief!). We have no spare cash to invest, and with my erratic shift roster a part-time job is not practical. After a few days greedily dreaming of get-rich-quick schemes the practical realities of life bit back, deflating my hunger for riches somewhat.

In this slightly covetous, mildly envious and dejected state of mind I read Deuteronomy 8:11–20 in which God warns the Israelites against comparing themselves with the nations around them. This passage has always helped me plot a course through life and is a timely corrective to my recent straying in heart from what is of true importance:

Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish.
(Deuteronomy 8:17–19 ESV)

All I have is due to God’s blessing. My financial debts are the result of my own poor choices at various times. Yet even the ability to do my job and earn an income of adequate proportions to sustain my family comes directly from God, regardless of how hard the work may seem to me. Even more importantly, these verses recalibrate my thinking to see that not only is God the source of my material blessings, He is the only source of ultimate meaning or satisfaction.

As Paul points out to a young pastor:

godliness with contentment is great gain,
(1 Timothy 6:6 ESV)

In fact, Paul’s exhortation in verses 7–12 of 1 Timothy chapter 6 sum up well why I was never destined to be a rich man once I began taking the Bible seriously! It is good advice and fleeing the love of money to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness and to fight the good fight of faith is the best way I could invest my life (and the best way you could invest yours).

God is with you in the crap of life

If you are a Christian there is always reason to give thanks.
True.

But frankly life sucks at times, for Christians too. Even the Crystal Cathedral went bankrupt, the prosperity gospel ran out of cash. All of our lives have seasons where it seems there is little to give genuine thanks for.

When someone like me starts writing about giving thanks in all things while you slog through difficult times an understandable reaction is to want to tell me where to shove it.

For this reason I have been uncomfortable with the notion of listing all the blessings I can count in my life, because it could easily turn into a boasting in what I have, a thinly disguised love of the world. God does promise us many blessings, some of which are to be enjoyed in this world. However, the greatest blessings are those which are intangible and must be grasped by faith.

A particularly slippery blessing is God’s promise to always be with us:

… And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
(Matthew 28:20 ESV)

Jesus himself promised to be with us while ‘this age’ remains. In Hebrews we also have what appears to be a quote of Jesus:

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
(Hebrews 13:5 ESV)

In the gospels there are several incidents in which Jesus rebuked his disciples for their fear. The entire book of Job points to the great value of trusting in God despite overwhelming evidence causing doubt over God’s goodness. Fear is a killer of faith. But this also works in reverse – faith can kill off fear.

When you look realistically at life and cannot help the concerns over whether God really will provide running through your mind, it is not wrong to acknowledge the evidence before your eyes. With that acknowledgement, fear will arise. Faith considers that fear, accepts it as real and then adds faith into the equation.

I may look at our bank statement and see immediately there is not enough money to pay the bills. We have a fixed income so there is no room to squeeze more dollars from anywhere. Juggling bills helps a little but I still fear the prospect of simply running out and being unable to sustain my family. God makes no promise I am aware of that we will not end up in financial sewage. However, He does promise that He will walk through the poo with me.

To some this will seem small comfort and too subjective to be of any value. I have been in much worse than financial shit and this promise of His Presence is what has kept me going. Often it was pure faith, believing that God is with me in my mess despite appearances. Occasionally I knew He was with me, strengthening my weak knees and lifting me up so I wouldn’t drown.

Intangible, yes.

Real? Definitely.

This is one of the great gifts from God which underlie my more immediate and superficial counting of blessings. The list continues to grow because I continue to need to remind myself of all I have to be thankful for and rejoice in. As a fallen creature this counting puts me in a better headspace to appreciate how awesome His greater gifts are.


Gifts I have noticed recently:

882) Seeing a child’s faith blossom and grow.
883) 20 hours of uninterrupted time with my beloved wife.
884) Joy in our hearts from reconnecting and leisurely time together.
885) Some renovation plans.
886) Eastercamp.
887) Friends for dinner at our house.
888) Having dinner friends house.
889) People I know who inspire me (real people with real struggles).
890) Opportunities.
891) Someone helping me find paths in the wilderness.
892) Sunny autumn days.
893) Old holly hedge now providing firewood.

Image: iStock

The fullness of empty

It is 5 minute Friday in which I write feverishly for five short minutes, find a picture to fit my story and then post without reworking and rewording the entire thing before being brave enough to publish!

This week the prompt is empty, rather fitting for my Friday evening really, but I am not going to write about being tired today.

Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
(Luke 21:1-4 ESV)

Empty sums up the usual state of our bank account. I really like to not be anxious about money and how to pay all the bills.

Jesus wants this for me too, but His way of getting rid of my financial anxieties are very counter-intuitive. He simply tells me not to be anxious about what I will wear or what I will eat because God know I need these things and each day has enough to worry about without adding such considerations into the mix. Then He commends giving away all I have to live on.

Jesus makes it very clear that having stuff is not at all what life is about. We are given life for a purpose. That purpose is not to be comfortable and worry free. It is to worship God and be fully devoted to Christ in every aspect of life.

Emptying out that very last coin in my wallet and giving it to some charity takes away my ability to seek the things of this world for my source of contentment. Being unable to get what I want by spending money forces me to ask of God, who provides all I have anyway.

When my bank account and wallet are empty I still have breath in my lungs and even with an empty stomach I can pray, praise and seek God in His word.

Stop


Image of boy with empty wallet: iStock

I am an anxious parent

Another  biblical exhortation to not fear.

This one is also from Genesis (I will jump into the New Testament also), when Hagar was sent away by Sarah and is convinced both her and Ishmael will perish in the desert.

What troubles you?

Hagar has little food and no water. It is obvious what the outcome will be and she cannot bear to watch her own child die of thirst. How many millions of women have wept in Africa and elsewhere as their children slip from this world for lack of water? How many have desperately cried out to God and received no answer?

And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. (Genesis 21:17 ESV)

The unseen

In this particular case God says to Hagar, “Fear not”. Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. (Genesis 21:19 ESV)

These incidents always seem odd to me – how come there was a well of water there but she couldn’t see it? How this actually happens is a mystery but these sorts of incidents are moderately common in the Bible (see Numbers 22:31, 2 Kings 6:17-20, Luke 24:31), reminding us that there are realities out there which we are not usually able to see without God’s enabling.

Can I claim it?

Given that this promise to Hagar doesn’t really apply to Christians directly – let’s face it, Ishmael’s descendants are not particularly favourable towards Christians – can we claim this ‘fear not’ as having any relevance to us?

I think there is at least one way in which it does apply: When we are stressing over how to provide for our children we need to remember that God has a destiny mapped out for every child ever born. Sin, corruption and evil do their utmost to derail our destinies but I think we can at least be assured that it is never wrong to commit our children into God’s hands when we are anxious over being able to provide for them. In fact, Jesus tells us not to fret over food and drink because God knows we need them and we do better to seek God’s kingdom first (Luke 22:22-30).

Why children die of starvation and hunger even when their parents pray and beseech God to save them remains unanswered. The reasons for poverty, drought and food scarcity are many and I suspect God’s reasons for allowing these things are likewise very complex. I do think that regardless of our circumstances the person who pleases God most is the one who seeks him and His kingdom in all situations, even poverty. How, I do not know – I’ve never been in such a place and based on my previous performance I doubt that I would be pleasing to God in my own responses.

Try it with me

In my current circumstances I am going to turn my heart to God today and seek to glorify Him rather than my ability to plan, save, hoard or work for a paycheck.

So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.
When the water in the skin was gone, she put the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, “Let me not look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.
And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.
(Genesis 21:14–19 ESV)


Photo of man anxious over bills: sturti (iStock)

An ethical boutique


Have you ever wanted to change the world? I know an ‘apprentice world-changer‘ who is taking positive steps to do just that.
After creating an award winning film about shopping responsibly, Susan Wardell recruited her friends to put the philosophy into practice. They opened an ethical boutique, The Cuckoo’s Nest, to sell Fair-trade and up-cycled clothes, jewellery and shoes.

Voting with dollars

In creating The Cuckoo’s Nest, Susan and her friend Annika sought to provide a shopping outlet in which everything is sourced from ethically sound providers.

The shop is guided by the principal that every dollar spent is effectively a vote not only for the item purchased but also for the business practises that drive the production of that item. Much of what is for sale in our shops is made of materials requiring environmentally damaging processes to prepare, assembled in factories where people are treated as the human equivalent of battery hens, for companies with the sole objective of maximizing short-term profits.  In general, retail outlets are similarly driven by the profit motive.

Your democratic dollar

In a democracy we accept that a single vote may change little but once thousands or millions of votes are counted the destiny of a nation can be changed.

Economics works the same way (despite the fancy theories) – my one dollar, or even $100 dollars, will make very little difference in the world. But count up the billions of dollars spent on consumer products and you have powerful influence over unethical practises.

At The Cuckoo’s Nest, Annika and Susan are multiplying the effect of individuals making wise, ethical shopping decisions. They actively support fair trade co-operatives in Ghana (Global Mamas), Nepal, Thailand, and Pakistan, along with local artists who add value by up-cycling materials in their creations. They also stock Etiko Fair Trade shoes, the only outlet the South Island.

Covering costs is enough

The shop covers it’s costs but is not operated to generate profits. In fact, knowing the amount of work invested in its creation, no profit-driven person would have bothered! To me this adds to the appeal of what they sell; when buying from this shop you know your money is paying for the real cost of getting the product to you, not lining some fat cat’s pocket.

Talents invested wisely

I am inspired by these apprentice world-changers who take Micah 6:8 very seriously. They have taken their own talents, recruited those of their friends and made a mechanism to amplify the talents and hard work of the most needy in order to bring justice into trade. This is the sort of thing that happens when the fire of Christ burns passionately in the hearts of His disciples.

He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:8 ESV)

Being poor in Burma

Burma is a beautiful and fertile land, very rich in natural resources such as productive agricultural land, teak, gems, gold, minerals, oil, natural gas, rich biodiversity and culture. Unfortunately its rulers are very poor in the one resource they most need to turn Burma into a great nation again – wisdom (Proverbs 28;16,  Proverbs 16:16). The Burmese Government hijacks a massive proportion (23.6%) of the nation’s scant wealth for its massive military force of over 500,000 personnel. A meagre 1.3% of GDP will be spent on healthcare. (For comparison: New Zealand spends 3.5% of its budget on military and 18.4% on health;  the US spends 19.3% on military and 19.3% on health. [Note: figures for comparison only, not a detailed breakdown. Data from Visualeconomics.com])

Burma has a population of 50,519,000 (11.5 times the population of NZ) with a land area of 676,552 square kilometers (2.5 times bigger than NZ) which equates to a population density 4.5 times that of New Zealand.

The GDP per capita is Intl.$ 1,100 compared to $28,000 for NZ, meaning that we are basically 25 times better off than the people of Burma. However, this figure masks the vast inequalities that exist within Burma, with by far the majority of wealth being taken by the ruling classes and the ‘average’ Burmese existing on more like US$ 450 per year, whereas we average around US$ 29,000 per year with the lowest income in NZ about 40 times the average income in Burma.

The Burmese currency unit is the kyat, which at today’s official exchange rates is 20 cents NZ and 16 cents US. More realistic data from within Burma is that US$ 1 costs 895 kyat as of 20 February 2011. The daily pay for a manual labourer is in the range of 1500 kyat for men, 1000 kyat for women (working from 6am to 6pm).  In practise this works out that a 2kg bag of rice will cost a Burmese labourer up to a third of a daily wage, by comparison I pay one 24th of a day’s pay for 2kg of rice (and I work 8 hour shifts, not 12).

A household in Burma with access to electricity may only have power available for 3 hours a day, for this it will cost half a labourer’s monthly pay. Consequently most people use wood and coal for fuel, the electricity gets sold to Thailand, China, India and Bangladesh. The monthly wages for factory workers in Burma is about US$ 30-50, whereas across the border in Thailand equivalent workers earn at least US$ 120 per month. (The Irrawaddy)

However, numbers do not paint an adequate picture of what being poor in Burma is actually like, the extract below is quite a common situation for Burmese people:

“But, when I was little the living situation changed and we didn’t stay together. First, my father passed away when I was a young girl.  Then, my family’s income wasn’t very good and it was very difficult to stay together.  Since we were farmers we had to pay very high taxes and we didn’t have enough for food.  So, my mother had to find money to support her children.  She had many jobs and tried to work hard for our family.  She did housework, and sometimes she went outside the house to make money for our family.”
By a Student of the School for Shan State Nationalities Youth (Letters From Shan State)

Note: The information used for this post is the best I could access at the time of writing. As better or new information comes to my attention I will post again on this topic.

Other posts related to this topic:

External links related to this topic:

Image of woman farming: iStockphoto
Image of tarpaulin house and power pole: Vision Beyond Borders
Image of collecting water at well: Vision Beyond Borders
Cartoon of Than Shwe’s budget by Harn Lay: The Irrawaddy

Guilt-free fudge

You are in for a treat — I’m going to share with you a recipe for the most guilt-free chocolate fudge that I’ve found yet:

  • 3 cups Fair-Trade sugar
  • 1/4 cup Fair-Trade cocoa
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 50g New Zealand butter
  • 1 cup New Zealand milk

Recruit your kids to help with the mixing and sampling on a cold winter afternoon.

Admittedly, the total cost of this fudge is about $5, which could have been halved by purchasing sugar and cocoa from a large multi-national company that cares primarily about profit margins (but then it would not be guilt-free). However, the selfishness of insisting on paying the absolute minimum for the ingredients to make a luxury treat when I know that my choice will reinforce the poverty of some farmer elsewhere in the world caused me to ‘waste’ my money on Fair-Trade ingredients. (See Proverbs 24:11-12 about our responsibility to act according to the knowledge we have of injustice.)

Maybe I am a fool, certainly the Rich Dad/Poor Dad devotees will classify me as a poor Dad who is teaching my kids lousy money management principles. Or maybe I am making attempts to invest in a portfolio which is Creator-guaranteed and gives an amazingly good dividend (Matthew 6:19-21).

There is obviously more to social justice than buying Fair-Trade products, we must consider all that God has given us and how much of that should be used for our own needs and what can be used to alleviate the needs of others. There are no rules in this, though a good guide is the principle of fair distribution as explained by Paul in 2 Corinthians 8:13-14. Remember the poor.

Diamonds in my pockets

My computer stopped working last week. It is now going again but for a time it joined the bulk of my possessions in the category of ‘broken’ (which pile seems to also include my body!). The fact that much of what I own is old and broken reflects the modest income our family has, the computer breaking drove this home to me because we simply cannot afford to spend money on repairs, let alone a new one. The thought of no computer made me feel like an inferior citizen in a society that assumes ‘everyone’ has a computer and internet access (which in fact is just not true in New Zealand).

So I plunged into feeling despondent that I’m poor, considered selling my soul to get a higher paying job, then because it was a fine day began painting the wall that I had been procrastinating on. As I slopped paint onto roughcast and listened to music loudly (by Third Day, on my iPod – are you getting the irony of this sob-story!), God gave me a resounding kick up the rear-end.

Allowing my thoughts to wander and hearing song lyrics reminding me of the free gift Jesus has given me, I realized that the difficulties (even if relatively minor) of life are not something to avoid. It is when I feel like I cannot cope, am unable to fulfill my responsibilities, feeling left out of the good things in life – this is when it is the Spirit of God who keeps me plodding on, when my own abilities ran out long ago.

It is impossible to experience the strength of God when I feel strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). I only experience the consolation of Christ when I am not coping. The riches of knowing Jesus come as I am cast out from the fellowship of the successful in this world. In those times I am the beggar dressed in rags… with pockets full of diamonds! You cannot eat a diamond, they don’t keep you warm, but if you have pockets full of them you are unbelievably rich even while going hungry, cold and rejected.

So what are those diamonds? I will list a few, if you think of others please add a comment.

  • The hope of heaven — having the best possible life on earth is not important when I know it is for a limited time and heaven is forever (Revelation 21:2-4).
  • The King of Kings has prepared a place for me in His kingdom! (John 14:2-3).
  • I cannot be snatched out of the hand of my Lord and Saviour (John 10:27-30).
  • All my shame will be taken away (Isaiah 54:4, Romans 10:11).

If a man were to offer money for any of these he would be laughed and scorned off the face of the earth (see Acts 8:20) because the cost to buy a single one is billions of dollars more than anyone could ever pay (i.e., they are beyond price). Yet I have all of this in my possession, right now!