The Customer Perspective

There’s too much wrong with the FCC — in all its various political, technical, and regulatory aspects — to get into arguments on the line. However, I’d like to point out one small piece of anecdata from Number Two Daughter’s iPhone 6. From the customer’s perspective, Internet access providers are common carriers.

Number Two Daughter (15) has service with Cricket (a subsidiary of AT&T) and pays $30/mo. for cellular service with a 2GB/mo. soft cap on data usage. It’s a soft cap because after using 2GB, the transfer rate is throttled. A hard cap prevents usage.

She primarily uses the phone to chat with friends, watch movies, and keep up to the minute with BTS. Most of that activity happens here at home, so in the best of all possible worlds she’d be using our domestic Internet connection provided by Frontier Communications rather than the LTE connection provided by AT&T. However, there’s a mechanical difficulty with either the antenna or the wifi chip in her phone, so she doesn’t connect to the 802.11n network.

YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video, nor even BTS, are not the top consumers of bandwidth; they are slightly more than bumps on the long tail. Apple Music and Spotify and Pandora don’t even register. iMessages and SMS chats are miniscule pinpricks. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are so 5th grade; only toddlers use those.

Snapchat was. And the month isn’t over yet.

The internet is NOT television. And no one wants “content.” They never have. They want a connection with other people.

Reach out, and touch someone.

Slippery When Wet

This weekend I drove a 2006 Toyota Prius into a ditch.

The snow began falling around 11:00. About an inch inch lay on the road, atop ice. The first few flakes had melted and frozen, or perhaps a drizzle of rain had come before the snow. I wasn’t entirely aware of the conditions before setting out in search of lunch. And I certainly wasn’t aware of how a Prius performs in the snow. That is to say, it doesn’t handle as expected.

The hazards of driving in snow are in turning and in controlling speed, both applications of a loss of friction. Without traction, hills present a particular difficulty. To control speed going down a hill, one usually, in dry conditions, slows the turning of the wheels by impeding the movement of the wheel with the disc brakes. On snow (or ice or water or wet leaves) this causes the car to slip, so it’s something to be avoided. Alternately, one downshifts to a lower gear and uses the engine to brake. This method is not possible in a Prius, unless you read the manual. Thirdly, one may use gravity to reduce momentum as one reaches the crest of a hill, in order to minimize peak velocity on the descent. There may be other techniques of which I’m not aware. Conversely, the momentum of descending the hill is needed, again because of the lack of traction, to ascend a hill.

Turns complicate this.

In the movie Cars (2006) a race car encounters impossible situations. He drives down a dark road at night, by the light of the moon because he has no headlights. He falls of a cliff cornering on a dirt track. He pulls a paving machine. He tips tractor cows. (C’mon! One can suspend disbelief only so far.) The missing headlights are a mechanical design decision: he doesn’t have them because the chance he’ll need them is so improbable. They aren’t necessary. But he fell off a cliff because he doesn’t know how to drive on a sliding surface. He has to learn.

The story is that a Toyota engineer drove a Siena minivan through all 50 states to get a sense of how it was used and the conditions one might expect. This resulted in features such as the ability to lay a 4×8 sheet of plywood flat in the back, all-wheel drive, and passenger windows which opened. (Though why it took until 2003 for vans to let their passengers breathe is beyond my comprehension. Did no automotive engineer ever suffocate in the heat of the back seat as a child?) Given the poorly functioning windshield defroster, one might suspect that the Prius was only tested in southern California, but it does have an anti-skid feature which, as far as I could tell at the time, consists of flashing a light and beeping at you — and slowing the rotation of the wheels. Along with traction control, it’s intended to keep you on the road and in control of your vehicle. Mostly. The computer is to assist in handling the skid; actually handling it is up to the driver.

It’s said that experience is the best teacher. I’m not a fan of Mario Kart and other racing games. I’m inexperienced, uncomfortable driving with my eyes my only sense. I lose control and crash. In a car there’s gravity. You can feel the weight shifting and move in concert. There’s more to the road than the speed limit, the angle of the curve, the pitch of the pavement. Cars 3 (2016) is a lecture on the limits of simulator design. There’s more to racing than going fast in a circle for a long time: You will encounter unexpected situations and must adapt to them. Though perhaps even the best simulation, limited only by a lack of imagination, cannot adequately prepare you for the Real Thing. One becomes accustomed to the simulation, prepared for the apparently probable and unable to adapt to the unlikely. In this context, the news that DeepMind’s AlphaGo Zero taught itself chess is important and disturbing: it learns; it adapts. After the novelty of autonomous automobile racing wears off, NASCAR fans may dress up in fancy hats and fondly recall the storied heritage of the sport.

But can they drive in the snow?

Maybe.

Researchers at Stanford’s Dynamic Design Lab noticed something.

[T]hey solved a sliding problem when going around corners at high speed by using data gleaned from the minds of racing drivers.

“We discovered that for the drivers it was an automatic reaction that kicked in as soon as the car started to slide,” [Joe Funke] said, “They knew what to do from experience and just did it.

“The car, on the other hand, used a stabilizing algorithm. When we changed it so that it had a set automatic command when it started to slide it definitely seemed to work.’

They encoded the practice that racing drivers had done.

Number One Daughter (17) has been driving, carefully, for almost a year. But she hasn’t encountered a skid yet. Watching videos on how to correct a skid is useful, but it doesn’t replace experience: the correction for a skid is not like linear driving. Where can human drivers get more experience in edge conditions? Why aren’t these techniques taught to new drivers? Why don’t we teach more than the bare minimum needed to operate a vehicle? For that matter, why don’t we teach high school physics on race tracks? Why is it easier to teach a robot?

What I Bought Today

It makes perfect sense, buying this. Now, this time of year when, more than any other time of year, it’s the time to buy things.

"To buy or not to buy?" New Philosopher, Winter 2017/2018

It was weird buying this, though, a thing about buying things. There are other things I could have bought, I suppose. Shiny things, perhaps. Heavy things. And things I could have not bought, which I did not buy, the lust for which the thing I did buy was only partial satisfaction. One thing instead of another.

Because, you see, the thing I want to buy is not really a thing. It’s a place, more like an idea of a place, or the ghost of an idea of a place.

When we’re small, we get these ideas of what we want to be from the people around us, from what we’re familiar with: firemen, preachers, teachers, farmers, horologists, lawyers, lowly worm… librarians, booksellers. Guess I’ve never really given up that idea. Early in Studs Terkel’s Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do, a steelworker speaks of his desire. I put the quote up on the wall.

I’d like to run a combination bookstore and tavern. I would like to have a place where college kids came and a steelworker could sit down and talk. Where a workingman could not be ashamed of Walt Whitman and a college professor could not be ashamed that he painted his house over the weekend.

Me too.

Envy

Looking at my résumé, I feel like I have to justify the decisions I’ve made. It’s not the curriculum vitae I thought I’d have. At each step along the way, each fork in the road I took made sense. Looking back, there’s some regret — and envy. Regret that I didn’t see opportunities, not of my decisions. Envy of those with different luck, who happened to be in the right place at the right time. And envy of my children, who have a long road still ahead of them, full of possibility.

I, on the other hand, often feel hedged about by my past, such that I’m lost, and almost paralyzed by expectations.

Which way do I go?

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

MIDWAY upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

First World Problems

Despite all evidence to the contrary, it is possible to use adverbs on road signs. Drive Slow*ly*

This month’s additional practice is to not like anything on the Internet. To aid that practice, I’ve removed Facebook and Twitter from my mobile device. Apple’s iOS 11 then helpfully removed the ability to share things to those sites from outside of the apps. It’s like I’ve returned to the dark ages!

I’m somewhat amused by folks burying their noses in their devices while waiting instead of twiddling their thumbs or chatting with their neighbors, because I’ve done this since I learned to read: I carry a book with me. For some reason though, the meaning of reading a book in public has been one of intentionally ignoring one’s surroundings, while reading the Internet has not been — except in very worried articles on Internet usage. Perhaps this is because observers can’t tell whether one is reading War and Peace, looking at pr0n, catching up on the latest debacle in Washington, or exchanging longing emoji with one’s lover.

What I’m not amused by is the effect on posture. I’d love to know a way to read a book that’s easy, comfortable, and doesn’t lead to back and neck problems. A lectern, perhaps? Seems a bit bulky to carry in my pocket.

In other news, I’m changing how I link to books. I’ve been an Amazon affiliate since the program started, though in that time I’ve made a grand total of $0.00, because no one reads this website or buys books after clicking on the links. If I’m not getting a percentage from these linkages, then why should I link to Amazon instead of another bookseller? The initial choice of Amazon was made because I like their catalog — they had previews so you could skim the book before buying — and I buy from them. Also, they made it easier than other options. Going forward I plan to link to Indiebound or WorldCat. Not because I don’t like Amazon, but because I do like Pawling’s Book Cove and I do like libraries. We’ll see how this goes.

Also, I’m peeved that I haven’t located my hardcover copy of Connie Willis‘s Doomsday Book.

A Happy Little Working Song

Fortune magazine reported on a study which found that happier employees are more productive, which seems obvious. The question then is, how can employees be happier? The Whitehall study would suggest that more control over one’s environment would suffice, but that would never do. No one would fill in their timesheets. From what I’ve gathered from attempts by human resources to address morale issues, there’s an assumed correlation of employee happiness with engagement.

Then along come these two articles which argue that the secret to happiness at work isn’t employee engagement, but disengagement: care less. Yeah, that makes sense.

And for once I’m not being sarcastic.

They claim, in brief, that one’s work is not the Meaning of Life and recommend not feeling guilty about not meeting unspoken expectations. That’s all well and good, but if I don’t work — more specifically, if I don’t have a job — how will I have money to buy food to feed my children and to provide them with shelter? They don’t suggest not working, but rather not to let it consume you. The classic documentary Office Space explores what happens when one cares too much, and then not at all.

The trick is in finding balance. Not between work and life, because work is part of life, but between obsession and despair. Find the space for balance within life. That’s hard to do when the job is the most important thing because one does need to eat.

You can check out any time you like / but you can never leave.
— “Hotel California,” The Eagles (1977)

My former wife and I often argued over my working hours. I’ve been in IT operations, which is traditionally 24×365, since 1996, but even before that I would spend long hours at work, partly because I enjoyed it and partly because there was work to do. The arguments didn’t get anywhere, but she expressed a preference I now find understandable: she liked having the kind of job that stayed at the office. The kind of job that started at a set time, lasted a specific time, then ended. A job that demanded her attention for a limited time: 9 to 5, shift-work. She basically wanted, in the terms of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a non-exempt position.

This is well-understood as a way of balancing demands on time, having been the way the business day had been organized since the 8-hour day was introduced. An 8-hour day is also in Benjamin Franklin’s daily schedule. It was an improvement on earlier industrial scheduling, but has side-effects: clock-watching, traffic jams, schools starting with sleepy students, daylight saving time used to “lengthen” daylight, and so forth. While it doesn’t directly address the problem of work obsession, the 8-hour day does offer an intentional break from the treadmill. If it still exists. It never has for exempt staff.

So how?

This, as Andrew Taggart notes, is not a problem of time management. It is one of attitude.

Wonder

Yesterday I asked, what about the world beyond the virtual? Computers didn’t have, for the longest time, sensors. Their only interaction with the world was through input devices such as punch-cards, then later keyboards and mice. They only knew what they were told. Many have a variety of sensors now: antennae, gyroscopes, cameras, thermometers, and so forth.

In the late-1980’s, if I recall correctly, science fiction fans and aerospace professionals engaged in heated arguments in the Planetary Society‘s journal  over what should be the policy direction of the United States’ space program. Should we attempt Mars directly or build a base on the moon first? Should we have a space station? Should we emphasize manned missions or send robots off to explore? It was a matter of cost vs. benefit for some: robots were cheap; humans die. I was in favor of both human and robot missions, but as a teenager I wasn’t sensitive to prices. I just thought we should get off this rock and go have a look-see.

I traveled in books. I’m left with sense impressions, of days lying on the braided rug on the floor, musty National Geographic in black-and-white or fresh issues in color in front of me. Nights listening to rain on the tin roof, wind in the tree outside my window, after I’d left the seashore: a plastic square recording that came with the National Geographic of whale song. Nights in the forest primeval listening to The Language and Music of the Wolves. Nights on the moon.

Listening today to an interview with Sylvia Earle, I recalled glimpses of the universe through the Life Nature Library and the Life Science Library, and the big telescopes at Greenbank. The world was full of wonders just waiting to be explored. Will a robot marvel at the wonder? Will a robot follow its curiosity in to a dark forest?

Sometimes it seems like there’s no wonder now. Only fear and greed.

 

Need-Blind

The ocean of the Internet tosses up interesting flotsam, and then it sinks below the surface again. I read some passing reference, perhaps by Niall Ferguson, to the British Empire needing a lot of clerks to do the computing, and thus schools to train them in the essentials of empire: completing and processing forms, and thus neat handwriting and arithmetic. (I’d like a citation.) We’ve since invented mechanical computers to tabulate and process the forms, and outsourced the completion of the forms themselves to the end-users.

In this otherwise excellent discussion of AT&T’s Workforce 2020 program, an employee training initiative intending to re-skill 100,000 employees in the next three years, Randall Stephenson makes a throwaway comment that, of course, the student has to learn the new skills on his own time. Because, we’ll help you help yourself, but only if you’re interested in keeping up with the changing world. (My experience of layoffs at AT&T has been that when jobs are eliminated, the people are generally given the opportunity to apply for any remaining jobs.) The coursework that Mr. Stephenson mentions is available at Udacity and Georgia Tech. It’s an exciting program. These are, for the most part, skills that didn’t exist less than a decade ago, using tools that were pooh-poohed by big companies like AT&T. But what about general purpose skills? What about the world beyond the virtual?

I spent today assisting with completing the FAFSA and TAP and PROFILE and now I’m tired and wondering what would be the harm in disregarding parental ability to pay and considering only the student’s assets, if those. Though I suppose then colleges, trade schools, and such might either lower their fees in order to attract students, turn elsewhere for funding, and go out of business. Is it really optimal for adolescents to guess what the labor market might demand in four years rather than for an employer to train an employee to do what needs being done now or in the relatively near future? It’s unreasonable to expect any student to take on debt based on the assumption of future earning potential. One, they’re not in any position to make an accurate assessment of their prospects; and, two, robots. In four years 9.5 million truckers will be looking for new work. Meanwhile there’s a shitload of clerical work that’s purely inefficiency — healthcare billing, for example — and doesn’t require a college education in order to complete, though one might consider lawyers essentially to be clerical help of a particularly specialized kind, not to mention the skilled trades. What’s wrong with apprenticeship? Besides, many adolescents are impatient: they are ready to go and do. They are done with waiting.

If college is to prepare one for a job, then why is the student paying for it instead of the employer? And if it’s not necessarily to prepare one for a job, but rather to work together to enhance our understanding of ourselves, of this world and the next, then why would we limit who can undertake that quest to those who’ve won the parental lottery? Or, to be frank, given the existential threat that robots pose to humanity, why would we limit learning at all, since increasing understanding is the only thing we will be for (maybe not even that)? Perhaps we need to ask, where else is there a community of scholars but at college?

Anyway, apply first and meet all the deadlines. You will have no idea what college will cost until three months after all the forms have been filled out.

Short Circuit

This.

a person at a party, alone in a crowd, awake, walking, happy in the forest

When I first saw this cartoon by Tom Fonder, I thought, “That seems nice, to leave the party and go to the woods.” Parties are nice and all, seeing friends and family, but they can feel intense, exhausting, draining. Time alone, quiet, is needed to recover.

When lifting weights, or with any practice, improvement comes not during the lifting, but after, as your body recovers and builds new muscle and new myelin. Next time will be easier. The path becomes well-trodden.

If you practice.

What if you don’t? Or, more precisely, what if you practice a maladaptation? Suppose you sacrifice form to make a personal record. You can make the one-rep max, sure, but you also reinforced a movement pattern. What are the consequences? Down that path lies easy injury.

This year I didn’t drink anything at Thanksgiving, and haven’t for some months now. It changes your perspective to avoid that haze. Now when I look at this cartoon I see something else: panels two and three. The party has moved from drinks with dinner to raucous laughter to oblivion. How many others need a social lubricant? Who found the quick way?

There are others at the party who are like this man who has left to go to the wood. He is not alone.

For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. [Matthew 7:13]

More Books Than Time

Looking at my shelves lined with books, I know where some of them are from, but not all. The newer purchases have no tangible memory with them. Oh, I know a bit about my life or my interests at the time; the subject matter prompts that memory. But there’s not the sense of choosing the book, of weighing it against another, of the particular shelf I pulled it from.

Some of the books have echoes of where they were first read, rather than bought, of when they came into my life. I can even pick out the books from Dover, the Book of the Month Club, Quality Paperback Bookclub, the Science Fiction Book Club — they have the same weightlessness that comes from looking at a catalog, but still do have a memory of their origin.

Camber of Culdi, et seq., came from the Little Professor after a day at the park. I was 10 or 11. I was glued to their one bookcase of science fiction and fantasy novels. Each visit there began the same way, and sometimes ended pleasantly.

Before leaving St. John’s College at the end of my year there, I bought The Hero with a Thousand Faces to take home with me. I’d been lusting after it for two semesters, but there were always other things to spend money on, like comics. Having my parents’ wallet that day helped.

Dad visited Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va., one fine summer’s day, I think to use the library. I accompanied him. I found and borrowed Satan: The Early Christian Tradition, and purchased it later. The other volumes in Jeffrey Burton Russell’s series haven’t made it to my collection, yet; I enjoyed them from the library at Hampden-Sydney College.

I took the bus from Yorktown Heights to Times Square, then walked down Seventh Ave. to the Chemical Bank back office on W. 33rd St. I habitually cut through the Barnes & Noble across from Penn Station. If I had time, I stopped. I picked up Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, read it on the bus, and went on to the next the following day. One disadvantage of reading a long series all at once is noticing when the author uses the same description of a character every time.

One day on my lunch break at The Associated Press, shortly after installing Slackware Linux on a spare desktop, I browsed through the McGraw-Hill Bookstore, as I usually did at lunch, and picked up Learning the Unix Operating System and Essential System Administration. Thus began my infatuation with books published by O’Reilly.

It’s as if the act of choosing fixed the time and place, made the purchase more intense, though it may only seem this way because I was younger, before an increase in disposable income and Amazon let me fulfill my instant desires. Perhaps, also, it’s that many of these unremembered books have only been purchased; they have not been read. I have not spent time enough to become their friend.

Maybe I could live without the reminders. We do not all have Hermione Granger’s time-turner, and must carefully attend to what we have.

Library Hazards

Began work on organizing my collection of fiction today, and am very irritated.

One of the cats — I know which one — has taken it upon himself to urinate on the bottom shelves, thus limiting storage capacity, increasing the tipping hazard, and reducing the likelihood he’ll die a natural death. This is a tremendous annoyance, but is not, entirely, what has irritated me. I am missing books.

Except for one, which was relatively recently published, the missing books have been in my collection since before I left for college, thirty years ago. I did not give them away. I did not discard them. They aren’t out on loan. Maybe they’ll turn up elsewhere in the boxes, but I doubt it.

Many of my oldest friends are on these shelves. I like to sit and simply look at them. The volumes serve as an aid to memory. I remember reading those I have kept, often in a specific place and time. For many, I have memories of their purchase. I’ve kept them for these memories, and because one day I would have children who might want to read them.

Now I have a sample case. Maybe they’ll read one and want to get others from the public library.

My Country’s Skies

Before leaving home today, I strolled down the lane to visit with the goats. The sun glistened on the milkweed. I love this place. It soothes my soul.

I was born in Virginia, spent time in Ohio, returned, then left for New York. I’ve lived away for most of my life. But I consider myself a Virginian.

In conversation with Dad this morning, we talked about being separate from the community, and anxiety for money becoming the only question asked. We pass that concern on to our children to prepare them for the world beyond school, leaving little room for wonder and joy. How can I monetize this beautiful day?

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. – Matthew 6:24

In Living Memory

Number One Daughter got her first college acceptance today, from Wells College on the shore of beautiful Cayuga Lake. I need to get that FAFSA submitted. Some of its assumptions are annoying, but one is correct: She is heading to college directly from high school, at least for purposes of this form. However, Inside Higher Ednotes that almost half of college students are “non-traditional,” meaning that they don’t come along to college directly after high school and between the ages of 18 and 24. It almost makes one wonder if perhaps there’s some disconnect between what’s assumed to be normal and what is, or some lack of understanding of how traditions change over time — the traditional student may not be the normal student, nor even traditional.  We’ve been misled by the past fixed in our memory, pretending to be inflexible. But it makes sense that institutions which pride themselves on traditions might see everything from that perspective, though one might expect them to use a more accurate label, such as “young adult,” instead of “traditional.”

Today our families gather to be together and give thanks, on a holiday which is either a celebration of survival or of death, depending on whom one asks. Once a day of fasting and reflection, Thanksgiving has become almost a celebration of gluttony — though to my mind that’s tomorrow. Odd that until the coming of mass media, Thanksgiving was somber. But my experience of what other families do is entirely from stories told in the movies. Have I read a novel set at Thanksiving? Is there one?

some of the pies

What I recall is more recent than my childhood. Earlier both Thanksgiving and Christmas blend together: black walnuts, pumpkin pie, ham, green beans almondine, and congealed salad. I spent most of any party alone, reading. (Family holidays at my in-laws’ were a bit more explosive.) Today we had remembered receipts and conversations about family origins. Dad told the story of a young John Bell who ran away to western Virginia with his Cherokee wife instead of heading off on the Trail of Tears. It puts some context on the 23andMe results:

Traditions change with time. They aren’t fixed. Each iteration offers something new. But is it not a bit odd that gratitude for plenty becomes gorging to excess?

Our society appears to place great stock in buying, in consumption. They talk about it on the news a lot. The advertisements tell us there’s lots more to buy. But I’m not sure where the money to buy things comes from. (Actually, I am sure where it comes from, but it’s unevenly distributed.) Spend the time with your family. Buy nothing. Let the rich trickle down their purchases.

Inky Fingers

There’s something about the smell of fresh ink. Each time I enter a bookstore, I pick a book from the shelf, riffle the pages, and bury my nose in it. Ink is the smell of hope and wonder.

You can get it delivered daily with a newspaper.

Down the alleyway from our house, past the county courthouse and jail, was the newspaper office and print shop. The publisher didn’t much care for my hanging about, but he did tolerate me enough to print a couple of book reviews. I don’t recall talking to anyone much, just standing there, inhaling the ink, and dreaming over the supplies in the front cabinet — though there was that one time when I asked for an estimate on a print run for a fanzine. I may have asked for a job once, but no help was needed. The Recorder is still there; the press is not. The offices no longer smell of ink.

I have in my library a pile of newspapers, mostly unread, collected from places I’ve been. Not quite sure how I picked up the habit, but I tend to snag the local paper when I travel. Some places offer choices: perhaps a free weekly in addition to a daily, or one from the Big City somewhat further away. Cincinnati offered the Enquirer and the Post when we were in Loveland; one set of grandparents read The Inter-Mountain, the other read the News Leader during the week, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Sunday. The Really Big City papers, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, weren’t available everywhere, only in airports and near those cities. Maybe most people don’t feel that so many papers available and news-stands virtually everywhere is the one of the more exciting things about New York, so I’ll accept that I might be little odd.

But it was a bit of a shock to find that London, England, had even more. I gathered up The Times, The Sunday Times (found out that they were different), The Independent, The Observer, The Guardian, The Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph, the Evening Standard, and more! That was a fun week in 1992.

Why does London have more papers than New York? Does it have more interesting newspapermen?

I worked in a print shop for a while, one which had a four-color offset press. But the Benjamin Franklin printing office in Philadelphia screamed out ink in louder, bolder type.

 

Impropriety

News of the world is daily maddening, full of pointless cruelty. We must take our moments of joy where we find them. My sons are in the bell choir at Trinity United Methodist Church. Before the service, the congregation sings hymns as randomly suggested by the congregants. Number Two Son had been looking through the hymnal and apparently found a song he liked: Angels We Have Heard on High. He confidently raised his tiny hand. “It’s too early for Christmas songs,” I whispered. He slowly lowered his hand, and we sang some other song.

After the song finished, the choirmaster asked for one more. One of the congregants had noticed the little hand, and pointed him out.

“Yes? What number?”

He spoke loudly and clearly, “Number 238.”

I couldn’t sing along very well overcome with emotion.

But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord

It seems only appropriate that Kevin Spacey should play the lead in House of Cards. The recent outburst of sexual assault allegations following an article in the New York Times and Ronan Farrow‘s serial exposé of Harvey Weinstein has gone well beyond salacious gossip and appears to be resulting in substantive legal consequences as well as a, most likely more important, shift in the unwillingness to tolerate foul behavior. I say appears to be because we’ve yet to see the powerful face consequences. It’s good to see people speaking up for themselves and coming forward — finding their power as it were. I’ve some hope that generally acceptable behavior will change for the better, and ladies will no longer need to use their hatpins to ward off unwanted advances.

A smattering of folks have been shocked to find gambling in Casablanca. Open secrets aren’t actually, y’know, secrets. They’re more like intentionally unenforced violations of the criminal code. The perpetrator is friends with the president or the district attorney — or the perpetrator is the president or the district attorney — or the victim’s silence is bought through fear or money or both. This ability of power to do what it wants isn’t an American disease. It’s essential to the nature of power. Power does because it can. A similar scandal is roiling Parliament — France isn’t being left out — but traditional abuse in Afghanistan has been traditional for centuries: The U. S. Army overlooks this, effectively sponsoring it, because “we need them.”

It does beg the question, however, why we overlook these sorts of things for so long while they are so well known. They hang out in society as jokes until they are inappropriate, unacceptable. Our understanding of the casting couch shifted from twittering about sleeping one’s way to the top to disgust at an abuse of power. How long were jokes about Catholic priests and altar boys circulating in Protestant circles before the spotlight fell on the truth? The gym coach at my high school would have girls sit on his lap. We’d yuk it up: “Sit on my lap and we’ll talk about the first thing that pops up.” Ha ha. So funny.

“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” — Erma Bombeck

One of my college roommates was a page in the House. We didn’t talk much. I seem to recall he had trouble with the school and left after one semester. In that time and place he fit the profile of a troubled youth. He told me a story once, of Congressional shenanigans involving vodka enemas and sexual encounters with Congressmen. Nothing shocking, I’m sure, except he was a minor and an employee. He’s dead now.

Forgiveness, it is thought, arose to maintain the social group and because revenge isn’t possible in some circumstances. This is necessary and generally works to maintain the group. But parasites exact a cost. They take advantage of the overwhelming desire to maintain social cohesion. We allow them to continue, because we think we need them. We think their abuse of power is somehow justified, in the greater interest of our tribe, that it’s not our business, or because, frankly, some of us don’t care. Luckily, the Forest Troop of baboons provides some evidence of what’s possible when abusers are cast into the outer darkness: everyone benefits.

Now If I Could Just Think of a Title….

Hi, I’m Will. I suffer from word count envy.

I marvel over the seeming quickness of pen and flow of words of prolific authors, and envy that apparent ease. How could so much ink be spilled so quickly?

It’s been a mere 23 days since I started this daily writing practice, one with a publishing deadline. (My longhand journal entries tend to vary with anger and melancholy, and rarely record anything but, leaving blank pages on the calendar.) And in that short time I’ve felt the writing become easier, more fluent, so that I almost feel like two or more pieces a day is not inconceivable.

Hey! Maybe this practice thing actually works. 🙂

Hi, I’m Will. I have word count envy.

My Sons Build Better Box Forts

My love and I put together the IKEA Billy bookcases for my library last Thursday. They had been occupying the hall, and my books boxes, due to certain logistical issues. Now the books are unpacked and shelved, but awaiting organization. I’ve sorted out the non-fiction and poetry, but I’m not happy with the result. I’m a bit too obsessive with things being symmetrical. The way this room is prevents shelf symmetry. If I didn’t already hate much of contemporary architecture, I’d despise it for this sophomore student’s effort alone.

One really should be able to execute traditional design before attempting something novel. There’s a good reason that roofs join the way they do. Well, at least now I can sit in the library rocking chair, hot tea by my side and cat on my book, while I watch the water damage for signs of a new leak.

And agonize over how to get the subjects to line up. Might have to buy more books.

a picture of the library ceiling

Practice What You Preach

A wonderful pitter-patter of rain this morning. A frustrated pitter-patter of No. 2 Son practicing his drumming before school. He’s fighting frustration; the practice is hard for him. He does not yet understand that the practice is what makes it easier — with everything. Sometimes I think that’s a novel idea, but it’s more likely a common, misunderstood, and often forgotten one, especially when our art glamorizes the finished product and ignores the struggle it takes to get there. It takes a lot of work to look this good.

I’m an uncomfortable actor. I’ve not been on stage much: in fact, I can count the plays on one hand: God, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Fiddler on the Roof, Oliver! But I’m not uncomfortable because of the lines, or the singing, though I don’t think I’m very good at either of those things. I just don’t feel like the other person. I’m me, reciting lines. That’s not acting.

Back when personal websites became blogs, a number of blogging how-to articles sprouted up. How to optimize search traffic. How to construct your personal brand. How to have an authentic voice. I read the same pieces now about one’s social media presence: “cultivate your personal brand on your LinkedIn profile so that recruiters will love you and the job offers will come pouring in.” Seems to me that an “authentic voice” would get in the way of any personal branding or profile marketing I might do, so I intentionally decided not to focus on anything. If I write about technology or politics or work or whatever, it’s because I’m interested in it, not because I’m actively cultivating a particular identity. I suppose that might hurt my prospects.

A long time ago, scandalous behavior ruined careers. Or, if not scandalous behavior, then the wrong opinion, dragged from the recesses of past journal articles, whatever wrong meant at the moment of judgment, not necessarily what was wrong when it was written. Teenage me abandoned hope of a career in public service because standards were too high; it was as if one had to set his slippery sights on high office early in life and never waver from that goal. We call that “ambition.” One had to play a part I could not play: I can be somewhat blunt.

Could not play? Really? Identity is as much a process of becoming as it is of being. We adopt masks throughout our lives: perhaps because we are unhappy with ourselves, perhaps to play a role we imagine the crowd asks us to play, perhaps to play a role in a game, perhaps to experiment with possibilities, perhaps because it is our profession,  perhaps to give us confidence. Fake it until you make it. Practice it. I could have chosen that path, and still could. I could carefully edit this site so that it reflects an image I want to present, and prune out the unsavory, contradictory bits. Keep them to myself. Others do.

Everyone does. “Think before you speak,” I was admonished as a child. Be considerate. Every little thought is not entirely unfiltered, yet. There’s a certain laziness to using expletives with abandon; one’s language becomes imprecise. The sense is often maintained, but exactly do I mean when I call someone a fucking asshole? It takes some discipline to find other words, but gets easier. The same applies for any speech: criticism of any kind springs to mind. It’s initially harder to find words beyond “that sucks,” but even “I don’t particularly care for this” provides more value. Meanwhile, there’s that slight pause, diminishing over time, during editing.

It’s been said that character is what you do when no one is watching, when we are no longer performing — when we relax and lower our shields.Are you a teetotaler in public, but a drunk in private? It’s nice that one can maintain the illusion, but there’s still a problem. Once we excuse character flaws because of tribal membership or policy preferences, then we are tacitly, and sometimes explicitly, affirming that the ends justify the means: that the only thing that truly matters is winning, not how the game is played, as if there are no consequences to collateral damage. Have we lost the sense of how the personal informs the political? Or lost the language to understand it?

You become what you choose to practice. If you choose to practice evil, then what are you?

The Masks, Twilight Zone, Season 5, Episode 25

The Timesheet

Today is a sick day.

I’m not often sick. Well, here I am: sick again. It’s not from work, exactly. My love brought something back from Santa Fe, and I provided it with a fertile environment in which to grow, helped along by scheduled weekend work that resulted in around 40 hours without sleep. The two have, naturally enough, affected my ability to perform well. So I’ve taken a sick day and found myself unable to sleep. This has not helped. On sick days I think about work.

I’m lucky in that my work is salaried and that I can take paid sick days, but it seems somewhat inefficient to do that because of exhaustion after working 16 hours on the two days which are ostensibly off-days, except the business is 24×365, I’m on salary, and this timesheet does not admit of off-days between Monday and Friday. Much better than the schedule in Germinal, one gathers.

I don’t recall being told by human resources, or any real person, at any of my employers, to work long hours; to take no vacation; or to avoid taking a sick day on Friday, Monday, or any day adjacent to an off day; but somehow it’s been communicated that this is The Way Things Are Done. Perhaps we were told by that impersonal, demanding timesheet. Someone made the decisions that it so dutifully implements in SQL and Javascript. Someone decided which working hours are customary. Someone required presence during them. Someone decided that since working on weekends is always intentional it should require management approval, though no extra pay is forthcoming and presence is still required during the week. Someone decided that a paid lunch hour should be recorded as present time and added that hour to the customary work schedule, somewhat unintentionally increasing the so-called working hours. Someone decided that my value lies in how long I work and not in how well.

I work from home so do not have the burden of commuting to the office. This does allow some flexibility in the schedule, assuming that all of those hours are there. But that’s not a worry for today.

Today is a sick day.