My First Meaningful Project

Browsing through old photographs and found this one from 2000 of hope for the future.

showing No. 1 Daughter a bookstore

Her mother took the photograph. We were in Colonial Williamsburg, probably at Mermaid Books, because chief among the things I like are books, old brick, and boxwoods. No. 1 Daughter was three months old at the time. Some days it’s hard to believe that she’s almost done with secondary school. There is one semester left.

On the days when I feel I haven’t done enough as a parent, I pretend a benign neglect is sometimes best. The next step is hers.

We Have No Choice

I read Underground Airlines yesterday. It’s fresh in my memory. This morning browsing through Edible Santa Fe I ran across an advertisement for work the Quivera Coalition is doing with the Southwest Grassfed Alliance. And a sense of why some arguments bother me congealed.

We have no choice. This is the only way we can [fill in the blank].

If you haven’t read Underground Airlines do so. It’s a quick read, a well done alternate history set in the present day whose initial conceit is that Lincoln was assassinated on his way from Springfield to Washington, D. C., which led to the passage of the Crittenden Compromise. At the time of the novel, slavery remains only in four states, though its presence, not unlike apartheid in South Africa, has tainted the economic relations of the United States with the rest of the world: The North is impoverished due to the high cost of its labor and the embargo, while the South maintains a veneer of prosperity because exploiting slave labor is cheap.

Handily enough the state conventions on secession published the causes of their course of action. First among them was that abolishing slavery would destroy the South’s way of life. What was meant was not a vague Heritage or Rightful Order of Things, but the economic underpinnings of the dominant industry. King Cotton was impossible without slave labor. As Mississippi forthrightly stated,

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.

The South argued that without slavery the looms of Manchester would fall silent. They didn’t. Cotton was imported from Egypt instead. Which begs the question, who performed that labor?

Hand-in-hand with “this is way we’ve always done it” is “this is the only way we can do it.” Whatever it is.

I’m thinking at the moment of agriculture, but those twin arguments show up in disparate circumstances. You may have noticed some extremity in online rhetoric recently, often a holy war variety that will brook no disputation, only the flinging of insults which the other side wears as badges of honor. Yet even in those forums where an attempt is made at reasoned discussion, a few souls insist there’s nothing to talk about. It’s not unlike the proverbial Thanksgiving dinner of Hollywood legend. I lurk in a group of this nature which purports to discuss the hot button topics afflicting agriculture: to whit, conventional versus organic farming methods. Aside from all of the woo-slinging that results, someone usually brings up the Green Revolution and needing to feed the world. At which point they say, emphatically, we have to produce more! The only way to feed the burgeoning population, then, is to further intensify agricultural production by doing exactly the same thing we did yesterday.

The problem with this is that in many cases famine is as often a political and economic failure as one of environmental conditions: the Great Famine of Ireland between 1845 and 1849, the Great Soviet Famine of 1932-1933, and the Bengal Famine of 1943 come particularly to mind. That is, famine is not entirely a production problem but one of distribution and logistics, so why do we continue to focus on the production aspect of the problem, particularly when that aspect appears to be, in effect, eating the seed corn of future generations? There’s no other option, apparently.

It’s all quite beyond our control.

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.