The Kids are Alright

And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through

— from “Changes,” David Bowie (1971)

Much of what I read online lately seems to be written by recent college graduates, by younger folks puzzling out the ways of the world. Or maybe I’m only a few years away from 50, and still puzzling out mine, thus seeing affinity with them. But I do run across a few complaints about “these Millennials” every now and again; mostly, it seems, from their parents — old fart Baby Boomers who didn’t die before they got old and are fooled quite nicely, thank you — and leftover members of the Silent Generation. They might want to notice this up-and-coming Generation Zed.

My two oldest children were born in 2000 and 2002. The one will be voting this fall. The other will be voting in the 2020 Presidential election.

They aren’t the only ones.

Note these dates: April 20, 1999; December 14, 2012; February 14, 2018. Those are the dates of named school shootings in the United States: Columbine, Sandy Hook, Stoneman Douglas.

The survivors of the latter went to Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., today, where they encountered The System:

The morning began with optimism. It did not last long.

— “Florida Students Began with Optimism. Then They Spoke to Lawmakers“,
The New York Times, February 21, 2018

The 2012 fourth grade class at Sandy Hook will be voting in the 2020 election. Their older siblings will be voting this year. They will be voting because they can. And they’re a bit fed up with the bullshit.

Old enough to fight, old enough to vote.

— slogan advocating a lower voting age.
The 26th Amendment lowering the voting age to 18 was ratified because of Vietnam.

Leftovers

One of the marvels of modern society has been the ability of the packaged food industry to get our children to eat what are, essentially, leftovers.

Campbell’s soup in a can, for example. It’s already cooked. We just heat it up. How is that different from leftovers?

Swanson’s TV dinners: cooked, frozen, just thaw and eat. Leftovers.

Breaded and fried chicken cut into dinosaur shapes? Leftovers.

Chef Boyardee? Delicious! Last night’s pasta? Gross!

It’s a wonder of perception.

Cast Your Eyes Upon the Sky

The room darkened. I stood to turn on the lights. This done, I turned. And looked out the window.

Sunset, February 13, 2018

The Internet samples pretty pictures from others’ lives. Turn your attention to the world, and see the beauty in yours.

Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.
       Nor do we merely feel these essences
For one short hour; no, even as the trees
That whisper round a temple become soon
Dear as the temple’s self, so does the moon,
The passion poesy, glories infinite,
Haunt us till they become a cheering light
Unto our souls, and bound to us so fast,
That, whether there be shine, or gloom o’ercast;
They always must be with us, or we die.
— from “Endymion,” John Keats (1818)

Step Away From the Computer

Nestled among the advertisements for upscale apartments (Enjoy Four Seasons Fort Lauderdale! Only $4,300,000!) in this week’s edition of The New York Times Magazine  is a thoughtful piece by Kyle Chayka not entirely about Roam, a company offering a selection of live-work spaces for the discerning digital nomad: “The World is Your Office.” And this one time I’ll recommend reading the comments, and Mr. Chayka’s thread on the topic over at Twitter. Those certainly are pretty boarding houses and expatriate hotels that Roam offers.

The picture accompanying the essay shows a couple casually lounging outside: a young girl typing on her laptop, beer close to hand; a young man taking a call in his hammock, shielding his eyes from the sun. I’ve explored the limits of placeless work for several years now, since before this always connected century of ubiquitous computing, and one of the as-yet-unsolved technical limitations has been the glare of sunlight. Laptops don’t do well out-of-doors.

You have perhaps noticed this phenomenon while using your phone while driving: your focus shrinks to the size of the screen and the world disappears. My workday is constrained by a 17″ laptop screen, which is a desk just large enough to offer the promise of holding more than one document at a time, but without actually providing room enough. I didn’t quite understand the clamor for larger virtual desktops, but now I desire some way of expanding my peripheral vision, of setting things to the side while I focus on the thing in front of me. Instead, I have a series of distracting context switches, where chatty interruptions eclipse the memory of what I was doing. The world vanishes in a chain of consequences, and I forget to eat lunch. What does it matter then if I’m in Bali or Tokyo or Miami? The work eventually finishes, yes? And then you can go to the beach?

The prospect of working anywhere and anytime is simultaneously appealing and revolting. Appealing to the worker because it cuts away the dreaded commute; appealing to the employer because the pool of labor expands globally: offshoring here we come! Revolting because it never ends. If you can work anywhere, why not everywhere? If anytime, why not all the time? I’ve experienced a bit of this on the train, in the tub, on the toilet, in line for Space Mountain. Some companies adjust the nature of the work to this flexibility. Others try to force some kind of official rigor: work only from the alternate location; work a minimum of 45 hours a week; work between 08:00 and 18:00; do not take company equipment out of the country; do not work from personal equipment; respond to a call within 15 minutes. This is the overseer’s mindset: control the lazy, shiftless, good-for-nothin’ labor. Disrespect is paid in kind.

I’ve fancied the nomadic lifestyle since reading A Walk Across America and Stand on Zanzibar, if not The Rolling Stones. Location-independent work is one reason why I’m in this field, and haven’t seen an office in years. While tinkers and gypsies have gotten short shrift among settled folks, I seem to have developed a romantic image of their life, and a temporary wanderlust does set in now and again. I want a sailboat or an Airstream; I want to ride Amtrak across the country. It competes with a yearning to know a place deeply enough that it is Home. But I suspect I’m more hobbit than wanderer. Perhaps after the children have grown and flown.

Nevertheless, this idea of working while traveling seems to defeat the purpose: Why work from Bali if you’re never there, if you travel the world but never leave the airport? Mr. Chayka recognizes this dilemma in his concluding paragraphs.

You can go anywhere, as long as you never stop working.

Work has come to consume everything in its sheer busyness. Look up from the screen, even if only to look out the window.

By my Window have I for Scenery 
Just a Sea—with a Stem—
If the Bird and the Farmer—deem it a “Pine”—
The Opinion will serve—for them—

The Water the Frog Boils In

The last few days I’ve been watching presentations from LISA and Velocity on the difficulties and rewards of the cultural transformation needed by a lean, agile DevOps practice. It’s pleasant to be reminded of the range of interests of those in this field; I dislike falling into caricature. So while I generally enjoy John Naughton‘s writing in The Guardian, I’ve been bothered by a piece of his from last November on how the technorati don’t fully consider the ethics of what they do – and so implement things like Facebook – but might have if they’d had a more humanist college education.

It never seems to have occurred to them that their advertising engines could also be used to deliver precisely targeted ideological and political messages to voters. Hence the obvious question: how could such smart people be so stupid? The cynical answer is they knew about the potential dark side all along and didn’t care, because to acknowledge it might have undermined the aforementioned licences to print money. Which is another way of saying that most tech leaders are sociopaths. Personally I think that’s unlikely, although among their number are some very peculiar characters: one thinks, for example, of Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel – Trump’s favourite techie; and Travis Kalanick, the founder of Uber.

So what else could explain the astonishing naivety of the tech crowd? My hunch is it has something to do with their educational backgrounds. Take the Google co-founders. Sergey Brin studied mathematics and computer science. His partner, Larry Page, studied engineering and computer science. Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard, where he was studying psychology and computer science, but seems to have been more interested in the latter.

Now mathematics, engineering and computer science are wonderful disciplines – intellectually demanding and fulfilling. And they are economically vital for any advanced society. But mastering them teaches students very little about society or history – or indeed about human nature. As a consequence, the new masters of our universe are people who are essentially only half-educated. They have had no exposure to the humanities or the social sciences, the academic disciplines that aim to provide some understanding of how society works, of history and of the roles that beliefs, philosophies, laws, norms, religion and customs play in the evolution of human culture.

While I agree with a humanist, liberal education, and believe that our secondary and collegiate educational systems are too oriented toward the perceived needs of the workplace, the computer industry in practice attracts a lot of people who did not study computer science: people who were, for example, history majors. Peter Thiel, mentioned above and formerly of PayPal, holds both a B. A. in philosophy and a J. D. from Stanford, with nary a science degree in sight.

Nevertheless, it’s often the case that it is the makers of tools who think deeply about how they used, and those who use them who do not. This is not, of course, to say that everything is rational, or that there aren’t people who act unthinkingly, but engineers do spend a fair amount of time considering the consequences of the latest novelty. Some of them happen to read science fiction — and if there’s been a class of people who has thought long and hard about their tools and their effects on society, it has been the authors and readers of science fiction (and the Amish). So do the fine folks in Marketing, though sometimes it’s hard to tell.

It’s not that there’s no thinking going on, though that’s true in some cases, but that the answers are disagreeable. A more apt politically relevant example, Mencius Moldbug, a computer programmer by trade, has spilled much ink thinking about his place in the world. His work is seminal fluid for the “alt-right.” Perhaps if he were calmly discussing the joy of monarchy on an academic quadrangle surrounded by ivy-clad brick it might be more respectable. Perhaps not; he doesn’t seem interested in the fuzziness of dealing with people. And that is, after all, what the humanities require.

Looking for an explanation for Facebook other than “asshole“?

Try Wall Street or Madison Avenue.

This is a cultural fault. And, as I’ve heard a couple of times the past few days, the real values of a firm are shown by who gets rewarded or let go. Facebook, et al., have been rewarded, handsomely, for doing exactly what it is they are doing. Why should they stop? We have consistently affirmed for some time now that earning a profit by any means necessary is the best and highest purpose of mankind: “Greed is good.”

A culture is defined by what it preserves and what it casts aside. Education talks mostly about HOW to do something, not WHAT to do or WHY. We leave those questions to the wider culture, which, at least at the moment, rewards the pursuit of wealth and power.

Business Ethics

One of the products I worked on at Prodigy was ProdigyBiz, since expired. ProdigyBiz basically sold brochure-ware. You too can have a presence on the Internet! Some of the businesses which bought the product used it. By “use” I mean updated the website with their telephone number and a blurb about their business. But the vast majority didn’t. All they did was pay the monthly charges. I don’t remember exactly when I found this, probably during planning for the termination of the service, but I do remember being shocked and speaking about it to one of the employees from the BizOnThe.Net acquisition. The low usage rate was expected: they sold the product to people they knew wouldn’t use it (which makes this cautionary article somewhat ironic).

But why? Why would you intentionally sell someone something they are never going to use in the first place, at rates that are higher than everywhere else?

Because they could.

They took advantage of ignorance to make the sale, much like Rachel from Card Services, The National Enquirer, or pretty much any nondescript direct mail marketing piece targeted at the elderly. The ProdigyBiz telemarketing effort was not unlike a boiler room, except they did deliver what was promised. So what was wrong with that? It wasn’t Nigerian princes bilking the little old lady from Pasadena out of her life’s savings.

Can I? May I? Must I?

Should I?

Some people are only interested in what they can do, and never ask if they should. Caveat emptorBuyer beware.

Patience, Grasshopper

A little attention goes a long way.

I’ve come to believe that a great deal of unnecessary coercion, what one might call excessive use of force, is directly related to impatience; to a misplaced urgency; to the idea that something must be done now, when I command, not later on its own time. We see this in the daily challenges of parenting, those quotidian sins of our life, beating the weaker as that merciless master the clock beats us: yelling at No. 1 Daughter to get in the car so we get to church — or anywhere – on time; shoving No. 2 Son on the bus every day for the first years of schooling; yelling at No. 2 Daughter to clean her room; throwing No. 2 Son in the water at swim lessons; threatening repercussions if the room is not clean, if the teeth are not brushed, if the music is not practiced, if the homework is not done, if the lights are not off. We see this present systemically, in ever earlier compulsory schooling, for example, with the requirement to read on schedule rather than when the child desires. It’s in our language, when we equate listen with obey, or when we force a plant to bloom.

It backfires. The bed goes unmade. They fail out of college. They stop singing. We express puzzlement and alarm at why a large percentage of adults give up reading when they have the option. The blooms fall off so quickly.

No. 1 Son started a fire on the sidewalk yesterday. He was so proud. He tells me he knows the secret to using flint and steel.

His grandfather has taken an interest in No. 1 Son’s scouting. They go to the meetings together. Each week Pop-Pop helps him with one of the rank requirements. Together they’ve come up with a plan to make Eagle Scout. No. 1 Son set the goal. Pop-Pop encourages and guides him along, helping to shape the vague intention into slow, steady, methodical action.

I sat this morning with No. 2 Son. He gets frustrated quickly with his practice, and angry with anything that isn’t immediately easy. After he calms down, he’ll return to the drums and continue, but it takes some time for his inner John McEnroe to pass. Watching this from behind the safety of my pressing tasks is both frustrating — he’s not getting it done! — and easy for me: the burden is all his.

But this morning I sat with him. I was interested in what he was practicing. I tried to play it. He showed me how to do it. I held the sheet music for him. I listened carefully. I followed along. He played without difficulty or complaint. We enjoyed our thirty minutes together. And then caught up with Ash and his Pokémon.

Such a small thing, attention and time.

A Plague of Locusts

The absurd contempt for life expressed in the apparent lack of concern for the necessities of survival — air, water, food — by the powerful drives me to despair. Either these folks are exceptionally ignorant and obtuse, to think that they are unaffected by poison, or they simply have no thought for the future. To them any really big number is infinite, as if the Earth isn’t a closed system. If there are no immediate consequences for their actions, there are no consequences at all. They do not care.

Who else but alien lizard overlords would place resource extraction above life? Who else would consume everything? Who else would shit where they eat?

We do.

We are the agents of our own demise.

Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things” describes a temporary solace. The first line calls out my pain. I can almost join him in the peace of wild things when I look out the window.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

a view of the snow from my house

Life has a different solution to this problem of reckless endangerment: Death.

An End is a Beginning

Time passes, and I feel a need to catch up with an old familiar friend. Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) passed on the 22nd. I can’t quite recall if I first met Rocannon’s World or A Wizard of Earthsea, though good money would bet on the latter. I imagined I had some other True Name, which seems the fantasy of a young boy. I almost wish I’d kept a diary of what I’d read when, as if these details matter.

Is there a book that changed your life?
Maybe the question should be: Is there a book that didn’t change your life? Reading a book is an experience, and every experience changes your life, a little bit or a lot.

There was this sense in many SF stories of the imminent possibility of a technological utopia, of the Teutonic cleanliness of Werner von Braun‘s space station as drawn by Chesley Bonestell or Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland, if only some minor barriers were removed. But in Le Guin’s work there was always a seed of doubt, the shadow of consequences, most starkly perhaps in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” So it was that when I found myself reading her The Dispossessed (1974) after Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966), an anarchic world seemed realistic, possible, and desirable. One could be comfortable with uncertainty, and with ambiguity.

Always Coming Home1985 was a good year for the apocalypse, what with the Cold War not igniting. But that didn’t stop books like A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) and The Postman (1985) from making an impression. I suppose it was not an accident that I spent almost as much time with Always Coming Home (1985) as I did browsing The Whole Earth Catalog. Luckily the library was generous, and did not mind that I kept renewing the book so I could read it again and listen to the tape. Probably it helped that I didn’t break the spine, or perhaps no one else knew it was there. However it happened, I’m glad. There was hope in it.

 

Solitude, the cover of Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 1993

When I rearranged some things the other day, I found the December 1994 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, featuring “Solitude,” by one Ursula K. Le Guin. Judging from the cover art it must be current; I’ve seen my children in that same posture.

I have only a handful of her works in my collection. Some have left over the years. Mostly it was the public libraries which were responsible for keeping us in touch: My only interaction with Ursula Le Guin was with her words. It’s fitting that she left those behind. I think I’ll go read some now.

Science Fiction was never entirely about The Future

I’ve been reading stories from the November/December 2017 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine that I picked up at Barnes & Noble before Christmas. They seem so immediate. The first I read, “I Met a Traveler in an Antique Land,” by Connie Willis, was a pleasant tale of a new media guru encountering an archive of vanished books. It brought to mind the contrary impulse, regarding the second book of Aristole’s Poetics, in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The second, “The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine,” by Greg Egan, about replacement of people by computers, was more difficult. Because everyone’s only purpose is a job. Not work to do something, not to create anything, not to solve curious puzzles, but a job to be employed by at the will of a mysterious Other, doing things that perhaps shouldn’t be done, occupation for idle hands, without meaning, only for money. Because without money we can’t buy; we can’t live.

Exploring this relationship between man and his work, between humanity and its creations, has been a common thread of inquiry for a long time now: Daedalus and Icarus; FrankensteinR.U.R.; I, Robot; The Silver Metal Lover.

I did finish the story. The solution it suggests is only slightly better than the Matrix.

The Browser History Fell Through a Memory Hole in my Pocket

If not careful, the brogrammers responsible for the attention deficit economy and big data collection will find their work has gone the way of interactive television. People use tools because they are — wait for it — useful.

You’re not the customer; you’re the product.

A web browser keeps, or kept, a history of where the user has browsed, what sites he’s visited, pages he’s read, where he’s been. It uses this information in the back button, but it’s also exposed as a list. The user can, more generally, retrace his steps. Additional windows and tabs in the browser interface led to discontinuities in the history, so while browsers still send referrers, they are, for the most part, lost to the user.

As my habits have shifted from a desktop to a pocket computer, I’ve noticed a key missing feature. Where has view source gone? And with my time being spent in specialized “apps” that are really just handicapped web browsers, an annoying behavior of iPhone memory management has me poking around Medium‘s and The Guardian‘s apps for something that should be there but isn’t: my reading history.

iOS has made what I consider odd design decisions, some of which have bled over to MacOS. (And speaking of questionable design decisions, that lowercase m I just didn’t use.) It assumes a well-connected network, values currency, and behaves as though local memory, storage, and power are tightly constrained. (The latter is a hoot considering how many years location services — and valuing currency — have been draining batteries.) In practice this means that if you leave an app for a minutes or seconds, say to check an incoming text, the app throws away its state and you lose your place.

Started that long think-piece on Medium on something dreadfully pressing, but it’s time to make dinner so you’ll get back to it later, where later is tomorrow or next week because life is like that? In the middle of cooking a new dish and scrolling along through a recipe as you add ingredients, then your mother calls, the page reloads, and now you’re confronted with adding another tablespoon of ghost pepper or none at all? That YouTube video you were meaning to finish watching later? Yeah, it’s disappeared. But, well, at least you can look for it in the vast store of clicks that Google has on you: you can see what was captured.

Safari will reveal your history. But Medium doesn’t. Facebook doesn’t. Twitter doesn’t. Other apps don’t. They haven’t been that considerate. It’s pretty obvious all these folks know exactly what I’m reading and watching and listening to, when, and for how long. They use that data to serve up recommended fodder, advertisements for my attention. But there’s no courtesy of a reach-around. No trail of breadcrumbs for me to follow back out of this dungeon to what led me here in the first place.

If you want to continue the data harvest, it’s necessary to feed the cattle.

Observations on Compulsory Schooling

Walking back from the bus stop, No. 2 Son, who is only just 10, looked thoughtful. A few steps later, he remarked, “School is slavery.”

“It isn’t,” I replied.

“School is like slavery.”

“How so?”

“You are ripped away from your family.”

“But at the end of the school day you come home.”

“That’s true.”

He turned to his friends who were walking alongside: “School is like prison.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“You are forced to go there and you cannot leave.”

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.