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—

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.

 

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 the Scriptorium

Only try to do it yourself and you will learn how arduous is the writer’s task. It dims your eyes, makes your back ache, and knits your chest and belly together. It is a terrible ordeal for the whole body.[*]

I sit hunched over the keyboard or this book. That is how I sit: hunched. My head dipped toward the surface, back arched, lungs squeezed against my stomach — my body changing to fit my tools. This way I can see what I’m doing. Or I could lean far back and look through glass. There’s no in-between. Helpful eyes, these.

Outside it is grey, low clouds, fog on the hills, a thin rain. Inside, darker still. I can hear the crows. I associate this time of year with Medieval Europe for some reason. Must be the weather. I’ve enhanced the mood with candle, incense, and Anonymous Four.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Norway’s SlowTV film of the Bergen to Oslo railway is beautiful and deeply moving: nostalgic. Though I’ve never been to Norway, I’ve ridden trains. While I can count long train rides on my hands, my time commuting on MetroNorth Rail-Road, the New York City subway, and the London Underground are some of my favorite memories. I looked forward to riding the train. One year my commute passed through Penn Station. A ticket on the next train out of New York beckoned me to buy one and go.

I’ve started working with the movie in the background. The rhythmic rumble, the occasional announcements, are soothing. I tricked myself into thinking I’m working in the cafe car. Now and again I look up and out at the fjords.

One of the wonderful aspects of system administration, or DevOps as the kids call it these days, was that much of the work can be done anywhere there’s an Internet connection. This begins to pale as a wonderful aspect when anywhere is restricted to just another grey cubicle in a sea of grey cubicles, and pales to insignificance when anywhere becomes only your bedroom, and the few minutes you see other people is at the school bus stop. All of your friendships and conversations become virtual — which is just the thing you once desired so much. What offered the promise of working anywhere became working nowhere. Meanwhile, the world of IT operations long ago realized that if the work could be done from anywhere, then it could just as easily be done from India or Slovenia as from New Jersey, so while BigCo real estate operations were trying to lower costs by reducing the office footprint and exploring telecommuting, other folks at BigCo were looking at ways to get rid of people entirely, not by replacing by replacing them with machines (automating or optimizing processes), but with cheaper labor from elsewhere. Costs were reduced, one assumes, not through efficiency and gains in productivity, but through the illusion of arbitraging regional differences in the cost of labor.

Cleaning my library, I ran across an N-scale model railroad that I’ve carried with me from house to house. If memory serves, it last ran in Loveland, Ohio. I may have been 12. Our youngest, 8, put it together last year, but couldn’t resolve an electrical problem, so it went back in the box. He likes to build with Legos, so this Christmas I gave him a Lego train. We need more track.

I stopped working in New York for moments with my children. Our first child would be asleep by the time I got home, and not yet awake when I left. Taking employment nearby meant I could see my family for breakfast and dinner, and sometimes lunch. There was a trade-off, of course: no more trains, for one.

Each place I’ve worked has had its own atmosphere, its own odor. A new cat came to live with us last year and the adjustment has been, shall we say, complex. So I am in the process of ripping out all the wall-to-wall carpeting and replacing it with something urine-proof. In the meantime, I’m sleeping in the library. There is something so cozy to be surrounded by one’s books. Sometimes I lie awake just staring at all the friends I’ve made and places I’ve been.

Each place I’ve worked has had its own character, its own people. This place here has cats and on occasion small children. One of my first employments was as a clerk at a Standard Drug in Richmond, Virginia. There were just a handful of us on staff: the pharmacist and his assistant, the store manager, another clerk, and me. I did not deal much with the pharmacists other than to pass prescriptions to them, so I only have a faint impression of them. The manager was in his 40s, perhaps older, with glasses, a scraggly beard, and bad teeth: probably a lot like how I look now, except for the teeth. The other clerk spent his days stoned. That summer my brother and I lived with Grandmother; we were expected home for dinner by 5:30. Dinner was always at 5:30. I would walk down the road to the Henrico Public Library branch, if books were needed, then make it back to Grandmother’s for dinner. Late nights I spent with Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Turner Classic Movies. It wasn’t until after I graduated from college that I made real friends at work, or was even interested in doing so. And then I found peculiar characters, colleagues, kindred spirits, and friends.

Working from a coffee shop is a great way to observe a bunch of characters while you work, if you pick the right shop. But you can get trapped just watching everything transient. Much better is the cafe car on a long-distance train or the counter at an all-night diner. People seeking people come and sit there, often drinking, sometimes working, sometimes holding forth, sometimes playing cards.

It is easier to build team spirit on a virtual team than to address alienation. We coalesce around our shared goals, tasks, and complaints quite easily. Interpersonal problems do arise, if not everyone is working at their best, which can require a chat, perhaps the resetting of expectations, but my experience has been that the team wants to work as a team: no one wants to let another down, and quite willingly picks up work that another has dropped. They almost have a common enemy in their employer — not in the competition as one might expect — which is not for the best, but suffices.

Where did we get this idea of work-life balance, that work and life were separate? Did we not realize that by putting work in opposition to life that we’ve aligned it with death? Or was that an intentional recognition that in some respects our way of working is not living, but a kind of zombie existence?

We forget sometimes that a lot of life is constructed around us by society, and when we’re cut off we do not know how to build it back. One of my great failures as a manager was [name redacted], who was a very talented employee, supremely dedicated to his work — until one day it all went to hell. No one else worked near him, or talked to him on a regular basis, so no one knew what was happening until he just stopped. He gave up fighting. As Peter Gibbons puts it in Office Space, “I’m just not gonna go.” The bullshit defeated him. Like the rest of us, he’d been working essentially by himself from home for some time.

I haven’t figured out how to fix this, yet. But it seems to me that the key might be have meaningful work in the first place; nip this problem in the bud.

Cul de sac

I have to say that I was way ahead of the prediction curve on this, partly through desire and partly because it’s pretty fucking obvious just from looking at commute times that the ever-expanding suburb is an evolutionary dead-end. It will become a city or the people will move out. The people moving out is happening faster.

I’d been remarking on this verbally since at least 2001, but wrote it down in 2006. Meanwhile, I listened to my wife’s heart’s desire and bought this house instead.*

However, one must note that a finer analysis of the data needs to be done to see if there’s a comparable shuffle along the suburban-exurban-rural gradient toward locally urban areas, not just the larger cities. I suspect there is.

So, you ask, where do I recommend anyone buy in Dutchess County? Well, first I recommend you buy *my* house, but if you’re not that kind of buyer, look at the following, depending on where you work.

  • Beacon, city of
  • Poughkeepsie, city of
  • Pawling, village of
  • Rhinebeck/Rhinecliff, villages of
  • Millbrook, village of
  • Millerton, village of

There are other rather compact villages, but they don’t offer the amenities of those. You’ll have to travel a bit to find some items, or have them shipped to you. But if you don’t mind, try in no particular order

  • Amenia
  • Dover Plains
  • Tivoli
  • Red Hook
  • Staatsburg
  • Hyde Park

Unfortunately, new housing stock is still being built in wide-open green spaces, and turnover in the smaller villages is slight. Best bets are Beacon and Poughkeepsie. Not only are there more properties for sale in those cities, but the prices there are lower due to racial and wealth discrimination, and “concerns” about the school systems.

Continue reading “Cul de sac”

Rose Hill

I should probably return to Rose Hill for a visit, but I fear I will be saddened if I do.

In the Spring 2009 issue of FORDHAM magazine, the University presented sketches of construction started on the Rose Hill campus, and planned for Lincoln Center (c.f. Curbed.)

I suppose that Sasaki has tried their best with the residence halls and McGinley replacement to reflect the Gothic Revival architecture that made Rose Hill so striking, but it doesn’t seem so from the pictures. They could still be an improvement over some of the more modern facilities, McGinley and Mulcahy in particular — or not.

I will not be contributing anything to the fund drive for this. But we might park in the college’s lot if we visit the Botanical Garden.

(By the way, I find it odd that Pei Cobb Freed & Partners chose music from The Mission for the promotional video for their Lincoln Center plans.)

The Cooper Union demonstrates that the reality rarely matches the promise

A while back I expressed some trepidation regarding the Cooper Union’s trendy new building. Well, they’ve finished constructing it, and they’ve exceeded my expectations dramatically.

It’s even uglier than I expected.

But what I find most amusing is that the glistening outer shell in the sales brochure architectural elevation drawings doesn’t glisten.

Before:

After:

Ha!

These videos from WABC and WCBS give a sense of being in the building.

Ugh

I was just looking for Sam Waterston’s reading of Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech. What I found was a picture of the Cooper Union’s new academic building.

Architects these days. There are images of the interiors which are even more disturbing. This is an environment expected to be conducive to learning? I’m dizzy just looking at the pictures.

At least it seems to fit into the block. Thank God that [t]he zoning envelope proscribes the kind of exuberant challenge to the grid that the institutional personality of Cooper Union would seem to demand. The best thing I can say about the building is that it looks like it has the potential to engage the street. Why, I wonder, did the architect not echo the exterior of the Cooper Union if his whimsy was forced inward by the zoning code? Is it too much to ask for right angles?

Scooters

This morning I heard a piece on the radio about scooter sales in New York City. One of the comments piqued my interest.

[The owner of Vespa SoHo, Zachary] Schieffelin says he hopes this means New York will start to look more like London or Rome — the streets buzzing with as many scooters as cars.

Europe has had high fuel prices since the end of WWII. I would suspect that this has contributed as much to scooter use as have the older shapes of the cities — more like New York than Los Angeles — if not more so, particularly as the European cities have become more automobile-oriented.

No Patina

Catesby Leigh writes in the City Journal,

Modernist buildings, whether clad in glass or not, simply aren’t built to age gracefully—not only because of the way they’re constructed, but also because they aren’t designed to be loved. They are either commercially expedient products of the consumer culture or, less often, expensively histrionic but ultimately ephemeral fashion statements of the sort that Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel concoct.

And that, my friends, is my main gripe with Modernist architecture. It’s ugly, and gets uglier.

Snow Days at Google

Avinash Kaushik posted a list of ten things to envy about working at Google, which are, oddly enough, similar to the reasons Joel Spolsky says I would love being a sysadmin at Fog Creek. Both companies place a lot of emphasis on working together, that is, in the same place. One works at, not for, Google.

It’s a wet, slushy day out today. I can understand that such weather might be unfamiliar at Google headquarters, though Google London might have some experience of it. I’m working at home today. What I’d like to know is what Google does in situations where the people can’t come to the Googleplex to work. I have no doubt that they have no software limitations on where they work, but it seems that locality is essential to the nature of Google.

Do y’all take a snow day?

What Lies Under the Blank Slate?

We moved the spare television, necessary because our primary unit is a Philips, from the basement to the bedroom. That was a dumb idea; there’s no TiVo up there. Anyway, I was flipping through the channels — who does that? — and landed on Charlie Rose talking with some guy who was very enthusiastic about what he is building in China. Apparently it’s not every day that you get to “build a city inside a city.” It’s just easier in some countries.

The interview is interesting, but I certainly hope his buildings are better built than his website.