Connectivity

Respect for others’ time is difficult when you cannot see them. The telephone interrupts dinner, church, conversations. The burden of ignoring the interruption placed on the recipient no matter how respectful the caller intended to be. Social cues are missing.

The same for e-mail, or instant messaging, or the apps on that phone in our pocket.

The things that connect us disconnect us.

Sabbathday

Sun shining over the hill and through my window, slowly climbs down the wall. The calico sleeps and purrs after breakfast, half on the book I was reading. There’s a feeling of possibility.

This spaciousness and calm I miss during the week. In conversation with Joan Halifax, Krista Tippett remarked, “We experience time as such a bully.” The clock, she meant, the calendar; how we use our days against ourselves, letting them be so demanding, a treadmill.

Which bird sings outside his courtship song? Sparrow, cardinal, chickadee? Titmouse?

I am so ignorant of so much in this world.

Woke Up This Morning

Starting the morning with a poem is, oddly, a practice that hadn’t occurred to me until listening to Krista Tippett’s conversation with Naomi Shihab Nye: Your Life is a Poem. No. 1 Daughter, around the time she became the Big Sister, wrote “pomes” she would carry around the house in her pocket. I wonder if she still does.

Today’s offering from the American Academy of Poets is Jenny Xie‘s “To Be a Good Buddhist Is Ensnarement.”


The Zen priest says I am everything I am not.
In order to stop resisting, I must not attempt to stop resisting.
I must believe there is no need to believe in thoughts.
Oblivious to appetites that appear to be exits, and also entrances.
What is there to hoard when the worldly realm has no permanent vacancies?
Ten years I’ve taken to this mind fasting.
My shadow these days is bare.
It drives a stranger, a good fool.
Nothing can surprise.
Clarity is just questioning having eaten its fill.

Jenny Xie, “To Be a Good Buddhist is Ensnarement” (2018)

The War on Terror

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

What are arms?

An intercontinental ballistic missile? A tactical nuclear device? A MiG-29? A tank? A Gatling gun? Chlorine? Ammonium nitrate? A sword? Any blade longer than three inches? A penknife? Knitting needles? Tweezers? Shoes? A stick? My hands?

What does it mean to keep and to bear?

There have been some laws made on this subject since 1791. There have even been discussions about the placement of the commas.

Let’s imagine for the moment that the Second Amendment is plain on its face, and that Congress, and, by way of the 14th, the several States, shall make no law concerning the simple possession of a weapon.

Let’s make this assumption because otherwise everyone just shouts past each other. Fear and shouting among the populace is all well and good if one’s intent is to retain power, but it doesn’t address difficulties surrounding the use of weapons.

How else, other than by forbidding possession of weaponry, might one address the fears expressed by the citizenry?

Because there is no doubt they are afraid. Parents are afraid their children will die in school. Children are afraid that they will die in school. And fear is one of the defining reasons why one has a weapon.

Let’s not amplify those fears.

Because we are afraid, we want to prevent Bad Things from happening. We want assurances that nothing will go wrong, that no one will die. Unfortunately, those are not assurances that can be made. Everyone dies. Media vita in morte sumus, etc.

Let’s not discuss prevention. That way lies pre-crime. While prevention is exactly what we want, it is imaginary. The aforementioned fact of life, and the rules of the game, which preclude certain actions and insist that one be punished only for what one has done not what one intends, stand in the way. For good reason. Jesus may say,

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. [Matthew 5:21–22 (ESV)]

But we are not omniscient. We are fallible.

Let’s discuss risk reduction.

Perhaps it would help to ask different questions. What might reduce the probability of murder? What might reduce the probability of accidental death?

To answer these, it would help to know the cause.

In the case of murder and suicide, the weapon is a means to an end. The choice of weapon is often a matter of convenience. In America, guns are convenient. The kill decision is made by a human. Why? Because it was Monday? One interesting thing that’s been discovered in recent years is that math describing epidemics can also be used to describe violent crime: murders behave as if they are contagious. Mass murders, whether in one event or a series, are generally thought to result from a disconnect from society. Why? Violent crime is strongly correlated with young men. Why? Violent crime is correlated with a disproportionate allocation of sexual partners. Why? Men commit most intimate partner violence. Why?

In the case of accidents, there is no intent; the weapon is the cause, and risk reduction is related to training, handling requirements, liability insurance, and torts.

Accidental gun-related deaths are easy to address. Start there.

You can have the gun. But you are liable for the consequences of its use.

This is a different discussion than in other countries because the Second Amendment removes the obvious remediation from discussion. One cannot simply take away the child’s toy. Work within that limit. What sort of creative solutions to the actual problems–murder and suicide–can be found?

Apt

Courtesy of her grandfather on her mother’s side, No. 1 Daughter took the aptitude tests offered by the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation. We accompanied her to New York City this past weekend to discuss the results. I’ve not done any research in the area, but my opinion, having suffered other aptitude and personality tests, and the daily horoscope, is that they have some usefulness as descriptive tools, but little to offer in the way of prescription. Since they intend to sample her aptitudes every five years, I’m intrigued about what, if anything, this will show.

Imagine my total lack of surprise then when they confirmed what I already thought: she’s just like her father.

Or, as they put it, a diagnostic generalist.

She scored in the 70th percentile on the inductive reasoning test, and in the 99th percentile on the foresight and analytical reasoning tests. They group personalities by word association and call her “objective.” There are longer descriptions of each aptitude in their book.

We believe that those who [score high on Analytical Reasoning] are “born organizers” who tend to enjoy the process of shuffling concepts into place, classifying data, and creating systems.

A high score on our Inductive Reasoning test suggests that you have the ability to think diagnostically, rapidly evaluate situation or data, and quickly solve problems.

Scoring Objective on our Word Association test suggests that you would tend to prefer working with and through others to accomplish a variety of tasks. …[And] tend to be generalists who like to be involved with multiple aspects of a project, assignment, or team.

It was an annoyance when one of my sisters had everyone take the Enneagram a couple of decades ago, but I can understand the impulse: I wonder how the tests would describe the rest of my family. We do all insist that there’s a correct way to load the dishwasher.

Member Since 1994

One does not simply passively consume the Internet–though small children with YouTube on auto-play might. It is not broadcast, or even interactive, television: the Internet is a many-pronged communications platform, a universe of ends. Its killer application was e-mail (and USENET and IRC and FTP and gopher and) then the World Wide Web. The web took off, not because of streaming music or video, but because anyone could share anything with anyone else. The utility of each of these tools–news, mail, chat, bulletin boards, blogs–was degraded by spam, aggressive advertising, untrustworthy and undesirable content. By undesirable I don’t mean in a general sense, as one might mean in talking about pornography and its effect on society, but in the particular: individual recipients did not want it.

But we keep using these tools because we are gregarious, social animals who want to connect with each other.

I would share books and articles with friends and family even before the Internet. Look at this: I read this thing you would like. I did the same online, sending links to others in chat and e-mail, sometimes with comments, then later sharing with and connecting to a wider world by posting to my website, frequently, with Radio Userland and syndicating with RSS and Atom. Those early blogging days were heady, just as the early online chat, news, and e-mail days were. Everyone knew everyone else. There were scaling issues, and personality conflicts, and tools changed. And comment spam and trolls became a problem. Is the FOAF application of RDF still a thing? The Semantic Web?

And then there was Facebook.

Facebook was not the first social network, but it was the one my IRL friends and family joined. Facebook offered a way to reconnect with people I hadn’t yet found online and, more particularly, opened a path to conversation with them. We could share things we thought interesting and discuss them.

A lot of the utility of Facebook was driven by the desolation elsewhere on the web, which had become a desert filled with blipverts, billboards, and trolls desperately grasping for you and your attention–and still is if you travel without an ad blocker. The usefulness of Facebook has diminished over time, but the same basic draw is still there: my friends, the people I know and to whom I want to stay connected.

It’s the same reason I have a phone.

Some have called relationships on Facebook a facade of a community. That depends on how you use it. It can be either. It is an attempt to reproduce something we miss: A village, a neighborhood, a college, a pub. A great Third Place.

Can it be if the host is a Ferengi, and you are not his customers?

Escapism

I have not been bored since I learned to read. I would read anything and everything; and what with the public libraries and my family’s collection, I didn’t often run out of material. Unless there was a planning failure. If I forgot to stick a book in my pocket. Did you know other houses don’t have as many books? Did you know some have none?

Ours was a household of readers. We didn’t have a television until after I was the fourth grade, and that was a small black-and-white set kept in the spare room. Later, someone in the congregation gave us a cast-off color TV just before we moved back to Virginia. (My own sons are now that age. Time moved so slowly for me then.) I have few childhood memories of television shows; most are of books and places and playing. My grandparents’ houses were defined by smells and their libraries: brick, boxwood, and Classics Illustrated on Mom’s side; apples, bread, mathematics, photographs, and genealogy on Dad’s.

I would sit for hours and read, so deep in concentration that I couldn’t hear the world outside. Reading filled all the gaps in the day: walking down the street, sitting on the toilet, riding in the car, between classes. Still now when I finish a book I immediately look around for something else.

I’ve noticed that I have a habit of doing something similar with other entertainments–grasping for the next movie, the next update, the next web page–until there are too many things all at once, pulling in a multitude of directions, and I feel torn limb from limb. I stay up late restless, unsleeping, unthinking.

What am I not doing?

The Annual Rant About Daylight Time

Imagine the ridiculous conceit that the sun would change its place in the heavens or the earth pause in its rotations because some men in Detroit were unable to do the math necessary to talk with their business partners in Boston and New York, after the telegraph and telephone made that even possible. Or the perhaps more ridiculous thought that the better way to have “more” daylight after work is to move the hands of the clock to trick us into starting work earlier rather than, oh, I dunno, working less. These conceits function reasonably well, for some definitions of well that include its opposite, because the clock is, in these cases, providing less a means of measurement than a means of coordination.

The clock no longer describes the relation of the sun to a given point on the earth, and hasn’t since the invention of Standard Time, yet we insist on maintaining the fiction that it does, despite periodic affirmation to the contrary. We have, for the most part, given up attempting to attend to our circadian rhythms. We have, for the most part, surrendered control to our devices. The clock tells us when to rise, when to work, when to eat, when to study, and when to stop. Electric light provides the illusion of daylight, and our buildings — malls, offices, and factories — hide the sun to disguise the passing of time. The information age hasn’t changed these industrial habits, but made them worse: computers have no need for the Vitamin D, and we’ve adapted to their dim screens by staying inside so that we might see the moving pictures. Even cows stay indoors all day, lit by artificial suns, for convenient milking on schedule.

All of which makes the biannual altering of the clocks even more nonsensical than it was to start.

This weekend I was awakened just after falling asleep because someone couldn’t deduce the problem from the messages logged by their application telling them explicitly what the problem was. One of the ordering systems sets a default future due date six hours ahead of the order placement date, so every year, because timezone math is annoying, from 20:00 to 21:00, the damn system throws an exception because there is no time between 02:00 and 03:00. And this problem only exists because the computers are using America/Dallas, because that’s where the corporate headquarters are. Nor did it occur to anyone that a due date when people tend to be sleeping might be problematic.

Just pick something and stick with it. Using Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) for the whole Earth would seem a reasonable basis for discussion. It’s not like we’ll ever visit the moon or Mars any time soon.

Shut Up and Sit Down

The Arlington (NY) Central School District, after declaring a snow day because it was snowy, sent parents a note regarding the possibility of intentional student absences on two days in particular: walkouts are planned for March 14 and April 20. The organizers * of the local events know that civil disobedience bears accepting the consequences. The district is compelled by law, if not inclination, to ensure that there are consequences, and thus threatens both students and parents. None of this language is new:

As on a normal day of school, students will not be permitted to leave any school building without prior parent written permission. Written parent permission for reasons other than sickness, family sickness, death in the family, required court appearance, doctors appointment, religious observance, impassable roads, quarantine, military obligation, or counselor endorsed college visits will be designated as an illegal absence. Students leaving school without prior parent permission will be considered truant and may face disciplinary consequences based on the Code of Conduct.

The original sin of compulsory schooling rears its ugly head.

The student is compelled to attend to instruction (translation: go to class). Failure to attend is considered interference with instruction — one’s own — even if there is no other disruption of the classroom. It’s certainly insubordination. It’s defined as such in the district’s Code of Conduct:

Students may be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including suspension from school, when they: … Engage in conduct that is insubordinate. Examples of insubordinate conduct include but are not limited to the following: … Lateness for school or class, missing school or class, or leaving school or class without permission. [emphasis mine]

This is a district which has responded to the difficulties of an intentionally large high school as a problem of crowd control: by requiring permission slips for everything, including using the bathroom, visiting the library, or going to one’s locker during lunch. Such small daily reminders that you are powerless. But don’t worry; we have support available if you feel like you don’t belong.

They try, at least.

One can tell that they do care, and that thoughtful consideration is given to the whole student. They are well aware of the risks of mental stresses on school safety, for example. The rules are not in place just for the sake of having rules. It’s even possible that the indignity of permission slips is imposed from above, that the administration is as much a victim of the system as the students are, and are doing the best they can in the circumstances. The walkout organizers have met with the principal, and have a cordial, sympathetic relationship. Both parties understand the house of cards depends on compliance.

Yet following procedures hasn’t worked to get the legislatures to discuss their concerns, much less address them. Writing letters to the editor, or to Congress, or calling or visiting the offices of their legislators has had no effect. What else can they do? Wait to die?

A walkout is quite clearly against the rules. It is quite clearly disobedience. It is quite clearly insubordinate behavior. And the administration must, quite clearly, punish it. They have no choice.

Unless they permit it.

Colleges, meanwhile, quite clearly approve:

The history of our nation is replete with examples of movements that began with a few voices that became many, and that have resulted in lasting change. Vassar will not penalize you for raising your voice in peaceful protest, and for upholding the values about which you feel passionately. To the contrary, as high school students across the country have organized authentic, meaningful protests, we at Vassar have been proud.

This conflict strikes at the heart of the role of schools, particularly the high school, in American society. While the school is ostensibly there for academic pursuits, and declares its mission to be humanity, we’re reminded that their primary objective is obedience.

The Arlington Central School District mission is to empower all students to be self-directed, lifelong learners, who willingly contribute to their community, and lead passionate, purposeful lives. [emphasis mine]

And color within the lines.

Obey. It’s the American Way.


* I should note here that No. 1 Daughter is the leader of this crowd of hooligans.

Belonging

Schools are some of my favorite places in the world. Were I to rank the pleasures in my life, they would be there with libraries, forests, and the quiet of an old church. Something of the smell of reheated surplus cheese and frozen foods drags me back to the glory days of my childhood. Even during the horrible high school years, I belonged in a school if not with those particular kids: college was a wonderland. And I still want to teach social studies.

After Sandy Hook, our neighbors clamoured for our district to do something, anything, in response. They did. They instituted exactly the same precautions already in place at Sandy Hook Elementary the day Adam Lanza came to class. Now when I pick up my children from school, or come as the Mystery Reader, I don’t belong there. I’m an outsider unless in a crowd. Best I should leave the way I came.

There’s some talk of additional measures to have the schools resemble even more a fortress, a factory, a psychiatric hospital, a prison. This seems to me counterproductive. The impulse to be wary, to hold potential threats at a distance, is strong, instinctive. But exactly the opposite of what is required.

Another thing these shooters had in common was they did not belong. While not necessarily outcast, they lived on the outskirts of society. It’s easy to lose someone on the edges or in the cracks. It’s also easy to see him as the other and for him* to respond in kind.

Further barriers between us will only enhance the loneliness, will only set us apart from each other, will only add yet another brick in the wall and tear to the fabric of a society already rent by powerlessness and despair. A community is not built by pep rallies and slogans, but painstakingly, one welcoming smile at a time. We know this: we gather round each other for comfort in times of sadness and fear.

We must open our arms, embrace the least of these our brothers, and find strength in belonging together.

Before we too are outside in the dark.


* Brenda Ann Spencer is the exception that proves the rule.

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.