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.

Wonder

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

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

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

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

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

 

Need-Blind

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

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

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

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

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

Short Circuit

This.

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

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

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

If you practice.

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

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

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

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

More Books Than Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Library Hazards

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

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

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

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

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

My Country’s Skies

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

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

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

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