Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A loose theme post about the letters "C" and "S"

C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, set out what he believed to be the core, essential beliefs of the faith; that is, he tried to define it simply in the face of many competing and complicated denominational beliefs of his day (which still persist; there's probably been some convergence since then, but you probably shouldn't be taking an atheist's word for that). In computer programming, which is what most C. S. majors spend most of their time doing (whether or not that's what they should be doing) about half of all code written involves data definition. And when I rant (in this blog and elsewhere) I often rant about consumerism, careerism and technological modernism. I have specific definitions in mind when I talk about these things that try to be simple and get to the core of these things, hopefully free of value judgments and vague fears, because neither of those things lead me to understanding, but certainly not free of zany sexual metaphors, because those do lead me to understanding. So here are some definitions, rants, and zany sexual metaphors.

Mere Consumerism: The belief that consumption will improve one's life.

I think that one is pretty obvious. We often act in society by producing, providing, or by consuming, using. We have to do both to stay alive. Those of us that stay alive by eating food are consumerists in that respect, at least. I enjoy eating quite a lot (to paraphrase Maude Lebowski, in full mid-Atlantic-accent glory, It's a myth about vegetarians, that we hate food. It can be a natural, zesty enterprise...), and frequently improve my day by cooking up some stuff and eating it. Expand this idea to many things; even those of us that decry the crass conspicuous consumption of the MagMile (and the corresponding blocks of State and Rush streets that seem to have avoided becoming the symbol that North Michigan has) enjoy consumption of some things unless we just hate our lives completely (not as ludicrous as it sounds; talk to me on a bad day).

(personal opinion) One of the main goals of marketers is to convince people that by consuming something specific they can improve their lives, or that certain kinds of consumption are necessary. It's probably a good idea to ignore them most of the time, if you want to keep sane.

Mere Careerism: The belief that a career is the central work of one's life.

Here, I mean career as the progression (loaded term alert) up the career ladder (loaded term alert) of one or several businesses. So let's get past these loaded terms, and to the basics. In capitalism money represents agency. If you have cash in your hand you can get stuff. This is abstracted to credits (someone, perhaps a bank, is obligated to give you money, and thus this kind of agency, if you ask) and debts (some time in the future you're obligated to fork over some cash). In this basic framework, as a worker becomes more familiar with and more skilled in the operations of a company or industry that worker's efforts become more valuable to employers, who will pay the worker more money to keep that work up. Through this process the worker should gain more power. The more money zie's got the less zie needs to work and easier zie can walk away, or dictate demands to an employer that depends on hir.

(this paragraph is personal opinion) However, employers try to make workers feel more loyal to the company as they continue to work. Among people that tend towards loyalty and selflessness in general this can be dangerous: they'll do what they're asked and not demand what they can, while their employers will cynically try to get every last hour out of them. I believe in saving loyalty for friends and selflessness for humanity. When a career's progression reduces agency instead of promoting it that career may need to be re-evaluated (certainly sometimes trade-offs between the present and future can be made, but there are some things that, once traded away, can never be fully regained). The career is only a construction, and one that mostly serves employers.

Technological Modernism: The belief that technology will save us.

Modernism is all about a narrative of progress. The present is better than the past and the future will be even better. Technology is, widely defined, the work of humanity. The Ultimate Problem: In the cosmically puny span of time we call recorded history populations have grown exponentially and thus consumption and exploitation of Earth's resources have grown exponentially. The Earth is just one rock! Someday we'll overcome its ability to sustain us, and we'll go extinct! That is, you might metaphorically look at human progress like a great inverse pyramid. It's a building, with its foundations in the earth, but each floor is wider than the one below it. Every time in recorded history that the highest floor has been too small we've built another, bigger one on top. But we've also kept drilling farther into the ground below. Won't someday the tower just tip over, or become so large that it destroys the earth that sustains it?

The techogist says that the tower won't tip, because we've built some truly amazing gyroscopic balancing systems. And, "destroy" the earth? That's just a loaded term! In fact, this is what's most truly exciting to such a chap, and the reason I've called hir a technogist. A technogist believes in technogism (shortening of Technological Modernism), whose ultimate goal is THE TECHNOGASM. That is, the technological singularity. The moment that technology transcends nature and no longer depends on it; the moment that the human mind, that which in our present day we struggle to even define, escapes completely the need for the body. This is how the technogist believe that technology will continue to save us forever. This is what the Arcade Fire song My Body Is A Cage is about (haha, I wish... remind me not to ever tell you about my overwrought interpretations of every single song on their album Neon Bible).

(in this paragraph I exploit my new and silly metaphor to say old and silly things) If you still think that technogasm is a myth, that's clearly because you're technically inadequate. All artists and philosophers are fools. To make art, or to philosophize, is to jump into bed thinking only of foreplay; truly, all of the bed-jumping of human creation is to the ultimate end of THE TECHNOGASM!

Alright, that's enough of that. A technogist might say that improvements in technology continue to bring more goodness to more people using less resources than ever. A non-technogist might counter with some examples. Most modern cars get gas mileage no better than a Model T, because the improvements in engine efficiency and aerodynamics have been offset by increased weight, feature bloat, and foolish consumer demand for high performance. Minimum recommended computer power supply wattages go up every year, not down. I have a computer with 80 times the processor speed and 64 times the RAM of one that I had 10 years ago and (no) thanks to (the tripe known as) Web 2.0 the interfaces I use to check my email and write my blog are actually less responsive than those I used for similar tasks 10 years ago.


Thursday, December 6, 2007

Office Personalization

The workspace pictures in a recent post by Danielle on the Team BIOMASS blog (see the workspace pictures at the bottom) led me to think about office personalization a bit. I never have customized my work-spaces to a large degree, and I especially haven't put a lot of effort into "nesting", making my office a home (one might say that I've never put much effort into making my home a home either, but that's beside the point). When I worked at Nvidia it was a standard cube-farm, from the CEO down to the new guys like myself. Some people had computer hardware occupying all their shelving and stacked precariously up to the top of their cube walls. Others had varying degrees of personal decoration: miniature models of dinosaur skeletons or airplanes hanging from the ceiling, pyramids of soda cans, fish tanks. A few people had books. The most significant thing I did in this vein was draw maps on my dry-erase board (the longest-standing and most detailed was my map of Chicago's freeway system, but I also drew maps of Elmhurst, Paxton, Champaign-Urbana, Bay-Area cycling routes, and a few diagrams of highway interchanges). I and several others in my group also constructed more outward displays, and manipulated others' cubes, but I'm talking here about "nesting", not low art.

Because my group wasn't working on graphics, and the features we developed were unknown to the marketing department and to most of our customers, we didn't have walls filled with bright posters and press releases trumpeting our work achievements. So the decorations of our little neighborhood were naturally more drab and sparse, but probably more personally substantial, than those of many others. It's probably also more typical of what cube farms look like in most industries less "fashion-like" than consumer computer hardware (this post goes briefly into why the tech industry is fashion-like; I explained this to some co-workers at Nvidia and they largely agreed, so this one isn't just me being a weirdo... that said, none of the people involved know anything about fashion, so we may mis-characterize it).

Anyhow, now I work at Mintel where we have an open floor plan. It's similar to a computer lab, except that it's slightly less dense, we each sit at the same desk and computer every day. We have a little bit of drawer space that doesn't lock. There are no walls to hang posters on, just a few wooden poles extending to the ceiling. Because there are only a few of those, they hold, if anything, only items that the group would unanimously agree upon. Now, here's the thing: even though there's little space, little nesting ability, and no privacy in an open floor plan, I actually think it's better than the cube farm. Cube walls are a barrier to communication, which is important in much software development work. For what you lose in ease of communication, you don't gain much relief from distraction. You can still hear phone calls that other people make, but because those people have an illusion of privacy provided by those walls, they make long personal calls at full volume. The open office has a lot of background noise, but people are sensitive to this and keep their conversations at a low volume. I don't typically find myself distracted by the noise at work, and frequently do find that I can contribute to nearby discussions.

So the open office is great for productivity, especially for people that work in groups on projects and don't need a lot of outside communication. And it allows businesses to pack people into a smaller space, which saves money and energy. What's lost is privacy at work and the ability to nest. My dad is a lawyer and has a full office; he can use that privacy not just to call clients and bang out long documents, but also to take care of occasional personal business. We meet from time to time, often if I need something from home that he brings in from home, and so he calls me on my office phone. I think I'm one of the few people in my department at least that ever receives personal calls on my office phone, or ever has a personal visitor come up to reception. Where he works that kind of thing is more normal. And I think my style of office goes along with the trend of where work is going (particularly in computer programming): almost all time spent during work hours is focused and productive, many inside contacts, few outside contacts, very few personal contacts. What's interesting is what comes up in place of personal nesting at work. There is a great degree of socialization within the department, both during and outside of office hours. And we keep very reasonable work hours, with very occasional long nights, which gives us time at home to take care of our personal business and pursue outside interests. In addition, since more people today have cell phones and other portable communication devices, they rely less on employers to provide means to stay in touch with the outside world. In fact, the situation for outside communication is better for workers that don't have phones at their desks; they use their cell phones any time they have a break. Although this doesn't apply to me at all, people's personalization of portable electronic devices may fill the space of personalizing workspaces.

For young people that live in the city (most of my department fits this description) I think it's a good trade-off. And young people are taking this deal. I've read that in Japan some large companies are trying to bring back the atmosphere of long hours, lots of corporate spirit and devotion to the company (including big drunken corporate parties), and seniority-based promotion that encourages long careers. And young people, largely, aren't biting. They would rather get their work done quickly and define their lives outside somehow. And I think lots of us aren't ready to say that the path we're on now is the one we'll be on forever.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

I've been really post-happy lately, I know...

But this one is important: Dude follows satnav, takes wrong entrance to Yellowstone, gets his rental car stuck, hikes for seven hours in 11-degree weather to the nearest lodge wearing very little in the way of winter clothing, is lucky to be alive.

What's really interesting about it to me is that some of the locals went so far out of their way to help the guy out. They bought him a plane ticket to Denver, are covering the costs of repair to the building he broke into, are trying to find a way to cover other costs he's incurred. I don't think that would happen in the city. I'm trying to think of a similar blunder that a visitor to Chicago might make, but I'm coming up blank. It's hard to go seven hours in the city with your life in danger before finding another person. It's also pretty hard to make a serious driving mistake that only puts yourself in danger, and so I'd really consider a hostile attitude towards people that commit driving mistakes in the city justified (and if that kind of attitude keeps unsure drivers off of city roads, all the better). I guess here in the city we don't have to worry so much about harsh nature, but we act more harshly. We have to worry about the effects of actions on others! We have to worry about our safety! We think we can't possibly deal with all of the tragedy we see every day.

Driving mistakes aren't the only kind of mistakes people make, of course. A while ago Dan told me about a guy he saw on the El, looked like he was really messed up on drugs. Dan tried to see if he was OK or needed some help, but he was unresponsive. None of the other passengers came near the guy. Honestly, I probably wouldn't have gone near him, either. The CTA must see that kind of thing all the time; an official will walk through the cars before parking the train up at Howard Yard and get the police to take him. They might be able to find his family or where he lives. That's my justification but it feels inhuman, really. I don't have to worry about the welfare of this man, and the police don't have to worry about bugs in their computer software. Except that his welfare probably isn't taken care of, especially in the long run. And the police (along with the rest of you) really do have to worry about bugs in their software, because we programmers aren't good enough at our jobs yet.

Some people say that we just have to try to do our best and things will be fine, but usually in practice that becomes a justification to put forth minimal effort for anyone but ourselves. It's just how we reassure ourselves and get back to our little functions. It's the way we often deal with environmental issues on a personal level. Global Warming Is Coming, Global Warming Is Coming, I guess I should make sure to separate my recyclables, 'eh? Now I've "done my best" and I can get on to leaving my computer running all day so people can read my away message on AIM. And if global warming really is coming, I've just participated in the attitude that will cause the downfall of life on earth. And it sort of looks like it is. And similarly peak oil, eventually, for all the times it's failed to turn up. When it does we'll almost certainly be less prepared than ever before, and more sure that it never will, since it hasn't for so long.

So. The people living around Yellowstone helped a guy recover from a big and nearly-fatal mistake? Would this happen, could it happen, in the city? Thoughts?


I really wish I hadn't already titled an entry in this blog "Always Crashing on the Same Bike", 'cause today I actually did crash on my bike. Twice, even. I certainly wasn't "touching close to ninety-four", though.

I wonder if the people that have studied SAD and developed things like The Sunbox have looked at the effect of snow on the whole thing. Walking out of my office and having snowflakes hit me in the face definitely brightened up my evening a bit.

I managed to make it all the way past Belmont Harbor before my first crash, which was a matter of leaning into a turn. The second one came shortly before Montrose; a lot of snow and sludge had accumulated between my wheel and fork, and the additional friction made the front wheel lock up suddenly as I was slowing down for the intersection. This problem is probably specific to road bikes with skinny forks and caliper brakes.

Maybe I should see if my dad will let me borrow his old Schwinn for the winter. With coaster brakes and internal gearing, it served me well in all sorts of inclement weather in college. I'd lose a lot of speed points, but gain a lot of style points.

Monday, December 3, 2007

More Urban Jungle Shit

My Dear Readership, this might be a little rudimentary. I apologize. I do not apologize for, nay, do not even acknowledge whatever factual errors you may think you've found. "But pineapples don't grow on trees, Al!" Poppycock! My daydreams err not, and I err not in reporting them!

Al let out a little laughing yelp as he released himself from the tree. He swung his legs a bit, as if running in the air, then deftly braced himself for the landing. Hit the ground rolling into a somersault and then to his feet, presenting in his outstretched arms a pineapple. He paused to stare out at the sky, across the endless ocean. Just for a second now, the sky would be there the next day, too. He twisted the leaves off, discarded them, and drew a long, curved knife from a sheath at his hip.

Al peeked into the kitchenshit drawer. No, not in there. Surveyed the pile of dishes next to the sink that he'd been reusing for the past few weeks. Nope. He went over to the dark red drainboard (one of the better purchasing decisions he'd made in recent years), lifted up a skillet and a baking pan, and again came up empty. Ha, he was in an apartment in Chicago in December. Now the light from the setting sun was going to cast a shadow of his body, chiseled from years of swimming in the ocean and swinging up and down from trees, long across the beach. The traitorous yellow star had dipped below the sprawl on the western horizon more than an hour before he'd left work. The dishwasher. Top shelf. Eureka, choppin' knife! He sliced through the pineapple longitudinally, placed each half down flush against the dark red cutting board, then cut each half longitudinally also. He wondered if the dishwasher was clean.

Al continued making his lengthwise cuts until he bored of it, and then began cutting the rind off of each slice, and dividing each into slightly-larger-than-bite-size pieces. Al always chopped things a little coarser than most people did. He attributed this to laziness and low standards. The pineapple pieces piled high on a blue plate behind the cutting board. Al stopped to think in the middle of the process. He first thought that it was a lot of pineapple. Next that he could all of it easily. But that it wouldn't be proper. And then that he could probably satisfy his immediate desire for pineapple with just the flesh clinging to the rinds. But that wouldn't be proper either.

No. Al was alone in his apartment. There was no circle of knitters meeting in the church basement implementing social control by gossiping about the eating methods of young men. There was good fruit on those rinds! He grabbed one of the rinds and stuck it in his mouth, scraping his teeth down the flesh side, squeezing the nectar down his throat. Juice dripped down his chin, onto the cutting board, over the rinds and yet-uncut slivers. He sucked the rind dry. He picked up another rind and did the same. The nectar burned in the splits of his wind-dried lips. It danced sweetly across his tongue, and he looked up again at the sun as it melted into the ocean, then looked back at the rest of the people on the beach. A few rolled their eyes at him as they swallowed their last morsels, and one of those grabbed him by the arm and mock-dragged him behind the rest of the group headed back towards the village. He did get one last look at the sun before it sank into the ocean.

Al hoped Dan would get home soon and help him eat some of this pineapple. There was no Saran Wrap in the place and he couldn't find half his Tupperware lids.