I’m actually wearing pants right now

I  just finished reading ‘The Year Without Pants,’ written by a Scott Berkun, a former manager at WordPress.com. It’s an in-the-weeds tale of life at a distributed (remote work) company, something anybody who has ever sat in a cubicle fantasizes about. I picked the book up because I wanted to know more about working from home, and whether it’s a realistic alternative.
 
I love WordPress, the company, which is a great way to write, receive feedback, and share my thoughts with whoever wants to read them. As a user of their products I totally endorse their mission and what they stand for. But a few things about the story make me think the author wasn’t completely sold on working remotely all of the time.
 
The story finishes with the writer’s departure from the company, only a few years after starting. To me, this makes a pretty big statement. He doesn’t really elaborate on his decision to leave, aside from claiming an aspiration to ‘the writing life.’ Hmm… everybody aspires to the writing life, but nobody quits a job over it…. Right? I wonder if he is reserving his negative opinion of the experience because the experience is what gave him a subject for his book, and he is grateful for it to that end. 
 
From an editorial perspective, it’s a pretty sleepy read. There is an entire page describing a game of shuffleboard played between two coworkers. I think it was shuffleboard – I had to skim several re-tellings of ‘meetups,’ which read like journal entries from a 16 year old girl coming home from a date. The author’s enthusiasm over these rare in-person interactions between colleagues seemed awkward – I felt like too much excitement was garnered from the kind of trivial stuff that happens daily in any regular work environment. The banal was given epic status – to paraphrase what is described as brilliant team-building, “We stayed up late and drank beers together, tee-hee!” 
 
The lack of clarity in the narrative is interesting. The story bounces annoyingly between soapbox tirades on the virtues of good leadership, and very boring histories of meetings, arguments and project schedules. Many of the ‘conversations’ recounted in the book, sometimes pasted in verbatim from online chat records, are synopses of interactions that took place via text, on the internet. Communicating with someone via chat is dull enough already, reading someone’s recount of a conversation from that medium is even worse. Is it possible that in the years of working at WordPress, communicating only through brief, unedited and casual chat windows, the author lost all sense of what makes paragraphs, sentences, and chapters engaging units of a cohesive whole? 
 
At any rate, I think the book (and WordPress) indirectly raise interesting questions about working remotely. There are absolutely benefits to it. For people who do this kind of advanced technology labor, there really isn’t a need for them to inhabit the same physical space. The internet enables mostly the same kinds of interactions that an office space would, to a point. But that line is drawn somewhere around being able to pick up on your cube-mate’s non-verbals, eavesdropping on hallway conversations, and having someone besides a cat to drink coffee with. 
 
So maybe the answer is not having people work from anywhere in the world at any time, as WordPress does, nor is it requiring punch cards to a suburban cube farm from 8:30 to 6. Perhaps there’s something in the middle to strive for.
 
I am curious if any companies have had success with ‘hub’ offices in ‘home’ cities, leaving a space open to all, and having people who work out of their homes regularly attend in person only for weekly or bi-weekly gatherings - as opposed to hiring globally and sponsoring jet-set international meet-ups every four or five months, as happens at WordPress. 
 
All criticism of the story’s boring moments aside, I hope WordPress continues doing whatever it’s doing to put out this great platform for blogging. Whatever works for you all – carry on! 
 

on not writing much

It has been a busy summer.

I turned 30 back in June – a milestone of thirtiesh proportions. After spending an inordinate amount of time contemplating it, wondering if I should be preparing, etc; it just happened – I woke up without my twenties. A blog post has been in draft status ever since, in which I recount 30 blessings I’ve had in the last 30 years. I’m having trouble finishing it, because there’s too much I’m afraid of leaving out.

For my birthday weekend, we took a quick trip to New York. New York is amazing, especially when you try to cram the whole bursting, loud thing into just a few days. We met Bryan Cranston, watched Outkast perform for their 20th anniversary, and visited with people we love.

My wonderful girlfriend and I moved into a new apartment together a few short weeks later. It has been a blast settling in and making our place feel like home. Pinterest, I don’t think we could have done it without you.

So in all the excitement, I’ve been enjoying the moment and not worrying a great deal about writing anything. No regrets there. What was that old Hemingway quote?

‘In order to write about life, first you must live it.’

I don’t usually dote on about my personal life in this blog, but that’s what’s happening! I’m planning to take some courses in the Fall, which should give me ample material for new posts. Until then…

the Four Hour “Lorem Ipsum”

What would I do with the extra thirty-six if I only had to work for four hours, every week?

In Tim Ferris’ book, The Four Hour Workweek, the answer to that question is given less attention than the ‘how-to’ guide for finding oneself in such a quandary. As he recounts his own experience, the author presents the alternative ‘new rich’ lifestyle of time spent dwelling nomadically through Europe, learning languages, and adopting several new ‘kinesthetic’ activities per year as the alternative to cubicle-dwelling wage slavery.

For a creative mind, some of the ideas might be poisonous to accept - Ferris proposes a ‘physical product’ driven business as the only path to a life of R&R; he argues that selling widgets, gidgets and gadgets is the easiest framework for removing oneself from the day-to-day operations of a financial enterprise. Artists, singers, athletes, counselors, teachers, beware – there are no four hour workweeks in your future, if you can’t outsource the manufacture & fulfillment of your muses to virtual assistants in India.

After drawing up thorough instructions on how to pick a market and jump in to the sales fray, Ferris takes a moment to reflect on what it will feel like, when you’ve done enough outsourcing to travel leisurely around the world and spend only brief moments checking email to run your business: ‘It will be hard at first.’

He says it’s in this extra downtime when you’ll come face-to-face with big questions – ‘What’s the meaning of everything?’  Ferris asserts that dwelling on the intangibles may be avoided by frequent jiu-jitsu or tango dancing lessons.

The motivational and analytical quotations peppered into the text are enriching, and appear so often that readers may subconsciously find them as one of the most compelling reasons to keep turning pages. From Machiavelli:

“All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it’s impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.” 

The wealth of quotes are thoughtful, and despite the book’s overall ridiculousness, they complement several other useful tidbits buried in the impossible mission of spending only four hours per week doing actual work. For example, the few paragraphs on speed reading were unexpectedly helpful.

With his big plan and fancy quotes, Ferris seems all set to kick up his feet with an umbrella drink and live the dream. But hasn’t this question of one’s obligation to forgo personal pleasure in the name of societal duties been around for a while?

In the publishing industry, for hundreds and hundreds of years, the Latin text ‘Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet…’ (attributed to Cicero, 45 B.C.) has been used as placeholding filler for typesetters to use before final copy was ready. In translation, Lorem Ipsum states…

‘We denounce with righteous indignation and dislike men who are so beguiled and demoralized by the charms of pleasure of the moment, so blinded by desire, that they cannot foresee the pain and trouble that are bound to ensue.’

Uncountable drafts of novels, newspapers, and magazines have used this quote in their creation process. Gutenberg himself may have plated it out. Whatever reason one chooses to argue for its selection, its ancient dictum is stark: Concentrating only on pleasure is bad.

Yet, here is Tim Ferris, flying in the face of 500 years of publishing tradition with an entire volume dedicated to enriching the lives of ‘men who are so beguiled and demoralized by the charms and pleasure of the moment, so blinded by desire…

I’m searching here for some thread of irony in The Four Hour Workweek’s reliance on quotes from big thinkers (Seneca, Thoreau, Bruce Lee…) yet in the end, the author repulses at ‘coming face to face with the big questions.’ And as a reader, after completing the book, you might be wondering whose advice to follow…

Tim Ferris, with a few years on the best seller list under his belt, questing for 80% pleasure and only 20% work?  Or Cicero, and his thousands of years of placeholder-text wisdom: “in certain circumstances and owing to the claims of duty or the obligations of business it will frequently occur that pleasures have to be repudiated and annoyances accepted.”

Perhaps it’s a bit demanding to expect that The Four Hour Workweek will match the lofty ideals set forth by the people whom it quotes (or who its typesetters quoted.) Its presentation is gimmicky, but underneath the goo, there lives some valuable advice and reasonable calls for reflection on the profit-driven and time-crunched modern lifestyle.

 

on singular focus

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

-Robert A. Heinlein

ode to a Cat

Twelve years ago, one of my high school English teachers congratulated me on graduating, and gave me a thoughtful gift that I still appreciate - poems by Neruda. Now its cover is warped and pages are faded, but I’ve nearly memorized my favorite verse from the collection:  ‘Oda al Gato’

For no reason other than cats are awesome, here’s a (translated) excerpt:

“your kind
need not puzzle us, surely -
you, the least of the mysteries
abroad in the world, known to us all, the pawn
of the lowliest householder -
or they think so! -
for each calls himself master,
proprietor, playfellow,
cat’s uncle, colleague,
the pupils of cats
or their cronies.

Not I:
I reckon things otherwise.
I shall never unriddle the cat.
I take note of the other things: life’s archipelagoes,
the sea, the incalculable city,
botanical matters,
the pistil, the pistil’s mutations,
plus-and-minus arithmetic,
volcanoes that funnel the earth
the improbable rind of the crocodile,
the fireman’s unheeded benevolence,
the atavist blue of the clergyman-
but never the cat!
We do not concern him: our reasoning boggles,
and his eyes give their numbers in gold.”

 

When I’m hanging out with my cat (London, seen above) I really feel Neruda’s words. London doesn’t want to be a human, or dinosaur, or anything else. He doesn’t care about wearing pants. He has serious business to attend to, all the time. I don’t know what it is – but it’s serious.

His most beloved way of attention-getting is the head-butt. If there is something he deems I should be paying attention to, head-butts are distributed until I comply.

If I’m sleeping in, and he decides I have better things to do, he plucks the strings on my guitar with his teeth until I’m awake. He has is own bed, and uses it often, but prefers sometimes to stage his dreams on top of mine, pawing his way into a cocoon on my pillow. His bed, my bed, the breakfast bar. Any flat surface will do. Naps are unscheduled and frequent.

Some cats aren’t friendly. They hide under the bed when company arrives, or they haunt their people from high perches, sneering down unlovingly. London is the opposite. He will climb your legs and shoulders at first introduction. He prefers to carefully screen any reading material I pick up before I can settle in with it, swatting at the pages, sprawling across the entire book.

I don’t know what chorus he learned it from, but many afternoons a concert takes place in the bathtub. Merrroooh, Murraww, Meereew, he sings – it bounces off the bare tiles, loudly. When he isn’t singing, sometimes he is annoyed, and then his voice is inexplicably an exact replica of Marge Simpson’s groan – Mrhhrrmmmmmhh.

Sometimes I wonder how his memory works. If he sees a suitcase start filling up with clothes, it becomes abundantly clear that he is Not O.K. with anyone leaving, even if it’s been months since the last time he saw a suitcase. But on a regular basis, he needs a soft reminder that eating my plants is an offense punishable by water bottle squirting.

He used to live with his brother, Paris, but they are now separate. As kittens they got along famously, but they’ve now been apart for a few years. I’m curious what kind of a reunion they might have. Would it be, “Oh, hey bro, good to see you again”…? Or something more like “I’m going to pee right now, on this carpet, so you know that I belong here and you don’t.”

Head-butting is a great attention-getter, and he employs it often. But he can also work below the radar to let humans know where the power really lies.

Coming home a few years ago to my apartment, after a long workday, I found some of my neighbors outside talking with a group of firefighters. Someone had left their gas burner on, and filled the building up with noxiousness. It wasn’t me, of course, because I am Super Responsible.

But… walking inside, and finding my apartment door open, I was shocked. It was coming from my apartment. I hadn’t used the stove in days – how was this possible?

London winked at me from the corner. The knob on the stove had been turned by his little paw, just enough to start up the gas without a flame. In his innocent leaps and bounds across my kitchen appliances, harmlessly searching for a snack, my furry friend had made an invitation to the fire department.

I’ve since forgiven him. What choice do I have? Not only did he maintain my favor, but I continue to shovel his poop from a box of sand whenever he decides its necessary.

When he’s scrunched up into a little cat-ball, quietly looking through the window out upon the wild, vast expanse of the patio, eyes wide open, fixed intently on this, and then that, and then another thing – something must be on his mind. But as Neruda said, I’m not going to be the guy who finally unriddles it.

before ‘Felina’

There are absolutely spoilers below. Do not read, if you have not watched the Breaking Bad series in its entirety. I plead. 

The joy of episodic narrative is that the audience gets to play the guessing game. We get to suppose what is coming next, week after week, testing our theories and validating our assumptions and essentially judging our own intelligence or predictive abilities. We take joy in the cliffhanger endings, that lead to cold opens, jumping to our own conclusions about what will come next, trying to stay a step ahead of the participants.

But Heisenberg, both the real quantum physicist and television’s Walter White, will not let us engage our prophesying peacefully.

Heisenberg, the real-life physicist from whom the fictional Walter White took his pseudonym, is credited with discovering the Uncertainty Principle of quantum mechanics, which states…

The more precisely the position (momentum) of a particle is given, the less precisely can one say what its momentum (position) is.

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qt-uncertainty/

If the audience of an episodic narrative subscribes to this principle, we can translate the language of science to the formula of story –  The more precisely the position (current feelings, attitude, desires) of a character is given, the less precisely can one say what is the characters momentum (future intentions and plans.) This calculation works naturally against our human instinct to form logical expectations about people and their objectives.

I can’t recall any story, in any format, having illustrated the uncertainty principle so gracefully as Breaking Bad. At every point when the position of a character seems to gain clarity, their momentum becomes exponentially more ambiguous. Every new door opened throws shadow on some corner to be backed into. I could litter this essay with examples, but frankly, every single scene of the sixty-some episodes of the show is evidence.

I have one episode left to watch, titled ‘Felina.’ The series finale. A true easter egg, this title – an acronym for the elements Fe, Li, and Na – Iron, Lithium, and Sodium – key components of blood, methamphetamine, and tears. And in truly uncertain glory, the combination of those acronyms form a beautifully poetic word, something like ‘finale,’ something like ‘felled,’ something like ‘felon.’ In the last scene which we saw Walter, he watched his former business partner on television explaining to the world Walter’s contribution to their billion dollar company. He said it was just the name - Grey Matter – a combination of their names, Black and White.

And now we have this new word, ‘Felina’, a combination of Fella and Niña, ‘boy’ and the Spanish for ‘girl’, all that Walter allegedly ever cared about, his two children. What uncertain momentum awaits for the the White children? We last saw Holly surrounded by masked men as she slept in her crib, and Walter Jr. wishing death for his father who called him in a desperate plea for forgiveness. Their positions are known, but their momentum is all the more uncertain. The position of this word as the series finale’s title could indicate momentum toward resolution for the White children. Or it could mean nothing at all. 

To test the theory of narrative uncertainty, I want to write out what I feel are the position and momentum of the characters, before I witness their literary conclusions. Much foundation has been laid to give me a plausible idea of what could or could not happen. But as fixed as the positions for every character seem, at this point, I’ve learned better than to hold tight any expectations of what drama will unfold.

Jesse has just witnessed the death of yet another person whom he cared for, another person to which he can ascribe himself guilt in their undoing. He is a caged animal, a used tool, and he despises everything about his life. This is the crystal clear position he is in, but what does it say of his momentum? Where will he end up? His position is more fixed than ever, he appears to be absolutely powerless, outnumbered, alone. But the Uncertainty Principle explains that this fixed position means his momentum is more difficult to perceive. It feels completely plausible to me, given the position of all the other characters, that he will be killed, finally, for refusing to cook meth, or by trying to escape again, or by Walter himself. His death seems almost certain… yet it feels emotionally impossible.

Somehow, Jesse is the last character the audience might have any emotional investment in. Despite the often disastrous consequences of his actions, he has repeatedly tried to do what he thought was right, giving away his ‘blood money’ and trying to prevent Walter from the destruction of any more lives. His slivers of righteousness have the audience hoping, just maybe… that he will find peace, despite the obviously bleak choices available to him. Jesse’s final road will either be one that satisfies the cold reality of his current circumstances (death), or one that redeems him for the muffled justice he has tried to inject into all of the wrongdoing.

Walter’s position also seems quite fixed. His broken and bloodied family rejects him, his identity is compromised, his partner became his enemy. His name and face are recognized in public as belonging to a murderous criminal mastermind. His 80 million dollar empire has reduced to a lonely, snowy cabin with two copies of a shitty DVD and a monthly newspaper delivery. His character, as has been meticulously revealed throughout the season, has lost all credibility and hope of redemption. There will never be a way out for him, there will never be a family for him again. This position is abundantly clear.

Mike helped illustrate this precise position earlier in the season, by telling him he’s a ticking bomb. Yet, Walter won’t sit quietly. He is last seen leaving his sanctuary, trotting back into the fray, begging the question of momentum - what will be the direction of the explosion, when that bomb goes off?

Who will Walter take down with him? Jesse, by going after the drug-makers and engaging one final showdown? Skylar and his children, by attempting to contact the family or transfer money? Or can his clear, evident, irrefutably destructive position – can the simplicity of that explosive position shroud the direction of his momentum to such an extraordinary degree that he simply fizzes out, quietly faces capture, or innocently succumbs to cancer? There is no reasonable guess.

All of these paths of momentum seem equally likely, so anything is fair game. As Heisenberg taught, momentum is uncertain… and as Walter taught, in episode 1, chemistry is not the study of chemicals, but of change.

(A big round of applause for the A.V. Club in guiding me through the Breaking Bad viewing experience with brilliant insight)

on Walter White and ‘Offline’ Identity

I’m apologetically writing this well after it originally aired, but I’ve been watching Breaking Bad for the first time. (Spoilers will be small and few, out of respect for the uninitiated.)

Instead of offering my own full-bootlicking about how amazing the show actually is, I’ll simply quote from, and agree with, these words from the AV Club’s review of the episodes ‘ABQ’ and ‘Full Measures’ -

“…this show has been one of serialized drama’s greatest accomplishments.  Television itself suddenly seems to have an expanded horizon of possibilities — for characterization, for juxtaposition, for thematic depth.  Whatever happens from this hellish moment, the long descent to this point, with all its false dawns and sudden crashes, was singularly awe-inspiring, uniquely cathartic. People living through a golden age often don’t know it.”

“Extraordinary flowerings of art, technology, culture, or knowledge are obscured by intractable problems, crises, declines in other parts of the society… It’s easy to look at television, with its 500 channels worth of endless crappy versions of the same empty ideas, and conclude that everything’s gone to shit… Ironically, this pronouncement coincides with the greatest flowering of televised drama and comedy in the medium’s history.”

There are many qualities that make Breaking Bad an incredible viewing experience, the first of which is Bryan Cranston’s boundless performance in the lead role. His acting is the only reason I’m able to think of this show in such a realistic context, and analyze his character as if it were an actual person in the same world that I live in. I could offer unending praise on the acting, the brilliant camera work, dialogue, etc. But I just want to focus this post on one specific thing that’s caught my attention, as I set out to finish the series over the next few weeks.. (let’s be real.. Days.)

Walter White’s defining characteristic is arguably his squabble with identity – is he the murderous meth-cooking gangster boss Heisenberg? Or is he the doting father, soft husband, and nerdy brother-in-law?  Is there room in a single fictitious character for both? (Yes.) Is there room in a real human being for both? (I believe so.) Maybe the show’s finale will answer some of these questions definitively, but I haven’t reached that point, so I’m still undecided on the matter. I’m willing to guess that there will still be plenty of room for interpretation on Walter’s moral character, even after the last episode’s credits roll.

The question of his identity seems so important because of other things happening in our culture right now. This is the age of facebook, where the privatest lives of the most everyday people are just as public as any royal. The first season of Breaking Bad aired in 2008, the heady days in which ‘social media’ became a phenomenon too large for anyone to ignore. The show continued playing out on the screen while in the audience’s living rooms, internet technologies connected the personal lives of everyone around the world at a breakneck pace – most intensely, the lives of comfortably wealthy Americans, especially those with an interest in the sciences or technology.

If the impetus for Walter’s entire journey is his need for money – in Season 1, funding cancer treatment was his reason for embarking on a criminal campaign - how could someone of his cultural demographics overlook the most money-making industry of this decade, the internet? When Breaking Bad premiered, and for years before, the American economy has been driven by the high value of software and computer technology. But Walter isn’t part of that America, somehow.

By all accounts, Walter White, caucasian middle-class scientist, teacher, and 2004 Pontiac Aztec driver, is the incarnate persona of a modern American internet user. If you knew a man with Walter’s pedigree, you would expect he spent his time off in some dorky enterprise like geo-caching, or beta testing Google Glass. His chemically-laced resume screams “Googler.”

But in which episode did we ever see Walter crack open a laptop? Somehow, all this fancy new ‘social’ technology has overlooked him. Instead of the positive social incubator it is intended to be, it only becomes an opportunity for further advancement into Walter’s fragile anonymity as a criminal.

The show doesn’t completely leave the internet out of its narrative – Walter Jr. raises money for his Dad’s cancer by setting up a donation website, Skylar does her research for money laundering on Wikipedia – but it rejects the idea, so often presented in today’s culture, that all of this online transparency is influential in a way that would prevent someone from taking fuller measures to hide their deviant intentions.

In the world of Breaking Bad, Walter is not persuaded by these popular new gadgets to connect in a positive way to his community, as much as Facebook would like to “make the world a more open place,” and Google would like everyone to follow its corporate motto, “Don’t be evil.” Silicon Valley’s utopian rhetoric falls limply on Walter/Heisenberg’s deaf hears.

I might be overly sensitive to this idea, working as I currently am for a company, ID.me, whose purpose is to enable an individual’s authority over their identity on the internet. In this field, as it exists now, all roads are converging on transparency. There is no accommodation for subversive duality, in the minds of those leading the development of digital identity. On Google,Facebook, ID.me, and anywhere else you want to be yourself online, you only get one persona, and it’s intended to comprise your whole self.

Popular opinion has recently treated privacy as debatable, far from an ‘inalienable right,’ and the public parade of social media is driving the idea further.  The notion that governments and neighbors can snoop and sneak through a citizen’s life, online, is commonplace.

The narrative of Breaking Bad indirectly comments on the situation: it says Yes, a person may keep part of their life private… but they might be a drug kingpin. And with its morally circuitous characters, it also diffusely challenges the evolving concept of identity, by illustrating - No, the depths of a person probably cannot be summarized by a few photographs they post to their ‘wall.’