I Miss People

In 1994 I saw Clerks at a local art house cinema. Being of the right demographic – Gen X, white, male – meant that I identified with a lot of the movie. Dante’s lament “I’m not even supposed to be here today!” would end up being a constant refrain throughout my career in tech support where I was often the guy who knew the most, but bad stuff always happened when I wasn’t working.

But as we languish in this pandemic, I find that the lines I’ve come to most identify with is the exchange between Dante and Randal over the mourning service of a mutual acquaintance that has passed.

Dante: But you hate people!
Randal: Yes, but I love gatherings. Isn’t it ironic?

Last week I posted on Facebook “I miss people.” Most people probably read that and felt similarly, that they missed hanging out with their friends and coworkers. For me, though, it was really more general. I’m primarily an introvert. I don’t actively seek out individual engagement with others, unless I already know them – which presents it’s own problem. However, I love crowds. I love concerts and big events. I love going to the mall at Christmas time to experience the rush and people watch. So when I say that “I miss people.” I’m more referring to missing the general commotion of a world full of people. I miss crowds. I miss events. I miss watching people.

In my professional life, I don’t enjoy working “with” people. The modern style of “pair programming” and such are really ineffective for me. I don’t like being at the keyboard and having someone over my shoulder telling me what to type, and I don’t like sitting back and just telling someone what to type while they sit at the keyboard. I prefer that we do our own work, then come together to compare, or better yet to discuss what we learned after comparing on our own. But I hate working from home. I want to be in an office with other people. I want to hear the hustle and bustle of people going about their day. I want to casually pass people in the hall or in the break room. I want to say hello and good bye to people, even if I don’t have deep involved conversations with them.

I crave the casual signs that other people exist in the world. I miss people.

Simple

Most people I know, myself included, are frequently looking for easy, simple solutions. From daydreams of get rich quick schemes and lottery wins, to once again clicking on a link to a headline that promises to tell that “one weird trick” to do something hard, we do it. We desperately want things to be simple.

And yet, there are some problems that we continue to insist are horribly complex and complicated and the solutions will be also complex and complicated, and hard won, but they actually have simple answers.

For example: Homelessness. There are people who are homeless. Some of them are homeless because of something they did, and some of them are homeless because of something outside their control. And once someone is homeless, the process to get them un-homeless is arduous. Shelters and programs, counselling, government money and charity solutions… not to mention things like police and sanitation and health system impacts of people with nowhere to go. They don’t have money because they probably don’t have a job. It’s hard to get a job when you don’t have an address or phone, but you can’t get those things without a job to earn money. It all seems like a messy pile of issues and people want to help but they don’t know where to start.

The solution is really simple though – give them homes. Giving a person a home immediately makes them un-homeless. And as long as that home is given unconditionally, it solves the problem. They are no longer homeless. Instead, they are now jobless, or an addict, or a collection of other issues, issues that people who weren’t homeless also have but manage. Now that they have a permanent address, and maybe a cell phone with internet access, getting a job now becomes possible. Once they have a job, they’ll have money for things – like food, or moving to a better home. Once they have a place to live, it gives them the stability to be able to address medical issues, perhaps get therapy, address addiction.

But we don’t give them homes, because when you try you get clobbered with questions of who will pay for it and why should some people get free homes when other people have to work for theirs. You’ll get into what quality of home to provide – some people won’t want you giving them much more than a prison cell, because they can’t get past the idea that a person should be punished for needed help. (Note: this right here is a HUGE problem. This is how you get people upset that those on food assistance programs aren’t eating gruel. If they are getting free food it shouldn’t be “good” food, it should be garbage, or it should be planned healthy meals with no joy. Lots of people are downright cruel toward people in need.) You get bogged down in a lot of details that do need to get addressed, but most of the people asking those questions are trying to make the problem go away – not solve it, just vanish from their site, hopefully without it costing them anything.

Which leads us to an adage that people enjoy repeating, that “money can’t buy happiness” which often is mutated into “money can’t solve problems” (“mo’ money, mo’ problems”). But in a society and system that is very capitalist, yes it can. The root of many problems is lack of money, so giving them money (or providing them they thing they lack the money for) will literally solve the problem. Too many people don’t like money as a solution. Despite being so capitalist, the idea that money can solve problems and buy happiness offends them. “Problems can’t be that simple to solve!” they tell themselves. And so they seek out non-money solutions for problems that are best solved with money, and it becomes painfully obvious why those problems don’t get solved.

Career Path

Most people have worked retail or service jobs in their life. Yes, there are people who are born rich and don’t ever get a “menial” job before getting to college and moving on to “real jobs”, but most people aren’t them. Most people in the teens or twenties, or even later, get jobs waiting tables or making fast food or working a cash register or stocking shelves.

Society can’t live without most of these jobs, but they devalue them just the same, and further society devalues people who don’t want to move on, people who like and excel at those jobs. Believe it or not, there are people who honestly love helping someone find the right shoes, or eat a tasty fast meal, or get a floral arrangement, or just like interacting with people while they ring up their purchases. There are people who love working retail or in restaurants, and they don’t want to “move up” to “better” jobs.

Why leave a job you love doing every day for a corporate job you’ll hate? Money and benefits.

But what if they could get the money and benefits at the jobs they love doing? What if they could work retail or food service and make enough to support a family and buy a small house and go on vacation now and then?

What if all jobs were valid valued jobs and we let people who where they fit best rather than forcing them to move “up”?

Y2K and COVID-19

People know what Y2K was about, but often I feel like they don’t actually understand the problem. You ask them what Y2K is and they’ll say “computers used two digit dates and so it would think 00 was 1900 instead of 2000.” This is, of course, correct, but it is simple and leads people to think computers would be showing “11:59:59 PM 12/31/1999” and the next second would have “00:00:00 AM 1/1/1900” and everything blows up. But that wasn’t true.

The issue, usually, was with storage, not calculation. A clock is calculating time. It’s adding a second to the time on a set cycle. Time + 1, wait, Time + 1, wait, Time + 1, wait… And in calculation, there wasn’t often a Y2K bug. The real Y2K bug was when something would take that timestamp and write it to a file or database, and then it would read it back out. The program would take “06:32:15 AM 4/9/2000” and write it to the file, storing only the “00” of the year. Then later, minutes, hours, maybe even months later, the program would read the file, take the “00” and process it, using a hard-coded “19” to append to the front and come up with “06:32:15 AM 4/9/1900”, which might then play havoc with a bunch of other functions, like maybe one that asks “How overdue is this item?” If the date had been initiated properly, maybe it’s only a few days old, but with the bug it’s over 100 years past due.

But, we (people in the tech industry) knew this might happen. The people who wrote some of these “bad” programs in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, understood the issue, but in many cases they just figured “This software will be replaced before then, and surely those programmers will fix it.” But the software “works” so it’s never in the budget to replace it, a decade goes by and suddenly a decision made many years before becomes a problem as 2000 approaches.

It was also in the hardware, the firmware on that hardware. A machine could run just fine across the 1999-to-2000 line, because that’s calculation, but if it was shut down for any reason, or lost power, the bootstrapping methods in the BIOS of the computer might come back up in 1900, which would mess up every program that relied on the “system time”.

But all this is just to say that we saw the problem coming, and if we did nothing, then it would have been bad. We didn’t do “nothing” though. Companies spent a lot of time and money fixing it. From my personal experience, the rollover to Y2K was spent in an office on a conference call, watching systems roll over to the year 2000, then running diagnostic tests to assure that the write-to-file-then-read-from-file type problems had been resolved. Which they had been. Due to all the time and effort put in.

From outside the tech industry, though, it might seem like Y2K was “no big deal”. The world didn’t explode. Economies didn’t collapse. Everything just kept working, just like it had the day before. And unfortunately this leads to people talking about the “Y2K hype” and feeling like it was some kind of hoax and we would have been fine.

We wouldn’t have.

Here we are, twenty years past Y2K, and the US was faced with another problem. We saw it coming. We’ve had outbreaks of other illnesses before, and we responded to them. And here is this new virus, novel as they say, in China, and people are getting sick and it seems to spread pretty quickly.

I think back to Y2K and try to imagine what it would have been like if we hadn’t done any of the work, if we hadn’t spent any of the money. What if Y2K came and we hadn’t been ready. What if, one by one, computer systems failed – or worse, they worked properly incorrectly, happily proceeding like 1900 was the correct year to be using in their processing. What if banks had collapsed. What if planes had fallen out of the sky.

Now it’s 2020, a full three years into the current presidency, one which has named the media and experts as enemies of the people. And because of all the times I’ve thought about what might have happened if our response to the oncoming Y2K had been nothing, I haven’t been surprised by what has happened since this administration’s response to COVID-19 has been to do nothing. And yet, even as we stand in the midst of more spikes and sickness and death, there are people saying it’s a hoax, that it’s hype.

With Y2K, I think one of the main reasons that we had so much investment into beating it was that a clear case was made that the bug would affect banks. Money would fail if we didn’t fix the problem. Stories about traffic lights or medical equipment failing and people being hurt didn’t move the needle. But telling the bankers that their banks would fail, that the stock market would fail, that all digital records would fail… that motivated getting it fixed. But with COVID-19, it was always painted as human cost. “People will die,” they said. And those with money didn’t care. Their money was safe. Even when the stock market faltered, they told themselves that the illness would pass, people would die, and then we’d move on. Just keep your money invested, it will recover. You’ll get it back.

You can hear them beating that drum. We have to get back to work. Kids need to get back to school (so that parents can work). We need the economy to get back on track. We need to recover the value that was lost.

The lives that are lost mean nothing to them.

The last five months…

… has felt like five years.

It’s really hard to express the toll that 2020 is having on me. I have been broken so many times, and each time not fully mended before being broken again.

I feel like we are learning two lessons right now. One is long overdue, and the other is … well, I’m afraid we might not really learn it.

The long overdue lesson is that racism is garbage AND that there really is a whole lot of racism out there. For a lot of white people, the triple hits of Breonna Taylor being shot in her sleep when the cops invaded her home which was a wrong address, Ahmaud Arbery being hunted in the street, and George Floyd’s slow murder on camera was enough to really make them pay attention to the failures of the justice system that people of color have been living with their entire lives. But I feel like the protests were the real shift in opinion. People took to the streets to support change, and they were met with an army.

It may be just me, but in prior protests, when cops showed up, there were always a lot of traditional blue shirt cops, maybe wearing black bulletproof vests, with the support of a smaller number of ERT/SWAT/RIOT gear cops. But this protest, I’m seeing almost all the cops in military gear. Head to toe body armor and assault rifles. Rows and rows of bodies clad in black, imposing and unforgiving.

And since technology keeps advancing, the average person is being given an unprecedented look at dozens of angles of the same incident from the street level. Even if you don’t live in a city and can’t experience a protest in person, there are so many videos you can watch. What CNN did for the Gulf War, cell phones and social media are doing for protest. And by that I mean that it is bringing the visceral reality of a normally obscured situation right into the homes and lives of the masses.

Most people know that we should believe victims when they tell their stories. But many of those people have trouble believe something they haven’t seen. And now it is easier than ever to see it.

The ripples of this moment are already creating change. Confederate monuments are coming down. The military and NASCAR have banned the Confederate Flag. The calls for military bases named for Confederate Generals are having requests for their names to be changed seriously considered. These are, admittedly, tokens. But chipping away at these tokens is one way to get to and expose the more deep seated parts.

Black lives matter. Black lives matter because all lives matter and right now black lives are being ended for things that don’t end other lives. The inequalities are obvious and now they are getting exposure, undeniable exposure. Black lives matter.

The second lesson is science. We’ve … and by “we” I mean the United States as a whole … been travelling down a road for a while now of science denial in pursuit of profit. When it comes to the environment, the government regulates at a slow pace and only after an unacceptable amount of blood has been spilled to make the cost of protection worth the cost to profits. Or at least worth it to enough people to pass those regulations. And for things like climate change, the effects and causes are separate enough that people have trouble understanding how (A) leads to (B) let alone how (A) leads to (Z). And where you can pull the water from a polluted river and show that it has poison in it from the runoff at a facility and convince them to stop poisoning the water, it is harder to point to the exhaust from a facility in the US and show how it’s melting the snow from a mountain in Asia.

But then you get something like COVID-19. And the scientists tell you that we need to do A, B, and C or else X, Y, and Z will happen. And when we don’t do A, B, or C and here we are with over 100,000 dead, and some people are saying we HAVE to reopen the economy to make money, even if it means more dead people sacrificed to capitalism.

I would hope that the new hot spots and rising infection rates would convince people that the science is right and that we should believe science and do better. But I’m not that hopeful. People seem really dead set on denying any science that would be personally inconvenient to them. Kind of like how they ignore a lot of racism since it doesn’t impact them directly.

I haven’t really been out since March. I drove in the car a couple times (to go to places and play Pokemon Go and Wizards Unite), and got gas once. I want to go out, but I keep hearing and reports of all these people not wearing masks and not distancing. I want to go out, but I’m not willing to put my health in the hands of people who don’t believe in science.

It will get better. It has to. The status quo and the downward trend, neither are sustainable. But I have to constantly remind myself that there is no bottom. People are always asking if we’ve hit bottom yet, the point where we can’t go any lower. But there is no bottom. It won’t stop, but it can be stopped. We just have to stop it.

Climate Change: A Moving Target

I made a post on Facebook a while back, and a discussion on a forum I participate in made me think of it, and I decided I wanted to re-post it here, so that it’s here and not just on Facebook (which some day I’ll have the fortitude to delete). So, here it is:


You sit down with your spouse and say, “Honey, I’ve done all the math, and in 12 years, if we don’t change our spending habits, we’re going to be dead broke and living on the street.” And your spouse says, “Twelve years? That’s plenty of time! We’ll definitely make some changes later, but let’s not change anything right now.” So for the next year, your spouse does not change their spending habits, but you convince your boss to give you a raise and you start buying groceries at a different, cheaper store.

You sit down again to have the budget talk and you say, “Honey, I’ve done all the math, and in 12 years, if we don’t change our spending habits, we’re going to be dead broke and living on the street.” And your spouse says, “Twelve years? We’ve got plenty of time to fix it, but let’s not do it right now.” And again they don’t change, but you start clipping coupons, and you let your hair grow long to cut down on hair cuts, and you start packing your lunch for work every day.

Again you sit down for the budget talk and you say, “Honey, I’ve done all the math, and in 12 years, if we don’t change our spending habits, we’re going to be dead broke and living on the street.” And your spouse says, “Twelve years? Didn’t you say that last year? And the year before? I’m beginning to think you don’t know what you are talking about, but twelve years is a long time anyway. Even if what you say is true, we’ve got time, so let’s not make any changes now.” But you start switching to store brands over name brands, and you’ve stopped buying new clothes, and you’ve started taking the bus to work. You start having a lot of “date nights” at home doing the Netflix and chill instead of going out.

Budget time again… all the math… 12 years… “Twelve years again? I’m starting to think this going broke thing is just something you are saying to try to control me…” You get a new job, better pay, but it’s soul crushing. You drift through life on the minimum, trying to save money, but watch all your efforts to put something away for a rainy day turned into “Wow! We can afford that vacation to Hawaii now! or maybe a new car!”

You want the threat of being broke and living on the street to go away, to be something you don’t have to worry about, but all the efforts you make just seem to be keeping it at bay. You could just stop. Let it go. Spend the money, enjoy it, and maybe you’ll win the lottery or something. Maybe everything will change and utopia arrives and there is no more need for money. You could simply not care and embrace the inevitable…

But you care. So you keep scrimping and saving, you keep cutting and changing. You keep the end at bay, always just far enough away so that your spouse always feels like there is plenty of time, later, to fix it, instead of fixing it now.

It’s like that. Only it’s Climate Change.

When you hear people scoff at “Global Warming” and put out the “If warming, why snow?” points of view, you have to remember, the reason it hasn’t become unlivable yet is because some people are doing the work. Some people are keeping it at bay for the rest. So when someone talks about the Green New Deal or renewable energy, and they pull out some number like “In 12 years, we’ll be past the point of no return if we don’t get better…” That isn’t planting a flag. That isn’t a hard deadline. It isn’t “On March 26th, 2031, at 12:08 AM, the Climate will irrevocably change. End of story.” It doesn’t work that way. 12 years is an estimate, based on what we know AND IF WE DO NOTHING. But we ARE going to do things, in spite of the opposition, and it is very possible that in 12 years, we’ll still be saying “In 12 years, we’ll be past the point of no return if we don’t get better…” because for 12 years we’ve made enough change to keep “the end” at 12 years away. That doesn’t make the current prediction wrong. It means that “the end” is a moving target. It’s always been a moving target. And it will always be a moving target… until we stop just patching the problem, and fix it instead.

Eight Months

I’m not even going to bother pretending that I’m going to write here more often. That ship has sailed and is lost over the horizon. It has fallen off the end of the world. The last time I wrote I had started a new job and was planning on walking up the stairs at work every day…

Well, I don’t work there anymore. I did take the stairs a lot, but it didn’t really help me get into better shape. I now work on the 7th floor of a building, so taking the stairs is less of an option. I’ll need to find some other way to pretend I’m getting in shape… or I need to actually get in shape.

I’m also moving. I’ve been wanting to move for some time. The desire started back at the end of 2012, for obvious reasons if you know me well, and has grown. In 2016 when the company I worked for was acquired by a larger company, they moved our offices downtown… or mid-town… or something. It was far. My commute sucked. So my desire to move was amplified by my desire to return to a shorter commute, which blended nicely with my longer held desire to live in “the city”. Well, I quit that job, so the urgency left and went back to a dull “I don’t really want to live in this neighborhood anymore”. Then I got a new job, with a new long commute, not downtown, but my commute from downtown to the new job would be the same as the commute to the new job from the current house. The search for in-town living resumed.

Well, not really. The desire was there, but not the motivation. That came when I stumbled upon the idea of just selling my house, without needing to make all the fiddly repairs, to Zillow. They came, they inspected, they offered, we accepted. Now we had 90 days to find a house before we had to get out of ours.

Then I went and got another new job. This one would make downtown living easier. The location was smack dab in the middle of our current home and downtown, so again, the commute would be the same, moving or not, but we were already moving. We had to. I’d already sold the house.

We abused our real estate agent and make him show us like 100 homes. In the end, we bought the one he recommended to us. So, like, maybe there is something to this whole “listen to people who work in their field” thing.

We move in the next couple weeks.

2020 is starting off in an exciting new direction…

Five Flights

The building I work in has 4 floors. Each floor, however, has tall ceilings, drop ceilings, raised floors, and lots of ducts and such. I mention this because the result is that when you decide to take the stairs instead of the elevator, it means that you can literally see in the stairwell that each floor is actually two floors of height, and each flight of stairs is one floor worth of height, so to walk from 1 to 4 is actually six flights of stairs.

I’m out of shape, and every day when I climb the stairs, in an attempt to get exercise, I make it five flights of stairs before I get winded. I stand there, on the landing between the 3rd and 4th floors, staring up at the door to the 4th floor, and I have to wait to catch my breath.

It’s weird. I feel fine as I start climbing. I get in the rhythm and start clomping upward one step at a time. And I get to the top of that fifth flight, and suddenly, I’m beat.

I look forward to the day that I can tackle all six flights without stopping. But this is only a 6 month contract, with only 5 months left. I’ve got a deadline…

Who We Pretend To Be

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” -Kurt Vonnegut

I’ve liked that quote ever since I heard it. It’s one of the reasons that I don’t often say things I don’t actually believe. I limit that to situations and audiences where the intended satire of my statement is plainly evident.

And I think that this quote becomes especially apt today with the online outrage culture. I had a friend who participated in forums at 4chan. And yes, he participated in the forums with the racism and hate. He said he didn’t actually believe it, that he did it for fun, for the lulz. And I told him that it didn’t matter, because whether he is just doing it to be funny or not the outward appearance is that it is racism and hate, so it is racism and hate. He got angry. That’s why this anecdote begins “I had a friend…”

Anyway, the problem with places like that on the Internet is that it becomes impossible for an outsider to determine which people are just joking and which people are serious. And some of them are very serious. And the people who are joking, whether they intend to or not, are encouraging the very serious people.

There is a channel on YouTube, Innuendo Studios, that puts together some great videos that I think most people should watch. And I’m posting today because, spoiler alert, their latest video uses this quote and is about this subject which I think about often.

If you can spare some time, click around their channel and watch some videos. The Alt-Right Playbook series is especially good.

Lies

I once got into an argument with a friend. It pretty much ended our friendship. Well, there was more to it than that, but the argument was indicative of the differences between us that we would never get past. The subject of the fateful disagreement was business.

You see, I maintained that “business” encompassed a level of “lying, cheating, and stealing” that I was uncomfortable with. He was offended by that statement. And as I pulled out example after example of “lying, cheating, and stealing”, he would respond, “That’s just business!” and I would fire back, “That’s my point!” and he’d argue it wasn’t lying or cheating or stealing, and I’d argue it was but he was just comfortable with the accepted level present in most business.

Ultimately, what he didn’t like were the words that I chose to describe the actions. Face it, most of the time marketing IS lying, or at least bending the truth, or hiding it. No company puts out a commercial that says “You don’t need our product, and you probably don’t even want it, but we would appreciate it if you would buy it anyway!” Nope. They are going to show you people having fun using the product and then ask, in some way or another, “Don’t you like fun?”

And as a software developer for a couple decades, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked to “steal”. Though, it usually comes out as “Hey, one of our competitors has this thing. Can we do that thing? Can you make it look like their thing? Can it function exactly like their thing?” Not to mention the times someone has asked me to “just pull some images off Google” to put into a product that they are going to charge money for. And all the times dealing with customers when our product was broken, but being told by management to blame other things, like their internet connection, or their web browser, even though I knew full well what the problem was, it was us, and we’d get it fixed as soon as possible, but for liability purposes we had to say “It’s not me, maybe it’s you.”

Anyway, I think back on that argument and it still bothers me. Probably more so now than then. In the intervening years it has gotten worse in a lot of ways. And the current administration’s efforts to repeal protections and roll back regulations doesn’t help. We’ve recently had rashes of incidents where restaurants all over town have posted notices about certain items not being available because of the e.coli outbreak in romaine lettuce, which happened because the regulations regarding testing of waste/irrigation water were rolled back. So some cattle got e.coli, which was in their feces, which got into the water, which wasn’t tested and used to irrigate the lettuce, and we get e.coli contaminated lettuce. Meanwhile, there is a vaccine, which can be administered to the cattle to get the e.coli at the source – but it doesn’t improve the health of the cattle or the quality of the meat they produce, so it’s almost impossible to get the ranchers to spend money on it. And I won’t even get into how the current government shutdown and the FDA curtailing food testing is going to affect things.

And I think about how the media has clear simple examples of our president lying, but they don’t call it lies. They instead say something like “the words contains less than truthful statements” because they are afraid to call the lie a lie. Some outlets are getting better about this, but not enough.

I know some people feel that using such bold, plain language is antagonistic, or rude. But we’ve got a president who literally calls people names on twitter. He’s also a man who has been coddled and surround by yes-men all his life. What he needs – really, what we all need – is bold, plain language.