Monthly Archives: February, 2015

Turning a Facebook comment into a post

I wrote this on someone’s Facebook wall and decided I would clean it up and make it into a blog post. By the way, I know that I lapsed and missed a few days after my huge streak to start the year. There was a death in my family and I also had a hectic trip from NYC to Las Vegas. Anyway:

Professionalism” is about conformity to a *very* narrow idea of success. It assumes the worst about people – that what we look like is somehow indicative of our worth and that snap judgments (“baggy clothes, no good”) are merited. It’s ironic that so many “professional” organizations take extensive measures to ensure that they don’t discriminate (Internet job applications have been a godsend for HR departments in this regard, since they can facelessly turn someone away without having to worry about allegations that appearance was an issue) yet constantly discriminate on nonsense like whether you’re wearing a suit or not and, more subtly, if you even have enough money and status to really be a “professional.” If you want proof that the suit-dominated world is one that has its roots in patriarchy, then look at the suit’s history as something that men wore while hunting in centuries past.

I find that the word “professional” when used as a self-descriptor is filler – there are so many other terms that could be substituted that would tell me more about you. But, its usage makes sense: It’s a keyword for a certain type of hierarchy, a differentiator meant to cut off all those “non professionals” who have to wear company-supplied uniforms (think fast food or retail) or lope around in jeans and a hoody.

Speaking of which, this is one of the few areas in which I think Silicon Valley has actually been an improvement over older corporatism. Say what you want about Mark Zuckerberg, but him wearing a hoodie to his meeting with bankers before Facebook’s IPO was a strong symbol of the gap between freedom (to wear whatever one wants) and conformity (having to wear a suit all the time). Weird how only the rich and poor (especially in the service area), by and large, can escape the professionalism trap without any consequences.

Obsession with clothing in the workplace, enforced from above by management, is, I think, a symptom of what Paul Krugman has called in his economic articles “Very Serious People,” who present airs of seriousness – Solving Big Problems, Having No Time For Nonsense – that belie their actual non-serious positions, which can run the gamut from fretting about Medicare funding during the Great Recession (Krugman’s classic example) or, similarly, worrying about *attire* in organizations that have the material resources to – if they wanted to – drop the patriarchal politics and enact enormous change for the better. That was a long sentence


Finishing a book in a day

A few days ago, I did something I hadn’t done in 15 years: read an entire book in one day. When I was in the 8th grade, I remember polishing-off “The Third Eye” by Lois Duncan in an afternoon and an evening. Since then, I had’t read a novel in under 24 hours (Platonic dialogues and Aristotelian treatises don’t count).

The book that broke the streak was “The Looming Tower” by Lawrence Wright. The subject matter is depressing: it looks at 50+ years of history in the Middle East and the U.S., chronicling the rise of radical Islam in inimitable fashion, blending an abundance of details with a narrative style that breathlessly takes the reader from a 1940s cruise ship on the Atlantic to the mountains of Afghanistan to Lower Manhattan on 9/11.

After finishing Wright’s tour de force – I read it entirely in iBooks – I was impressed at how inseparable the history of the Kingdom Saudi Arabia is from the history of radicalism in the 20th century. Osama bin Laden’s father, Mohammed bin Laden, was a pivotal figure in the development of Saudi Arabia’s modern infrastructure. The unprecedented flow of money into the Kingdom from the early 1950s onward put enormous pressure on basic Arabian identity, which for centuries had been centered on an unchanging bedouin lifestyle.

Moreover, the bloody standoff in the Great Mosque in late 1979 – a surreal scene that involved a bunch of French commandos converting to Islam in a flash so that they could enter the building and attempt to gas the occupants (they failed) – resulted in a hard rightward turn for the country that matched similar shifts in Iran following the overthrow of the Shah. Many nations in the Arab world and in Central Asia became stricter after incidents like this one, including the shocking defeat by Israel in the Six Day War.

Sam Harris once said that we all live in Israel, since radicalism is closer than we think and we have to guard against its encroach. One could also say that we all live in Saudi Arabia, where all it takes is a major geopolitical event for the entire state to change course and become more assertive. Many Americans living in the U.S. after 9/11 can relate.

As the book comes to a close, Wright deftly switches between characters, chronicling their ups and downs in such a way that I had to stop and remind myself that these were all facts rather than fictions. My own memories of 9/11 are ones of confusion. I was in a windowless art studio at my high school when my mom came in and told me what happened. Because of how carefully controlled the school was, and due to the complete lack of mobile phones at the time, I didn’t see the TV coverage until we got home that afternoon.

I kept imagining fighter jets for some reason crashing into the World Trade Center. These days, I’m hard-pressed to think of what such a moment would be like with the abundance of media now at my disposal. Twitter, Facebook, et al have yet to have any moment like 9/11 or the O.J. Simpson chase or the JFK assassination that so defined TV as a medium. I feel like coverage would be both overwhelming and boring, with insight balanced out by inane clickbait and naysaying about how no one’s to blame etc.

Anyway, this post took a very different turn from where I thought it would go. Yes, I read a book in a day, and it reminded me of the huge gap between the effort of writing and the ease of reading. A book that surely took years to write could be finished in an afternoon. I see this even on a small scale with my own day job work, which can take hours each day but would in full take mere minutes to read through. It’s depressing in a way, but also invigorating – the quicker the reader can make it through, then perhaps the better job the writer did of coming up with something engaging. That was definitely the case with “The Looming Tower.”

Robots and jobs

Tomorrow I’ll post something longer since I think I’ll finally feel recovered enough (and maybe my hand-chapping will be better). For now, I was going through stories in the DuckDuckGo app and saw a somewhat fatalistic column in Vice about robots and jobs. It had the usual language assigning so much agency to robots and abstract forces like “automation,” rather than, of course, the people making the decisions leading to these outcomes.

“As more and more automated machinery are brought in to generate efficiency gains for companies, more and more jobs will be displaced, and more and more income will accumulate higher up the corporate ladder. The inequality gulf will widen as jobs grow permanently scarce—there are only so many service sector jobs to replace manufacturing ones as it is—and the latest wave of automation will hijack not just factory workers but accountants, telemarketers, and real estate agents.”

All of this is possible (likely, even), but if one had only read this column, then she might believe that it was inevitable and not a matter of political choices. Slate fortunately ran a piece just yesterday on the analogous subject of income inequality, in which the author chronicled the history of labor unions that won incredible concessions from the corporations and robber barons of the 19th and early 20th centuries – as uphill a struggle as imaginable, but one showing what’s possible with dedication and focus.

The current state of affairs, with rising inequality yet apparent public indifference (no protests, etc.), is, according to historian Steve Fraser, attributable to “public admiration for workaholic entrepreneurs whose self-serving definition of freedom legitimizes their reign.” That seems like a fungible, highly reversible mindset rather than something decreed for eternity.

In his most recent “Common Sense” podcast, Dan Carlin did a good job of explaining how everyone seems to be resigned to the Vice writer’s outlook, though. Basically, he argued, the free market, whatever its merits, has basically been off-limits for serious philosophical debate since the end of the Cold War. It’s not hard to imagine, though, that many workers in America and elsewhere at least subconsciously belief in hard work more than they do the free market, though politicians, especially on the right in the U.S., have long tried to conflate the two. Imagine if he we had one of the serious debates on the topic that Carlin imagines.

I’m not sure what it will take for people to finally prioritize their own interests over the acquiescence shown to abstract concepts like “innovation” and “progress” that have a spotty moral track record. It seems like real action is far away for now given how much the technology media is committed to the narrative of robots, “disruption.” and job cycles. Knowing what it was like to search for jobs for months with seemingly no hope about 5 years ago, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, no matter what robotics-driven benefits accrued to the upper strata of society.

Cooking and writing

My output has been slowed a bit recently due to some weird chapping of my hands. No matter how much lotion I seem to put on, they’re still peeling and it feels weirdly uncomfortable to type. So I have turned my hands to some other tasks like cooking.

Back in 2009 and 2010, I cooked a lot since I had almost nothing else to do because I worked only part time. The oven I had in my second apartment ever got hot too quickly and was not very good for baking. I mainly cooked breakfast (bacon, eggs), the occasional piece of tuna steak or pork chop, and instant mashed potatoes. I gained a lot of weight during this period and didn’t lose most of it until 2013.

My current apartment has better appliances although it is very space-constrained, which makes moving around difficult. The challenge has been invigorating, though. Today I made some turkey burgers mostly following a recipe from Anne Burrell. It seemed absurd at first – I mixed in the turkey, grated ginger, onions, garlic, breadcrumbs, soy sauce, and a quarter-cup of water. It was soggy and gross.

With some handwork though, the patties finally came together. If there’s one issue with ground turkey, it’s that it’s so dry, so all that water and soy sauce was needed to keep the burgers moist after the molding, cooking, and resting. I also added some sautéed peppers and mayonnaise to the final burger and bun combo to ensure that it was thoroughly juicy.

Cooking is like writing in that it seems to never feel good – at least for me – while it’s occurring. Everything seems to be going wrong – maybe that seasoning was too heavy, maybe that paragraph veered off from the rest of the piece – but it seems that if enough anxiety is expended, then somehow it will turn out ok.

Anxiety is sort of to writing what salt and elbow grease are to cooking, in my experience. More so than passion, it makes everything work. It force the mind to go through different dead-ends, possibilities, and pitfalls, to produce something that has direction and holds together against all that could tear it apart.

Settling Back In

Today was a transitional one (and a holiday here in the U.S., Presidents Day – a third-tier holiday, but still a day off), and I spent most of my time around the house adjusting to the London-to-NYC time change. Now watching a mysteriously acclaimed film called “The Master,” directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.

The soundtrack, by Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood, is reminiscent of that that accompanied another Anderson film, “There Will Be Blood,” which Greenwood also scored. Radiohead the band never did that much for me – too anodyne, too acclaimed by Internet trolls – but Greenwood’s soundtrack work is nicely asynchronous – it doesn’t go with the action on-screen and instead sort of becomes its own imaginary plot line.

The music over the opening beach and ship scenes, for instance, makes me think of a dance occurring in the desert, which obviously isn’t what’s unfolding on the screen. In a way, the Greenwood soundtrack is a throwback to the silent movie era, in which music dominated the proceedings because dialogue didn’t exist. It’s like he is dragging music from another era into the present, which is perfect for “The Master”‘s blend of meticulous 21st century film making and portrayal of a bygone era.