The kitchen sink

You don’t build a Web site without calling upon a wide diversity of skills. A sitebuilding guru needs to have his head around programming, engineering, information science, statistics, visual arts, animation, writing, editing, marketing, advertising, and at least three different disciplines (cognitive, behavioral, and social) of psychology. Formal training (or applied experience) in project management, music, logic, and business are — while not strictly necessary — also a big help. This breadth of knowledge needs to be mated with a superlative degree of computer literacy. Finally, all of those capacities aren’t fully useful unless they’re mated with some talent for walking in another’s shoes.

At the risk of stating the obvious, I also point out the value of unquenchable intellectual curiosity.

That’s not to say that a Web developer needs to achieve mastery of all these endeavors, but eventually they do need to develop a clear understanding of the fundamentals of each, sufficient to the needs of real-world application. That’s why everybody drools over the prospect of employing multiple-skill rockstars at their shops: if a candidate can prove to her interviewers that she can create production-ready assets with a diverse set of tools, that’s an obvious signal that she’s rockin’ out the multidisciplinary reality of sitebuilding.

Math, meanwhile, speaks for almost all of the disciplines I listed at varying degrees of involvement — but a great many people consider themselves math idiots. After the fact many of those hide behind hemispheric differentiation; too many others spent too many of their formative years discouraged from acquiring the discipline and perspective required to understand anything more cognitively demanding than basic algebra. There also seems to be a weird social prejudice to the effect that if you’re verbally astute, you can’t possibly have strong formal reasoning skills.

I saw evidence of that prejudice from the most unlikely of people while I was working on HTML & CSS: The Good Parts.

There’s no getting around the fact that some talents you’re just born with (or without). For example, given three months of immersion in any language, I can function and frame my thoughts in that language. I know people who manage the same result with far less. My best friend here in Lawrence, meanwhile, has an eidetic sense memory but struggles to diagram an English sentence.

Two years ago L. and I were out drinking by way of celebrating my birthday, and at one point he rolled me a near-perfect cigarette just to prove that he could. Until then he’d never rolled a cigarette in his life; he’d only watched me do it hundreds of times. That’s what I mean by “eidetic.”

As I’m fond of saying, it takes all kinds. For all that, I believe that math isn’t nearly as hard as the math nerds would like you to think. It’s called “the language of science” and like any language, it can be figured out to the degree of usefullness given enough practice and discipline.

What am I doing in this handbasket?

A month before I reached my seventh birthday, I found myself in San Antonio, under the burden of a voluntary foster-care arrangement. It was voluntary for Mom, anyway. I was two thousand miles away from everyone and everything I knew, in a genuinely alien environment, and it sucked. Eight inches. Out loud.

It sucked even louder when, six years ater my return from that arrangement, I was informed exactly how pointless an exercise it had been. Thus goes a big part of the reason why I’m constantly en garde against lies and betrayal.

My third challenge — after acclimating to the massively alien environment and finally learning how to tie my shoes — was learning to function as an IEP student, a status for which I qualified on the basis of four criteria in spite of my obvious cognitive gifts. They didn’t make it easy.

Before school started that year I was enrolled in Montessori. That didn’t last for reasons that I might spell out someday, but in any case, to be accepted I was called upon to take all manner of tests.

Those tests suggested that I was superlatively bright, and naturally the results were also made part of my academic record.

That September, the responsible authorities took one look at that record and decided to stick me with math that was three years ahead of my grade level.

My foster mother’s first act upon my arrival was to revoke nearly all television privileges, which led by turns to the astigmatism I suffer to this day and in that single summer vaulted me to reading skills nine years ahead of the norm. That fun statistic explains the earlier incident that sealed my fate as an an IEP student in the first place, and illuminates so much about my character that my mind is still a little boggled by it.

I don’t doubt that they thought “hey, let’s boost the kid’s self-esteem by letting him prove to himself that he’s really smart.”

Goddammit, I already knew that. What I wanted was a working grasp of interpersonal boundaries, so that I could get along with people and recognize without needing to be told when it was time to flip the bozo bit on people whom I needed to value for other virtues, or avoid completely.

Seriously — I want to like people, and I always have… but they make it so difficult sometimes. As for “avoid completely” much of that school year was an unsuccessful exercise in being taught how to recognize and steer clear of bullies, whose motivations I’ve never been able to comprehend with any real success.

As for math, I was dumped into the deep end. No effort was made to attenuate my learning curve. By the end of the first grading period, I’d burned out, leading to more harm than good.

The do-over

In spite of her overwhelming ego, my foster mother recognized that she’d fucked up, withdrew me from school at the end of the second trimester, and hammered out an agreement with NEISD that allowed me to mainstream the following school year.

Third grade was everything that the second hadn’t been. My teachers were firm but fair, and Mrs. Smith — my math and language arts instructor — saw the burnout. She made it a bit of a mission to drag me out of it, kicking and screaming at first. Most importantly, she helped me find the edge of my performance envelope, and made a point of letting me push its edges on my own intiiative alone.

By that time I could barely see past loneliness and homesickness. I was anxious beyond belief to be back with Mom.

…Seriously. My grandparents were enthusiastically welcome recurring characters. I respected Dad from the bottom of my heart, but feared him a llittle because of his temper — a sentiment still visible in traces today. Aunts and uncles and family friends — especially the one who became my stepfather — were with only one exception Fun Personified. For all that, a day in which I failed to earn Mom’s approbation was miserable by definition. So it remained until her second round of addiction treatment was proven a failure, seven years almost to the day after I’d been sent to San Antonio.

That’s most of what I remember. In the balance I remember a teacher who encouraged me every time I made progress, and wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. Looking back I realize that she saw my capacity for sticktoitiveness, for stubbornness, and got the most she could out of it. Now that I dig, I recall hearing the statement “you can do better” from her almost every day.

It took another year — my second of three, sometime later — on an IEP before I fully regained the confidence in math studies that was implied by that “first” battery of tests, largely due to the efforts of another teacher who picked up exactly where Mrs. Smith had left off. In fact, in this job I get more daily use from the fundamentals I learned in Mr. Martin’s classroom, than I do from any other knowledge learned in any other single classroom.

The reasoning skills I practiced ad nauseam (albeit willingly) in Geometry two years later take a close second.

When I look for meaning in those learning experiences — when I consider their application to life as I live it today — the math’s not important, for the most part. The numbers and symbols are just an orthography; the language, meanwhile, is not one of science, but of solving problems, of learning how to break progress toward an objective into steps, of learning how to document your work without resenting the tedium, of learning how to recognize patterns and in so doing save time.

Had I not learned those things, I’d probably be doing something else entirely with my life, than this — and I’d probably be a lot unhappier doing it.

Postscript

When I consider the three years of IEPs, the isolation I experienced in Texas, the reality of loving dearly someone who was never able to make her way past addiction, the awful problems with self-control and boundaries that are literally nightmarish… I remember the other kids in those IEP classes. I remember the sincere mien of the teachers who led those classes, one of whom made a point of collaring me more then ten years after I last stepped through the door to his classroom.

I think of all the people I’ve known who grew up in worse circumstances than me but managed — by dint of cleverness or parental irresponsibility or feminine temperament — to avoid being set apart formally by the People In Charge, not always for the worse.

A lot of those people are recovered addicts; a few are felons. The rest pay some other price. Some raise walls against others with the strength of sheer will, amplified by fear, more or less as I’ve described over the past several days. More than a few, like Dad, are current or former workaholics.

I’ve never been an addict to anything but nicotine, and I’ve never done time. I recognize a need to bring my walls down to an achievable height; that’s what this whole excercise in peripateia is about! I’ve got plenty of elbow grease on hand, but I’ve known since early childhood that workaholics are just putting up a different kind of wall.

I do not want sympathy, much less pity.

…In fact, if you’re feeling any pity for the man I am or the child I was, please leave. Get the fuck out. Don’t come back until you can summon some genuine respect. kthxbai.

I write this stuff down because I feel lonely, but I know that I’m not alone. I want to find some of those people, or at least help them find themselves. I write this down because I want to tell the sanity apart from the psychosis, to stand back so that I can see the line between paranoia and situational awareness.

It would be nice, though, if I am certainly doing those things without wasting your time.

…As for the choice of music, it’s a bit of a trite reach, but it’ll do, and it’s appropriate to the date.

Music

Chantal Kreviazuk, “Time”
@amazon
@allmusic

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Does Not Compute

Does Not Compute —by Ben Henick, 1 July 2010

All journal entries

  1. Talking About the Weather
  2. To the Rafters?
  3. Coming of Age with Killer Apps
  4. Race to the Bottom
  5. Meditations on Decay
  6. Net Neutrality, or the Lack Thereof
  7. Three Problems
  8. Post Mortem of a Book Project
  9. The Egg and the Chicken
  10. Yellow Dog
  11. Digging Through the Clutter
  12. Lessons from Mom
  13. Being Careful What You Wish For
  14. Out on a Limb
  15. Beliefs, No. 1
  16. Like a Chimney
  17. Does Not Compute
  18. Past Trends, Future Results
  19. Beyond These Four Walls
  20. Competence, Confidence, and Reality
  21. Anesthesia
  22. King of the Mountain
  23. “A Deer in the Headlights”

Disclaimer: This is definitely self-indulgent. If you don’t like it, read somebody else.

This nook of the Internet is my antidote for Twitter. ©2010 Ben Henick, all rights reserved.

Job, or hell?

Yesterday I happened on two links. (Good grief, I love the Web.) The first is an e-mail alideshow of sorts aimed at the guts of some hypocrite named Spencer, the author’s (erstwhile imaginary) boss. The second is an article in Slate discussing the (un-) desirability of low- to mid-level service jobs.

…And then there’s the story of the flight attendant who on Monday found a spectacular way to say “take this job and shove it” after being verbally assaulted at length by a passenger.

All three pieces are a kick. Reading them in rapid succession, as I did yesterday afternoon, is a kick in the guts. The article about jobs-in-general particularly evoked from me a visceral response.

Rich get richer, poor get poorer

The sense of entitlement to profit that I raised a few days ago is evident in every talk about compensation I’ve heard about, or participated in, in the past several years. It seems to me like the vast majority want labor for the cheapest they can possibly obtain, while remaining content to throw handfuls of money at senior management and holders of equity — even ones who, as it turns out, contribute little or nothing.

It always seems like the same old story: hire somebody with the basic minimum of proven ability in order to get away with paying them as little as possible, train them up to the minimum needed by the organization, fire the ones who don’t take comfortably to that scheme at the instant they’re identified, and work the others to the bone until they burn out.

I believe that on some level, most people recognize that this is going on. However, I struggle to understand why. It seems axiomatic to me that people who feel valued will work harder, yet the trend moves toward every possible effort to remind people that they’re replaceable and ought to get the best out of things while they can.

Compassion vs. sociopathy

The only fact that adequately explains this prevailing state of affairs is broad, unwitting subscription to the system cobbled together from the amoral rants of a mildly nutty Russian emigré. On balance that would not be so bad, except that like that ethos’ nemeses — Communism and Christianity — “Objectivism” works a hell of a lot better in theory than in practice.

I see two deep flaws with this ethos, deepening my my confusion. First, we can’t all be Howard Roark; lots of us lack the temperament requisite to that outcome. As much to the point, if we all could have and act upon that power, civilization as we know it would rapidly descend into barbarism. One man’s clear thinker is another’s cold-hearted sonofabitch, and the latter type is awfully good at inducing conflict.

Second, human beings possess and act upon compassion compulsively; the ones who habitually refuse or fail to do so are (rightly) called sociopaths. We all recognize that the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and communities tend to raise the minimum when given the chance. Cutting loose that weak link instead… goes a bit far.

Meritocracy

The happy finish of the labor market’s neo-Nietzchean race to the botom can be found in two virtues that are compatible with all of the belief systems in play: honesty and fidelity.

As it stands, the realities of social (im-) mobility leave some with first-class tickets, and consign the rest to steerage barring both outstanding luck and superlative effort. Furthermore, there are no guarantees that anyone who manages to climb their way out of steerage won’t be shoved back down by some vindictive asshole.

Rewarding honesty and fidelity in the workplace — and penalizing those who lie, cheat, and habitually cover their asses — would go a long way toward making the labor market a better place for everybody.

We have the technological capacity to discover and promote out of steerage quickly the ones who’ve earned it, as a matter of course. We can do the reverse for those who feel most inclined to rest on their laurels. Why don’t we?

Music

Hey Lewis & The News, “Workin’ for a Livin’”
@amazon
@allmusic