Salaryman hits the pavement

Blurry SalarymanFor the last decade, I’ve worked in the IT department of the same company, a Fortune 500 multinational with well over 100,000 employees. On the whole, the experience has been a positive one. It’s provided stability through difficult times, regular pay, good benefits, and reasonably interesting work

Last week, my department was informed that the company would be “expanding” its “operational excellence” program. On Monday, the suspected meaning of this rather Orwellian phraseology was revealed: I’ll be getting my walking papers. If I’d thought a bit faster, I would have worn a “pink slip” costume on Hallowe’en, despite the risk of an HR incident.

The company has gone through layoffs in the past, but up until now I’ve passed through them unscathed. Each time, those shown the door are assured that it’s nothing personal and does not reflect at all on performance. I’m not sure what effect this is supposed to have on morale, but those who remain seem to find this rather depressing: there’s no safety in personal excellence, and one’s fate lies in the hands of maliciously indifferent accounting trolls.

It was a rough few days coming to grips with this new, less-secure reality, but I’ve adjusted. If they offered me my job back, I wouldn’t take it. I’m taking my decade of real-world experience and my freshly-minted M.S. into a job market that’s looking pretty healthy. There are a few months until my job ends, so there’s plenty of time to find something interesting to do next. I’m even considering switching to working on my Ph.D. full-time for a while, but I suspect that M—— and the cats may not be too keen on living on ramen.

Herr Ziffer’s recent post on technical interviewing would seem to be all too timely . . . time to start sharpening my teeth.

Photo of an Osaka sarariman courtesy JanneM.

academia computer science reflections

Magister Scientiae

Ramon Lull’s Arbor Scientiae Somewhat to my surprise, I find that I have finished my M.S. and the degree will be awarded in six days. At last, I can be addressed as Wohlgelehrter Herr Magister! My calculations had led me to believe that I had two more quarters before completion, but I certainly wasn’t going to argue when the department sent me a graduation notice.  The bureaucrats have been propitiated, so it’s all over but the ceremony.

Next stop: doctorate. I’ve officially transferred into the Ph.D. program. Until Friday I could still say that I was still on the fence, but iacta alea est. I’d assumed that switching tracks wouldn’t be a particularly big deal, but I find that it’s a significant mental and emotional shift.

There have certainly been research elements to the master’s program, but at its heart it is structured around classes. Until now, it’s been picking the most interesting items off of a menu and running with them. From here on out, I’m building my own curriculum, and research is central.

It really is like starting out fresh, but from a higher level of sophistication. The professor who has been acting as my advisor is leaving, so I’ll need to establish a new relationship, one that will be the best match for my research interests.

Research interests! That impending choice has certainly been haunting my sleep for the past few months. To my generalist instincts, it feels a bit like selecting the color of my straightjacket. There are too many interesting pathways to select just one! Still, this is the way that the game is played, and I have some ideas. Once they’ve coalesced, expect some discussion in this forum.

I’ll have a brief, much-needed respite before I pick things up again for the summer term. Of course, work continues—it will be a bit of a dance balancing office and academia, but I’ve survived this long. What’s three or four more years?

books reflections

A Time and a Place for Everything

Meiji-era Wooden Squat Toilet M—— often reproves me for a habit she finds reprehensible: reading while in the bathroom. I shall not be moved. The mind can be engaged even as Nature is answered.

Most modern American houses draw the functions of their rooms from a strictly limited palette: the kitchen for cooking and eating, the bedroom for sleeping, the bathroom for ablutions and elimination. Most residences cannot support a library, a room strictly for reading. And why should they? Some of us feel no compunction about reading while eating, while in bed, while in the bath, and (dare I add) while on the toilet. Neurotic mysophobia aside, why not?

After our return from an evening excursion to the local independent bookstore, M—— was aghast when I did not refrain from taking a newly-purchased volume with me for perusal. In my defense, I pointed her to Junichiro Tanizaki’s essay In Praise of Shadows. One must move beyond the automatic cultural associations of the toilet with all that is unclean, unspeakable, and unthinkable.

The parlor may have its charms, but the Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose. It always stands apart from the main building, at the end of a corridor, in a grove fragrant with leaves and moss. No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden. The novelist Natsume Soseki counted his morning trips to the toilet a great pleasure, “a physiological delight” he called it. And surely there could be no better place to savor this pleasure than a Japanese toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks out upon blue skies and green leaves.

As I have said there are certain prerequisites: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and quiet so complete one can hear the hum of a mosquito. I love to listen from such a toilet to the sound of softly falling rain, especially if it is a toilet of the Kanto region, with its long, narrow windows at floor level; there one can listen with a sense of intimacy to the raindrops falling from the eaves and the trees, seeping into the earth as they wash over the base of a stone lantern and freshen the moss about the stepping stones. And the toilet is the perfect place to listen to the chirping of insects or the song of the birds, to view the moon, or to enjoy any of those poignant moments that mark the change of the seasons. Here, I suspect, is where haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas. Indeed one could with some justice claim that of all the elements of Japanese architecture, the toilet is the most aesthetic. Our forebears, making poetry of everything in their lives, transformed what by rights should be the most unsanitary room in the house into a place of unsurpassed elegance, replete with fond associations with the beauties of nature. Compared to Westerners who regard the toilet as utterly unclean and avoid even the mention of it in polite conversation, we are far more sensible and certainly in better taste.

Now, I have to mention that during the time I lived in Tokyo, most of the traditional-style toilets I encountered were not exemplars of absolute cleanliness, nor were they surrounded by the contemplative silence of nature. One would be extremely unlikely to encounter one of Tanizaki’s wooden “morning glory” urinals, filled with cedar boughs and allowing “not the slightest sound.” At the other end of the spectrum, in a private home I encountered a high-tech suupaa toire of the sort with electronically-controllable, integrated bidet. The soft, heated seat was certainly much more suited to a pleasant experience than the Western wooden or plastic oblong.

Henry Alford, writing for the New York Times, considered the history of reading in the loo (quote lifted from Bibliobibuli):

In the mid-18th century, Lord Chesterfield wrote that he knew “a gentleman who was so good a manager of his time that he would not even lose that small portion of it which the call of nature obliged him to pass in the necessary-house; but gradually went through all the Latin poets, in those moments.” . . . Most scholars contend that bathroom reading is largely a modern pursuit: the chamber pots and outhouses in use prior to the 1920’s and 30’s were not ideal for perusing texts. Yet Roman baths contained libraries wherein one could pore over scrolls, and “The Life of St. Gregory” (1296-1359) recommends the isolated retreat of the medieval fortress toilet — located high up in towers, close to heaven, so as to offset the perceived baseness of the act being committed — as a place for uninterrupted reading.

Cogitation and reflection need not cease when we visit the bathroom; reading and contemplation should be woven through the fabric of our lives.

(Image of Meiji-era wooden squat toilet courtesy Wikipedia.)

books computer science reflections

Italo Calvino on Computer Science

Railroad Bridge in Coatesville, PA(Never fear, part 2 of “Towards a New Salon” is in preparation, and should be posted soon.)

Wishing to refresh my memories of its contents, I have been trying to locate my copy of Six Memos for the Next Millennium—without, alas, success. The vagrant book yet wanders.

With a bit of wandering on my own, I managed to scrape up a copy for immediate reference. The public library system in my county has eighteen libraries. While you can request a volume from another library, I typically prefer to visit them in person. Often, the smallest locations will have the only copy of some surprisingly obscure volume. Over the years, I’ve found an excuse to visit thirteen of them. That number has now increased by one, as the library computer system indicated that the Coatesville library had the only copy of Memos.

Coatesville is disheveled, depressed city, wounded by the withering of the steel industry; the downtown looks beaten and nearly abandoned. The atmosphere of the library is close and depressing, almost dank. I was happy to locate the Calvino and depart.

I had never driven Route 82 before, and as I headed out of the city to the north I was struck by the massive stone arches of the railroad bridge. I’ll have to head back with my camera one of these days. (I did find a lovely photo of the bridge’s reflection on flickr, which illustrates this post.)

I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed Memos the first time I read it. This time, I was quite surprised to come across a passage about computer science in the essay on “Lightness.”

I look to science to nourish my visions in which all heaviness disappears. Today every branch of science seems intent on demonstrating that the world is supported by the most minute entities, such as the messages of DNA, the impulses of neurons, and quarks, and neutrinos wandering through space since the beginning of time . . . . .

Then we have computer science. It is true that software cannot exercise its powers of lightness except through the weight of hardware. But it is software that gives the orders, acting on the outside world and on machines that exist only as functions of software and evolve so that they can work out ever more complex programs. The second industrial revolution, unlike the first, does not present us with such crushing images as rolling mills and molten steel, but with “bits” in a flow of information traveling along circuits in the form of electronic impulses. The iron machines still exist, but they obey the orders of weightless bits.

And so the library’s computer system led me to a city vitiated by the departure of the steel industry.

(Photo of the Coatesville railroad bridge courtesy Cyber Insekt.)

language reflections

On Not Having a Classical Education

When I was in my last year of college, I took a course on ancient comedy and satire. Sure, I’d grown up reading Greek myths. I could rattle off names of lineages of Roman god. Even so, I’d never really been exposed to the historical events of that period. The first part of the course was a historical “refresher” for something I had not previously realized I was lacking. Until that course, I had never even heard of the First or Second Triumvirates, never head of Pericles outside of a list of Shakespeare’s plays, nor given any thought to how much of our modern systems of governance are derived from Greece and Rome.

At that point, I began to wish that I’d had a proper classical education, that I had grown up reading Caesar and Livy, that I’d been forced to decline and conjugate until it was burned into my schoolboy brain.

Instead, I had grown up with a computer. That had, of course, its own pedagogical fecundity, but I wanted Greek and Latin. I had studied a bit of biblical Greek at the local community college during high school, but I didn’t really understand what other doors it could open. When I arrived at Simon’s Rock, Japanese had seemed much more exotic, complex, and appealing.

After college, I began reading, trying to fill the void inside with knowledge: Herodotus and Suetonius, Durant and Fuller, Courtesans and Fishcakes. For a while, it was enough.

Now, though, the classics are calling. On the bookshelves downstairs are volumes in Latin from the library of my wife’s grandfather, who was a professor of linguistics at the University of Michigan. For years, I’ve snapped up Loeb editions when I’ve encountered them in used bookstores. Still, they are unread. It’s always, someday, I’ll learn Latin. Someday, I’ll be able to read classical Greek.

In December, I determined that someday should not be postponed forever, and that I would take action. I was tempted to wait until I was finished with grad school (in computer science, so twist it how I might, I can’t connect the two), but I knew that there would always be a dozen very good reasons to put it off.

Over the holidays, I began to research the best way to proceed. I found two great resources: TextKit and LatinStudy. The former collects a large number of textbooks and grammars, and maintains a forum for discussion. LatinStudy takes a different approach, running a mailing list for groups who are working through the same texts. I’ve joined one of these groups; in forty weeks, I’ll have worked through Wheelock’s.

Old school as it may be, I’ve been carrying my handwritten flashcards with me. A classical education postponed still has its satisfactions.

input devices mental exercises reflections

This Is Your Brain on Dvorak

Kinesis Contoured KeyboardSince reorganizing my office, I’ve started using my Kinesis keyboard again. Despite its somewhat peculiar appearance, it’s an extremely well-crafted device. It has a satisfying tactile response approaching the classic IBM keyboard (though without the clickity-clickity), and the concavity gives each key a different shape and feel. It also puts six keys (including Control, Alt, Backspace and Delete) under each thumb, a digit typically consigned to whapping the space bar. Its only significant fault is the lousy, chiclet-style function keys.

The last time I used the Kinesis heavily was when I was learning the Dvorak keyboard layout. I’ve made several runs at it, and the last time I pushed through to start achieving some reasonable (though hardly fast) speed. Dvorak is not without its controversies, but even without the grandiose claims it’s been a very interesting mental exercise. The Kinesis is switchable between QWERTY and Dvorak layouts by hitting a combination of keys. I’d left the keyboard set to QWERTY, and hadn’t thought much more about it for six months.

When I started writing an email, I noticed that I was stumbling, hitting lots of wrong keys. Much to my surprise, my motor memory was trying to type Dvorak. When I switched the keyboard over, I found that I could hit a steady (if somewhat slow) pace.

Switching back and forth between the two layouts is a curious mental exercise . . . when I type a sentence, I typically don’t think at all about the individual letters, or even the mechanics of typing; the words just seem to appear on the screen. Immediately after switching modes, there’s an internal tension, with two competing pathways trying to activate. It’s an almost disconnected, ghostly experience to feel and watch my hands flicking over the keys without conscious intervention.

Despite my increased fluency with Dvorak, I’m still painfully slow compared to my normal speeds. This makes it very hard to persevere for long periods of time . . . it prevents achieving a state of flow, of union with what is happening on the screen of the computer. Even so, it is fascinating to watch the process of the brain rewiring itself under the pressure of new demands.


Horseman, pass by – Robert Anton Wilson, Requiem in Risu

I just heard the news: Robert Anton Wilson died yesterday. He was an eclectic, synthetic, creative mind, and I miss him already. I never met him, but his books made a stong impact on both my adolescent psyche and my mature aesthetics. Simon’s Rock, the end of the eighties: Victoria loaned me her copy of Illuminatus!, driving more cracks into an already-crumbling shell of Lutheranism. Not long thereafter I found Prometheus Rising, Schroedinger’s Cat, and others.

After leaving the Rock, I realized that I was episkopos of my own Discordian splinter, the Order of the A.’.A.’. (the Aboriginal Aubergine, for the truth is that Eris rolled a golden eggplant into the feast on the Mount, not some tatty apple). Since then, Bob’s books have helped me keep my world a bit broader, a bit funnier, and a bit stranger than it might otherwise have been.

Thanks, Bob, and Goddess speed.