Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Make a Little Metasense, Why Don't We?

Technology was trying to tell me something, but I kept dismissing its attempts to waylay me. The first train glided away, even as a small queue of us waited for the ticket window to reopen. It, like the next train into the city, was delayed by some disruption of power further down the line. I found the office building, and after a quick roundtrip to the right floor of the wrong tower, sheepishly sauntered into the meeting, late for the keynote address. At least, the chairs were comfortable, and my baleful expression was accepted in liu of a broader apology. I settled in for six hours' worth of cerebral indulgence.

It must be some sort of subliminal urge to seek balance, but after many years of accumulating data in databases, I decided that it would be good to know how the other half lives. Raw data is generally only interesting to whomever designed the database, but to be useful, it must be decanted into simpler relationships that answer other peoples questions. Often, these questions are posed long after the original architects have moved on, at which point, others, some of them conferees in this room, are brought in, to get the answers.

The likelihood of me aspiring to this austere fraternity is much higher than the probability of them letting me in. "Sorry, Charlie! We don't want tunas with good taste, we want dolphins that taste good!" Despite my neophyte status, it seems I blended in well with the other attendees. I kept waiting for caterers to roll in trays of jumbo shrimp, but in the end, settled for recognition of other oxymorons. The Book on this crowd is, "With increased knowledge comes increased sorrow", a concept with which I'm acutely familiar. A trace of this must have revealed itself to others in some subtle fashion, and I was treated collegially in conversations with others with whom I'd never met.

As it happens, one of the principal hurdles of this line of work lies not in reading tea leaves (scientifically speaking) for others, but in convincing them not to try making hemlock-flavored tea in the first place. On one hand, the data forms the basis for information, which should lead to decisions; on the other, data is often treated with distain or indifference by those who need information. The first presenter was an author and authority on designing data warehouses, and despite dozens of slides of intricate business relationship diagrams over the first three hours, I was able to follow his reasoning without any real difficulty. Since it was largely a technical subject, his was the easiest to follow. The other two presentations dealt with soft-suit issues, such as working with management teams, achieving professional recognition from other principal fields of endeavor, and protecting data from misuses and neglect. The people seemed as harried as anyone else, but just as capable of personal interaction, which was a relief.

I flashed back to a few years ago, recalling my son's nightly sign-off ritual, which finally was clear to me, in this room. I might have been on the phone to someone in Singapore or Shanghai, working through some technical issue from my dimly lit office at home, or composing some statement of work, proposal, or other bumpf for the next day. Home, but distracted. From the darkness of the middle room, I would hear a small voice, intoning, "Urgent... Urgent...", as he approached. From the shadows, he would bound forward to give me a 'Good Night' hug. Even as a young child, he evaded the physical appearances of his age, and looked like a scaled-down version of himself, now. I still don't know how or why that particular word rose to prominence in his ritual, but it was the one right word for the moment. Even delivered sotto voce, it cut right through whatever else I might have been doing, inerrant and unadorned.

Metadata, as it used, apparently passes through a similar moment of grace, before it is passed along in some other form. Like a school of Tetras, it shimmers past in the murk, raw, clean and unbiased, on its way to transformation. The data which is described by the metadata is often a herd of cats distracted, and the final product is often an extruded, filtered prop for some statistically specious proposition. The people in this room, calm and thoughtful, are ringmasters for the process, but they have the burden and luxury of witnessing such moments every day, whereas the rest of us are oblivious producers of data, or else, consumers of information. I could see it in their expressions, and I could have sworn that there was that little voice, in the background, softly resonating around the room; Slightly different message, maybe, but the voice was unmistakable.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Memorial Day

There aren't many echoes in my diminished world, but I am not oblivious to the outside world. I knew that there was national holiday somewhere around now, and that if traditions held, families would be packing the kids and coolers into their mini-vans, in favor of a long weekend in the mountains, or at the beach. I tip my hat at this much-needed ritual, and its salutory effects on the people who can follow such things. I am left to wonder what, exactly, my fellow citizens are commemorating (it may not be the same set of heroic ideals originally to be honored by Memorial Day). I don't think that there was an equivalent to the unbroken procession of chaotic, vengeful movies (most of which seem to have a quasi-military flavor) that run all weekend long, just in case we're not getting enough red meat in our diets. Maybe the idea of firing up the barbeque and tilting back a few cold ones had some sort of parallel, back in 1868, when it was still Declaration Day, or after WWI, when it was extended to honor all soldiers who fell, regardless of which war claimed their lives. I can envision the countless bloody battles in my mind, and even imagine the solemn horror of the generals who ordered them, but we live in day when memories are carefully cultivated and weeded of such trivialities as motivations, politics, or repercussions.

I had occasion to attend a luncheon of retired plasterers and masons, along with my father. The pleasure of this outing held an unexpected treat, though none of the attendees appeared to be dead. Virtually all of them were family men, ex-plasterers, and veterans of bygone wars. We sat in a small union hall, in a dilapidated and obscure part of the city. By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, my dad had spent nearly forty years in the trade, and had personally run enough mud (be it brown-coat, water-proofing, finish lime, stucco, or scratch coat) to fill the hall in which we were cooling our heels from floor to ceiling, and wall to wall. And maybe then some. Over the years, he had worked with many of the grizzled men who arrayed themselves in little octets at the surrounding tables.

The refreshing things about the meal were the totally unapologetic attendees, and the simple, closed protocols which revealed themselves through rough, backhanded compliments. In my dads case, two plasterers recalled a job on which they had both worked with him. They were working at plastering a subway station, which was busy with passing trains and passengers. The other two had conspired to slowly increase the amount of wall that they were rough coating, while Dad followed with the finish coat. By the end of the second day, they were having a chuckle while he finished at a demoniacal pace. Plastering is hard work, even under favorable conditions; evidently, Dads finishing had proceeded at a merry pace indeed, which left him thoroughly exhausted. But, they agreed that nobody in the city came close to him, when it came to finishing. This comment would have probably drawn an indifferent reply, coming from someone else, but none of these men had any asses to kiss, and could just as easily have taken their recollections another way. Genuine compliments are a rare and exquisite thing among these men from their obscure and brutal world. Much of their meaning derives from the harsh nature of their shared experiences, sort of like watching cactuses come into blossom. I wish I could translate this into a white-collar analog, but the words escape me. I felt as though these veterans had allowed me a glimpse of something long since cast aside in the modern working world. Better still, I could see the tonic effect that their rough anecdotes had had on him. Nobody who's ever picked up a trowel would consider speed-plastering a good practical joke.

As callous as it may sound, Memorial Day is less about the dead than the living. There are countless object lessons to be drawn from our various bloody encounters, but the dead are beyond our sentiments or bunting. Not so the living, even less so the survivors, who have been left to match their own actions with some irrefutable, unimpeachable reasons. If we simply catalog and glorify carnage, without bothering to examine causes or effects, then maybe we have forgotten already why the day's memorialized. It isn't as simple as sleeping through a few history lessons. Though their days are shortening, these old plasterers have paid in full- with their lives- for privileges which may make sense to them, and ought to make more sense to the rest of us.

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Systems Peculiar Help Files

The clouds had massed in silence, obstructing the view of whatever Moon and stars there might have been to attend the nearly silent interment. The small garden shovel dutifully excavated the dirt from above the trench which had been refilled less than a year ago. My children looked on, as a small hole gradually emerged from the reluctant earth. The spades curious sighing and scratchy monologue would have to serve as a eulogy for the unfortunate cat, there being no one around to verbalize the past few hours of turbulence.

Not unpredictably, the call of the wild had eventually led to her demise. As if to declare, "I WILL be free!", she had bolted out the door a few days earlier, despite orders from the vet to keep her indoors. This foray into the wild went about as well as the previous one (which saw her return home, a tuft of fur missing, and fang marks in her shoulder). A trip to the vet ensued, but she had figured out a way out of the large, neo-Victorian collar she wore to prevent exascerbation of her vicious wound. She darted past me, as I returned from grocery shopping; a shadow flew past, to join the manifest darknesses outside. The night and days passed, but her whereabouts were unknown, until this evening.

Shortly after nightfall, the shadows diverged for a moment. Haggard, a much larger exfoliated patch surrounding her supporating wound, she protested feebly, until the door opened. Whether driven on, or drawn from us, her urge must have been a truly ferocious thing, though evidently, not so great as her urge to come home, if only to be deceived by the lights and the love which were not without. By 10 o'clock, she slept the soundest sleep, bundled tightly in a pillow case; the dirt, pebbles and divots which fell softly nearby seemed, at last, incapable of disturbing her. Each for reasons of our own conjured no tears, but the clouds obliged, as the last shovelful was tamped into place. Not a deluge, only, a few drops for each cheek. I will miss our conversations.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Convenience: Its Own Reward?

I have a hard time figuring out what things actually cost. It's not as though I'm a neophyte, or totally naive about prices of items. The sticker rarely represents what's truly owed for some object or service. More often, the transaction which confers a given benefit for value is merely a jot on the timeline, a punctuation of a continuum which sticks in ones memory; neither the beginning nor end of sentence.

"Big whoop..." is probably a reasonable response to this idea, if you're accustomed to things like mortgages or car payments, in which something tangible has a direct, well-characterized monetary value associated with it. We are conscious of such things, mainly because they fall some where along the observable spectrum of items that we either can't live without, or, things without which we cannot live. There's no point in bemoaning this somewhat restrictive range of desires, but like a bee's vision, there are other portions of the spectrum to consider, despite our evident lack of acuity or sensitivity to other phenomena. "Well, there go about ten bucks worth of syllables, to what end?"

Well, since I asked:
Modern automation makes it possible to give gifts that keep giving, long after the occasion which prompted their original donation. The phrase that comes to mind is, "Fire, and Forget", or FaF, which if memory serves, refers to a class of weapons (missiles, in particular) which are intended to be discharged by the operator, without the requirement to wait around to ascertain accuracy. As with so many of these little expressions, this term sticks in my mind for its other nuanced interpretations. I'm going to leave this hanging in the air for your consideration, without much more elaboration (See? FaF strikes again!), but for folks who may experience FaF in their own lives, without being able to classify the sensation, you have my sympathies. We didn't necessarily invent it here, but there's a booming industry in turning people into objects here. People feel pain, loneliness, anger, and other identifiable reactions to intemperate or callous actions; objects are convenient in that no real consideration is necessary, and there are few repercussions for mistreating them, it follows that people should be objectified as often as possible, else one runs the risk of developing a conscience, or worse, fails to be as productive as possible. Not shipshape! For God's sake, can't we do something quick, like (in anonymity) electronically smearing someone? No need to think about retractions or mea culpas. We aren't set up for taking words back, or erasing them - these are anathema in a world of FaF living. If we thought about it later, would we even care about future implications of our irate words and deeds of today? What does it matter anyway, if they are stateless, entombed in the fabric of common knowledge, and we are powerless to reconsider them? Cupid would have quite a different reputation, had he traded in his quiver for a brace of RPGs, and yet, we chuckle at his fanciful ability to elicit totally disproportionate responses in others lives. The chuckling would stop (as I suspect the arrows would), if Cupid were identified as the culprit, and received an in-kind retaliation.

(Note: Actually, I think the term (in its full war paint) was:
an acronym for "Lock On Launch, Fire and Forget". It's been a while, but that's the general idea, even if inexact in translation. Sounds pretty buff, eh? I've seen this acronym in more contemporary blogs and chats, but doubt if the intent is the same.)

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

It's Always Just Personal, Never Business

"Am I hovering asleep, or could I really be standing awake? Beneath me, I can feel the firm timbers as they shake, though I never felt them move, until a moment ago. Rigid and motionless, I see the glass, steel, and air flow, slower down there, nearer the water, slower still overhead. in front of and behind me, separated by only inches and dread,
Opposing trains roar past, each politely offering me to the other.
Neither one accepts my token, so long as I remain perfectly still, and since I can't move a muscle at the moment, I guess that I will. I started walking hours ago, bearing along a problem I had to wrestle. I took no notice of the tracks I was following, much less the trestle, Serious enough, yet still alive, ignored for the moment by roaring brutes, hastening past me and each other, two fast trains on reciprocal routes."

The bad news is, indifference is an even better marksman than is compassion.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

More Imperfect Symmetries Ahead

Having designed the pit and installed the cages,
must I now chain myself to the bars as my neighbor rages?
I built it, yes, but should have asked what or who
would join me in my menagerie, my own little zoo

As to the zoo, there was something off with old one,
that made me think of building another; It's nearly done.
In the old one, the beasts got three squares, but no frills,
and paced their lives away, behind wrought iron grills.

The new one keeps the living in much the same form
As if living our lives this way should be the norm.
The results are a bit different, and I hold myself to blame
The creatures are captured, yet, never trusted as tame.

But have time and compassion gone their separate ways?
There may be no safe side of the bars, these days.
Man, like the beast, finds fewer places truly home,
no setting in which to stand, to live, or roam.