Friday, March 30, 2012

Fair Princess, I Have Returned

Today I took a vacation day. In order to give structure and purpose to my afternoon hours, I resolved to go to the nearby reservoir area and walk in the woods. (I admit to lack of ambition in my leisure pursuits. Other men might use a vacation day to learn skydiving or fly fishing. For me, the day is a success if I can motivate myself to shave, dress, and get out of the house.)

As I walked through the forest of leafless cottonwood trees south of the reservoir, a memory from the mid-1970s came to mind.

I had visited a renaissance faire held in the piney woods north of Houston, Texas. There were the usual jousts, strolling minstrels, and bawdy skits (Captain: "Abandon ship, men! Into the lifeboats and grab the oars." Passenger: "They hain't 'ores, gov'nor! They's me wife and daughter.") There was a grand food court where uproarious women hawked mead, turkey legs, and more modern fare rechristened for the occasion (e.g., mesquite-grilled Elizabethan ribs). These brazen tavern wenches put themselves in character, more or less, by means of unstrung bodices and broad cockney accents -- "Come here, ducky, and take a look at me wares."

As I made my way through the food court, I noticed an unmarked path leading back into a thick stand of pines. In hopes of finding a quiet respite from all the commotion, I took the path and went deeper and deeper into the shadowy woods. As the noise of the food court receded, my ears caught the faint sound of music ahead, notes softly plucked amid the stillness of the pines. I went on. The path opened into a small, sunlit meadow. Alone in the center of the meadow a young woman was playing a full-sized harp. She was a fairy tale princess in a flowing gown of light blue and a matching conical hat with a white veil trailing from the apex. The veil brushed her shoulders when she leaned forward to pluck the lowest harp strings.

I stood still, admiring her and her music. She showed the depth of concentration that was the hallmark of a true musician. I was fascinated. It seemed to me that wondrous possibilities might await me. In my youthful susceptibility to the romantic impulse, it was easy for me to imagine that this could be a turning point in my life. (During these years as an aimless young engineer, I was greatly in need of a turning point or any kind of direction whatsoever.) She finished her melody, noticed me standing at the meadow's edge, and gave me a smile.

It was time for me to speak. I needed to say something appreciative but not effusive, something witty but not glib, something in the spirit of the renaissance period without being overly precious -- in short, I needed to say the fairy tale words that a commoner of worthy character must say to pique the interest of a princess. As I opened my mouth to speak, people walked past me into the meadow. They circled the harp and asked the princess to play requests.

My moment was ruined. I stepped forward to throw a five dollar bill into the porcelain tip bowl beside the harp and then left the meadow feeling diminished and somehow defeated.

Today as I walked through the woods, I listened for harp music. Sometimes you get a second chance.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Taste of Retirement

I took a day of vacation today. I idled about in my townhouse until the early afternoon and then took a stroll to a nearby delicatessen. The word delicatessen is a borrowing from German, the plural of Delikatesse, meaning delicacy. But no delicacies or dainty foods for me today. I feasted on a heaping bowl of salad topped off by two hard-boiled eggs. I even added a big dollop of hummus on the side.

After lunch I walked by a fountain. It was unusual to see it in operation in March, but the unseasonably warm weather must have allayed fears of pipes bursting during a cold snap. I decided to take a picture. Stepping carefully through the scattered goose droppings (geese adore the fountain), I pulled out my camera and composed an artistic shot, all the while being careful to face away from the adjacent restaurant, an upscale mock-Italian palazzo, to avoid giving offense to the diners on the patio. Just after I snapped my picture, the fountain abruptly shut off. The water fell down with a splash, leaving a bare, gurgling nozzle amidst the dying ripples of the pool.

Merely a coincidence, I thought. Nothing personal. However, as I was departing and preparing to cross the street, I glanced back and noticed that the fountain was gushing again. Clearly, the restaurant didn't want old men loitering around taking pictures and annoying its customers -- those fine customers, those productive young workers from the surrounding office park who sat beneath the yellow patio umbrellas and chatted over aperitifs and overpriced delicacies.

As I considered my activities today, I concluded that I had gotten an early taste of retirement. Retirement may offer leisure and opportunity for contemplation. But, once outside the bustle of productive life, retirees may find themselves treated as an unwelcome nuisance by the young.

I aim to stay in the workforce for many more years.

Wildfire Sunset

Our March weather has been remarkably warm and dry, heightening the risk of wildfire (from the Old English wildfȳr). And lo, a string of brush fires and grass fires ignited in the prairie land west of the metro area. The worst of the fires was a controlled burn that got fanned out of control by the brisk wind coming down from the mountains.

The wind carried smoke and ash across the metro area, enveloping everything in a gray haze that stung the eyes. At sunset the sky was a fiery red, as if lit up by some vast volcano beyond the office buildings.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Chopstick Weight Loss Program

The Problem

I am forty pounds overweight. I like to think of myself as corpulent, verging on stout. The Mayo Clinic offers a less flattering description: their body mass index (BMI) calculator labels me as obese. Alas, it's true. My stomach sags over my belt. When I look at myself in the mirror, my features – formerly chiseled – appear as soft and puffy as rising dough.

The Cause

The cause of my weight problem must be attributable to a disorder in one of three categories: character, environment, or mind-body interaction.

Lack of character is the time-honored explanation of obesity. As the Roman physician Galen (130 - 200 A.D.) claimed: "A great belly betrays a vulgar mind." Historic Judeo-Christian teachings consider obesity as fundamentally a moral failing, the consequence of the sins of sloth and gluttony.

An environment explanation of obesity would place the blame on my surroundings instead of my character deficiencies. I would be viewed as the victim of a stressful and sedentary occupation. Corporate America has forced me to sit and fret in my cubicle all day. Who could blame me for finding solace in food?

Although it would be easy to blame myself or my environment for my obesity, I think I have a more penetrating explanation. The root cause of my obesity is that decades of assiduous practice have made me much too efficient in the use of the fork. I wield a fork as skillfully as Zorro wielded a sword. Long before my digestive system has signaled a quenching of appetite, my swiftly darting fork has already taken me past the point of overeating. And when I eat too fast, I eat too much. Before I realize it, I sail past satiety, surge past surfeit, and then plunge past surplusage to the very gastro-elastic limits of engorgement

The Solution

I must make my eating process less efficient. One might naively suppose that I could simply eat slower – space out my bites, chew longer, that sort of thing. Unfortunately, the amount of concentration required for this solution is too great; my forksmanship has grown so advanced and automatic that the fork seems to have a mind of its own.

I considered acquiring miniature eating utensils. Reduction of fork capacity would result in reduction of food ingest per unit time. Alternatively, I could use a regular size knife and fork but cut my food into tiny pieces that I would then suck up with a straw. From a topological perspective, this would be analogous to limiting food ingest by reducing the size of my mouth.

While these restrictive approaches have their functional merits, they would invite unwelcome attention to my table manners at a restaurant. And imagine the poor impression I would make if I ever dined out with a prospective sweetheart!

Finally I arrived at a workable solution – chopsticks.

My chopstick technique is clumsy. If I don't pay careful attention, the chopsticks cross and flick food onto my lap. Chopsticks would be just the thing to help me throttle back my eating speed.

To test my solution, I have eaten Asian food every night this week (Chinese on Monday, Malaysian on Tuesday, and Vietnamese today). Chopsticks have worked like a charm. By the time I have finished chasing the last tablespoon of rice around the bottom of my bowl, my stomach is declaring a timely feeling of fullness.

Now all I need is a sweetheart that likes Asian food.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Specialization - Bad and Good

I just finished reading the book Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford (motorcycle mechanic and erstwhile political think-tank Ph.D.) The blurb on the front flap of the book jacket is a reasonably accurate summary of Crawford's intent: "Shop Craft as Soulcraft brings alive an experience that was once quite common but now seems to be receding from society – the experience of making and fixing things with our hands. Those of us who sit in an office often feel a lack of connection to the material world, a sense of loss, and find it difficult to say exactly what we do all day. For those who felt hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, against their own inclinations and natural bents, Shop Class as Soulcraft seeks to restore the honor of the manual trades as a life worth choosing."

As a veteran of many decades of cubicle sitting, I was in sympathy with Crawford's polemics. I especially liked his analysis of Henry Ford's introduction of the assembly line and its effect on his workers and factory work itself (pp. 40-42):

At the turn of the last century, the manufacture of automobiles was done by craftsmen recruited from bicycle and carriage shops: all-around mechanics who knew what they were doing....

Given their likely acquaintance with such a cognitively rich world of work, it is hardly surprising that when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line in 1913, workers simply walked out. One, of Ford's biographers [Keith Sward, The Legend of Henry Ford, New York: Rinehart, 1948] wrote, "So great was labor's distaste for the new machine system that toward the close of 1913 every time the company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963."

What sort of men were these first, the 100 out of 963 who stuck it out in the new assembly line? Perhaps it was the men who felt less revulsion because they had less pride in their own powers, and were therefore more tractable....

Ford was forced to double the daily wage of his workers to keep the line staffed....

Ford himself later recognized his wage increase as "one of the finest cost-cutting moves we ever made," as he was able to double, and then triple, the rate at which cars were assembled by simply speeding up the conveyors. By doing so he destroyed his competitors, and thereby destroyed the possibility of an alternative way of working. (He also removed the wage pressure that comes from the existence of more enjoyable jobs.)

To corroborate Crawford's account, I searched the Internet and found an economic study that quoted statistics from S. Slichter in his book Turnover of Factory Labor (New York: Appleton, 1921.) Slichter stated that during 1913, 50448 men were hired to maintain an average labor force of 13623, amounting to a 370% annual turnover. The daily absenteeism rate ran about 10%.

I ran a rough simulation to determine the percentage replacement of this workforce of 13623 by hiring 50448 other workers. The result was that about 97% of the original 13623 workers would be replaced during the year.

Henry Ford was forced to make a bold move to staunch the defection of workers. He doubled the daily wage to $5 in 1914. This proved to be a sufficient bribe, and enough competent workers put aside their disgust and stayed on the assembly line. Turnover plummeted. Ford was on his way to automotive dominance.

As might be expected, the Ford corporate website presents a somewhat rosier account of this critical period in American industry:

In 1913, to help meet the growing demand for the Model T, Henry Ford turned his attention to improving the manufacturing processes. The business model Ford developed — production on a grand scale, performed by well-paid workers — spread throughout the world and became the manufacturing standard for everything from vacuum sweepers to cars, and more.

The moving assembly line was perhaps Ford Motor Company's single greatest contribution to the automotive manufacturing process. First implemented at the Highland Park plant in Michigan, the new technique allowed individual workers to stay in one place and perform the same task repeatedly on multiple vehicles that passed by them.

The moving assembly line proved tremendously efficient, helping the company to far surpass the production levels of its competitors while making its vehicles more affordable.

After the success of the moving assembly line, Henry Ford had another transformative idea: in January 1914, he startled the world by announcing that Ford Motor Company would pay $5 a day to its workers. The pay increase would also be accompanied by a shorter workday (from nine to eight hours). While this rate didn't automatically apply to every worker, it more than doubled the average autoworker's wage.

While Henry's primary objective was to reduce worker attrition — labor turnover from monotonous assembly line work was high — newspapers from all over the world reported the story as an extraordinary gesture of goodwill.

This mind-numbing specialization of the assembly line – a worker might be in charge of tightening only nut #89 on each passing automobile – was an early and striking example of the twentieth-century trend to concentrate design under the authority of a small group of experts (expensive workers), who then set up systems and processes for routine implementation by a large group of clerks (inexpensive American workers or very inexpensive workers in foreign countries). This use of specialization and routine may have started with the assembly line, but now also pervades white collar companies. I see many young engineers at work who were educated to be problem solvers, but at work are given only a very limited scope to apply their talent. They become myopic and frustrated, lacking a vision of the big picture, having only the fuzziest idea who the end user is and what the end user actually needs from the complete software product.

I think the main danger is the restriction or dumbing down of one's involvement with work rather than specialization itself. Certain kinds of highly specialized activities can be very meaningful in the context of a cohesive team effort. For example, nothing is more specialized that ringing a handbell in a handbell ensemble. And handbell ringers are typically very happy people. (See for yourself. Go to YouTube and check out any of the ensembles playing the delightful Rondo Passacaglia by Cynthia Dobrinski, a fine composer who is approximately my age. Why can't I meet women like this?)

If I should ever be favored with great wealth, all of my formal banquets will be graced with handbell ringers.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Nature Walk

Yesterday, for the purpose of stress reduction, I decided to walk in the grasslands and patchy forest beside the nearby reservoir. I applied sunscreen, donned my straw hat, grabbed my camera and a water bottle, and set off for the reservoir.

To begin my nature walk in a tranquil mental state, I tarried awhile along the shore. Few boats were on the reservoir. The water's surface was calm, showing only tiny ripples from a light breeze.

Two ducks, a male and a female, swam up to the shore in front of me. The male looked at me and quacked some muted, phlegmy quacks. I think he had a cold. Taking the duck's comments as signal to get moving, I left the reservoir and wandered around in the adjoining trees and brush until I found the official trailhead.

As I started down the trail, I resolved to be mindful of my surroundings. One can learn much by observing nature and asking why things are the way they are. There was a line of trees ahead of me. Why were they in a line? The trees were separated from the water by a marshy area. Why couldn't the trees penetrate the marsh? My mind filled with questions. Why this? Why that?

I heard rushing water ahead. I hurried forward along the trail until I saw a fast moving stream. It was beautiful. Trust me, contemplation of a stream is a sure-fire tonic to the disposition.

By this time I was fully relaxed. Ideas came to me. I should buy a used kayak and paddle around the reservoir, I thought. I conceived the outline of a folktale about a young soldier being assigned a quest in order to prove himself worthy of winning the hand of the King's daughter. And the soldier seeks the help of a wizard. But the wizard is out of town and the wizard's incompetent brother tries to offer help in the wizard's place. And the consequences are both calamitous and amusing. Clearly, observation of nature frees the mind and stirs the imagination.

As Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his Treatise on Painting: "I will not forget to insert into these rules, a new theoretical invention for knowledge’s sake, which, ,although it seems of little import and good for a laugh, is nonetheless, of great utility in bringing out the creativity in some of these inventions. This is the case if you cast your glance on any walls dirty with such stains or walls made up of rock formations of different types. If you have to invent some scenes, you will be able to discover them there in diverse forms, in diverse landscapes, adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, extensive plains, valleys, and hills. You can even see different battle scenes and movements made up of unusual figures, faces with strange expressions, and myriad things which you can transform into a complete and proper form constituting part of similar walls and rocks. These are like the sound of bells, in whose tolling, you hear names and words that your imagination conjures up.

Don’t underestimate this idea of mine, which calls to mind that it would not be too much of an effort to pause sometimes to look into these stains on walls, the ashes from the fire, the clouds, the mud, or other similar places. If these are well contemplated, you will find fantastic inventions that awaken the genius of the painter to new inventions, such as compositions of battles, animals, and men, as well as diverse composition of landscapes, and monstrous things, as devils and the like. These will do you well because they will awaken genius with this jumble of things. But, first you must know the components of all those groups of things you wish to represent, such as the members of the animal kingdom, as well as the components of the countryside, such as rocks, plants and similar things...."

I walked and walked until the sun began to set. This was the cue for the white-tailed deer to come out of hiding. They paid me no attention, except for the largest deer, who gave me impertinent looks. I think that he may have been toying with the idea of eating my straw hat.

I returned home in the dark. I was somewhat footsore but refreshed in mind and spirit.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Internet or The Brain (Take Your Pick)

While I was a lad in my twenties, I found that my literary creativity depended on my devoting regular time to nature walks. I wasn't sure whether it was the peacefulness or else the mild exercise that helped me think; but whatever the cause, when I walked my thoughts grew deeper and more subtle. Key relations among themes and descriptions scattered across the scenes of my story would be revealed to me as I passed by hills, trees, and streams. As I walked I would become aware of an internal life and logic to my story; I discovered connections and complexities that I had never suspected when I was at my desk initially constructing my scene outlines and glorying in my cleverness at stitching together a rough plot.

Because of my experience with the benefits of nature on my creativity, I was curious to read Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

Carr's 2010 book, an elaboration of his highly regarded Atlantic Monthly cover story, is a journalist's account of how the Internet interacts with and modifies our thought patterns. Carr, as an intelligent layman writing a popular science treatment, generally relies on anecdotes drawn from history and literature. He mentions scientific studies but doesn't provide quantitative results. All the same, he seems to do a good job of summarizing the conclusions of the studies and explaining their significance. Here's an example (p. 124):

Imagine filling a bathtub with a thimble; that's the challenge involved in transferring information from working memory into long-term memory. By regulating the velocity and intensity of information flow, media exert a strong influence on this process. When we read a book, the information faucet provides a steady drip, which we can control by the pace of our reading. Through our single-minded concentration on the text, we can transfer all or most of the information, thimbleful by thimblefull, into long-term memory and forge the rich associations essential to the creation of schemas [memory structure]. With the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from one faucet to the next. We're able to transfer only a small portion of the information to long-term memory, and what we do transfer is a jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream from one source.

Here is Carr's summation (p. 194):

The influx of competing message that we receive whenever we go online not only overloads our working memory; it makes it much harder for our frontal lobes to concentrate our attention on any one thing. The process of memory consolidation can't even get started. And, thanks once again to the plasticity of our neuronal pathways, the more we use the Web, the more we train our brain to be distracted – to process information very quickly and very efficiently but without sustained attention. That helps explain why many of us find it hard to concentrate even when we're away from our computers. Our brains become adept at forgetting, inept at remembering. Our growing dependence on the Web's information stores may in fact be the product of a self-perpetuating, self-amplifying loop. As our use of the Web makes it harder for us to lock information into our biological memory, we're forced to rely more and more on the Net's capacious and easily searchable artificial memory, even if it makes us shallower thinkers.

Carr's argument is persuasive and, consequently, depressing. The only ray of hope appears very near the end of the book (p. 219) and confirms my own experience concerning how nature benefits the mind.

A series of psychological studies over the past twenty years has revealed that after spending time in a quiet rural setting, close to nature, people exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory, and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper. The reason, according to attention restoration theory, is that when people aren't being bombarded by external stimuli, their brains can, in effect, relax. They no longer have to tax their working memories by processing a stream of bottom-up distractions. The resulting state of contemplativeness strengthens their ability to control their mind.

This is why I have resolved to walk in the nearby park every evening and limit my time on the Internet.

Also, this is why that I assert that a randomly selected group of Iowa farmers would do a better job of governing the United States than the current officials in Washington, D.C.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

In the Belly of the Beast

Now comes the twilight of my mediocre engineering career. My skills are outdated and I have grown too expensive, I'm told, to perform technical work on my company's dwindling portfolio of government projects. My career has become an illustration of the Prostitute's Lament, as formulated by business writer Everett T. Sutors: "If you keep doing the same thing long enough, you'll eventually end up doing it for a lot less money."

Last year I was a fat target in the cross-hairs of my company's "greening" initiative (i.e., geezer ejection initiative). To avoid demotion or forced retirement, I fled the technical ranks in November to become a Functional Manager. My title is misleading; I perform no management. Rather, I have joined my company's employee placement system for staffing technical projects. I help hire college kids; I shuttle workers between projects – those workers still young enough to have viable careers – and I commiserate with workers my age who are being booted into a premature retirement. In short, I escaped being a victim of "greening" by hiding within the very belly of the beast.

I am preparing for my new role in the employee placement system by reading an early edition of John Gall's landmark tome Systemantics: How Systems Work and Especially How They Fail (1975). Gall provides a concise summary of his thought on the back of the dust jacket:

Systems are seductive. They promise to do a hard job faster, better, and more easily than you could do it by yourself. But if you set up a system, you are likely to find your time and effort now being consumed in the care and feeding of the system itself. New problems are created by its very presence. Once set up, it won't go away, it grows and encroaches. It begins to do strange and wonderful things. It breaks down in ways you never thought possible. It kicks back, gets in the way, and opposes its own proper function. Your own perspective becomes distorted by being in the system. You become anxious and push on it to make it work. Eventually you come to believe that the misbegotten product it so grudgingly delivers is what you really wanted all the time.

At that point encroachment has become complete. You have been absorbed. You are now a Systems-person.

I have not learned enough to achieve absorption yet. After all, it is difficult to fathom the workings of real-life systems, as Gall explains in the book's Introduction:

If young people lack experience and interest for understanding How Systems Work, older people are already defeated. They may have learned from direct experience a few things about systems, but their experience will have been fragmentary and painful – and in any case, for them the battle is over. No, only a handful – only a lucky few – ever come to a clear awareness of this dread and obscure subject.

I mean to be one of the lucky few. I may be old, but I'm not defeated. I may be bruised and battered; but I'm still in the battle, even though I'm currently hunkered down in a fox hole out of the line of fire. I will devote myself to understanding the inner workings of the employee placement system. My goal is complete and abiding absorption within the system as an inextricable Systems-person (at least until the time comes when I can retire on my own terms).

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Angst of Modern Office Buildings

I live near a large office park. Most of the office buildings are drab eyesores architected according to a utilitarian aesthetic commonly associated with Stalinist Russia. Consider the building below, a temple to some colorless and infertile god of the post-industrial economy. How can creativity flourish in such a sterile, soulless place? Perhaps all the workers are menial clerks who need to be discouraged from introducing unwanted creativity into their ledgers and spreadsheets.

This building's green windows offer a faint improvement.

Only slightly better is this building with green windows and a few extraneous semicircles at the penthouse level.

Such buildings make one wish to flee to the sanctuary of mountain forests.