Surfeit

Posted on January 13, 2013
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My complaint (for everything from me must be either a complaint or a critique) is simple:  a surplus of luxury.

I have been feeling mopey for, oh, months anyway, and can’t seem to shake it. I thought if I enrolled in an MBA program I would be challenged and burdened enough to keep my preoccupied, but no; I fit that into my schedule without difficulty. I thought that if I exercised more regularly that would improve my mood. Well, perhaps I am still not exercising enough (who ever does), but I am doing well enough that I am reacquainted with that wonderful light ache of a well-used muscle. It’s a pleasant feeling of accomplishment, of fulfilled purpose even, and secondarily it is pleasant to be aware of one’s muscles. It strokes the vanity. But for all that, it’s an ephemeral pleasure and not the cure I was looking for.

I am the victim of my own success. I was trying to balance a life of work in North Carolina, friends in Pennsylvania, and family in New York. I could manage two but the three were overwhelming, and I found an opportunity to reduce all that down to one. It was not a natural opportunity, and I only exploited it through divine intervention, but now here I am with work and family comfortably co-located. I am once again showing up in family pictures in the mix of siblings. I took a long walk today with several brothers, returning home to a dinner that appeared without any effort on my part, as it always does these days. Such a relief from the trial of finding my own food! A battle I too often surrendered before.

I have long considered an MBA program because it fits so well into the current trajectory of my career, but when I was too taxed to reliably find my supper I thought it unwise to add academic responsibilities on to that. I am aware that others have overcome greater obstacles to achieve their MBA, and better things than that. Surely, it would not have been exceptional for me to enroll in an MBA program when I was living on my own. But it is so very much more convenient this way.

I am apologizing – I don’t know if you can tell, but I am – I am apologizing for how easy my life is. I am already earning comfortably above the median household income for the area in which I live, and on track to increase that, meanwhile not paying much concern to where my dinner comes from or most any other domestic responsibilities. I am ensconced in the support of my family and still almost completely free to do as I please. It is a ridiculously easy life that I live.

I am sorry to say that I am not completely content with this life. Sorry because I know it is an insult to many in this county, state, and country, let alone the world, for me to find anything lacking in my pacific lifestyle, and sorry because, not being content, I am feeling sorry for myself. I don’t know what to do about it. Oh, it would be easy enough to find some poor people to patronize; someone I can visit, and bestow my charity upon, and marvel at their poverty of means or comforts. But visiting charity is the drug of the affluent. It can bolster a sense of wealth and virtue and accomplishment, but it does not actually cure the poverty of the soul that inspired the search for a cure. Love and truth come in relationships that are more taxing than that.

I have so much. I am surfeit of all but gratitude. Friend, will you teach me gratitude?

It Must All Equal Zero

Posted on January 9, 2013
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A considerable part of my job is reading the tea leaves to determine why our market share is what it is and what it is likely to do next. We calculate our market share by submitting our sales and getting aggregated totals back. There are various details to this information, but to maintain confidentiality of contributing members’ specific information a lot of the details are deliberately hard to connect. As part of this deliberate ambiguity, we can tell what was produced at the factories and what was sold to customers, but we cannot link the two directly. For some purposes we report factory share and for some purposes we report customer share.

Throughout this year a gap has opened up between our factory share and our customer share. Ordinarily the difference is not hard to explain; units produced but not sold are generally in stock in someone’s inventory. It’s a simple concept and it more or less has to be true (although there is always the possibility of reporting errors, and there are several different kinds of inventory that may not easily follow the reporting guidelines).

I am aware of this straightforward explanation and made use of it in November and December. It’s getting somewhat threadbare now. It’s not really adequate to explain what’s been going on. So today I started checking into our numbers to see if there was something going wrong on our side.

The actual collection of our numbers and the hand-off with the trade association that compiles the numbers is not part of my responsibility. I generally make use of the numbers as provided. When I went diving into the numbers looking for problems I was excited to quickly find a discrepancy. I was almost sure I had found the explanation!

Problem was the discrepancy I found was a bit too large. When I checked with some other number-keepers they confidently told me that my numbers did not represent reality. But now I had to decide whether I had gathered my numbers incorrectly or the numbers were simply wrong. I thought of a way to test the numbers and just like that, I had my evidence that the numbers were wrong. Good stuff! I love finding an explanation!

But with acquired caution I sent my results to be verified by the official number-maker, and he promptly replied, explaining that the reason I was getting unbalanced results was that half the time our system stores sales orders as numbers and the other half as text. It’s bizarre, it’s pointless, it’s bad data management, but it is the way it is. Correcting for this oddity would reduce my imbalance.

Only it didn’t. After I transformed all the numbers to text to permit matching I increased the discrepancy, quite substantially. The discrepancy I now “uncovered” was larger than the original problem I started with. An investigation begun in the morning was now extending well into the afternoon.

I found that several other fields I thought were stable could actually change during the life of the order, including the identity of the customer. These changes were all reflected progressively in my record set, so that one order could appear several times. As anyone who works with databases knows, once a record appears more than once it tends to multiply like a rabbit. I had more than one rabbit. It took a while to hunt them all down.

By the time I got done sorting out all the incorrect relationships it was nearly quitting time. I checked my number one last time, noted it, and realized, like one waking from a dream, that I had lost all sense of context. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do next; I forgot what I was doing before I got sidetracked making sure I was doing it right.

It was one of the more interesting days I’ve had of late. I did some thinking, and then improved on the thinking. A satisfying day.

Novelty and need

Posted on January 6, 2013
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I’m living a pretty easy life right now, but I still find ways to complain about it. I told a friend I wished I had more friends.

“Why?” he said. “What’s lacking in your life now that having more friends would provide?”

Stupid question, right? A lack of friends would be cured by having more friends! And, you shouldn’t value people in a quantifiable way. People — friends — are invaluable. Okay, that’s nice in an idealistic sort of way, but in a practical way what would I notice about “having more” friends?

Novelty. People are unpredictable. People are not all equally unpredictable all the time. There is a kind of bell-curve to the unpredictability of people in general: when you hardly know people at all their behavior tends to be pretty predictable because it is socially dictated. A clerk who deals with people all day long doesn’t often say anything too surprising. On the other hand, people you know very well tend not to be too surprising either. It’s always possible someone you thought you knew will do something that you never expected, but on the whole people whom you have lived with more than a decade aren’t that surprising. Also, when you are spending a lot of time with people your behavior mutually adapts in order to avoid conflict; routines and patterns establish safe co-existence and distort to some extent individuality.

In between these two extremes, when you know someone well enough that your interaction takes place somewhat outside of societal rules, but has not yet established a habit all its own, then you are afforded a rich opportunity to see the world through different eyes. The topics of interest, the points of concern, the methods of affecting change are so different from person to person, and in these differences there is the potential to learn something new: to improve or broaden your own narrow vision, or to offer in turn some helpful insight. I have ready sympathy but a short attention span, so I always care about the problems of others if they seem new to me. But I lose interest when the problems become familiar. My own troubles, of course, are endlessly fascinating: nothing is so endlessly new as the experience of pain.

I am a bit disconcerted by this analysis. True needs are not novel. Nothing I need or anyone else needs is that different from what people have always needed. No altruistic comfort or assistance answering a real need will be forever new. My conscious choice to spend more time with people I have known forever clashes with my semi-conscious urge to always be entertaining novelty.

Saying that I want friends sounds benign enough, to my ear, but I am not sure it is so accurate after all. I wonder if I wouldn’t be just as happy with the same loyal souls for comfort and succor as I dealt with some entirely impersonal novelty. I want to feel needed, and absent that feeling I care little how needed or useful I am. Do I have a beneficial and appreciated role to play now? Yes, but it’s no longer interesting. Would I be any more useful or needed in a different role? I have no reason to think so. But would  a new role equally useful feel more rewarding? Yes indeed!

The desire to feel needed and the answer to real need are to a great extent opposed. It is usually not healthy for needs to be obvious and urgent. When needs are always obvious and urgent most people soon feel ineffectual. In a medical setting the need is often urgent, but if it is always urgent the caregivers typically “burn out.” Few needs are greater than a baby’s need for its mother, but if that need is always urgent the mother will become distraught. Healthy needs tend toward slower currents, a flow perhaps hardly visible from the surface. But the lack of any rushing is not to be mistaken for the lack of any progress. The faster water is the more destructive.

I can think my way all the way through this, and at the end of it all I still want to chuck some rocks in just to see a splash.

Working

Posted on December 28, 2012
Filed Under Journeyman Chronicles, Theological | 1 Comment

Five days out of the week you go to the same place at the same time to do the same thing. One day you notice this pattern. There is a reason for it, of course, but suddenly the regularity of it, the pattern-ness, is strangely compelling. For a moment you have an impression of a vastness consisting of small repetitions. But no; there is no pattern. On the two other days out of seven you always do something different than the five days of sameness!

Still, as you are driving to work you think that the better clockworks turn out some variety, chiming on the hour for instance. Variety can’t  disprove the pattern. Your car can be driven so many different places, but its functioning doesn’t really change. Of course, it can only go on roads, which form a sort of pattern of car-movements. Then you think of the road crews, constantly grinding up old pavement and laying down new. Machines to make ways for other machines that carry us through our little revolutions: back and forth, back and forth.

What sort of machines make road-making machines? And then what sort of machines could in turn make those machines? You imagine that the machine to make a thing must be in some measure larger than what it produces, until you follow the thought for a bit and start rapidly conjuring up ever-larger machines arriving, somewhere, at the Largest Machine of All, the All-Maker. You chuckle to yourself at the thought, the All-Maker. A child’s notion of a factory.

Somehow, the complex machines can be made by the simple, and those by simpler yet. Now your imagination runs in the other direction, seeking the crudest of tools: a rock, perhaps. On reaching this further end you feel an uncanny, superstitious connection between the rock and the All-Maker, as though the first rock-swinger were deliberately working to pave the way for the All-Maker. No, there was no intention in it, or at least no eternal intention. But there was a series of intentions, a crazy, sprawling, senseless progress. It is only causality, but still, from a certain point of view, every moment of time is a gigantic machine for producing the next moment.

You are feeling a bit extruded when you arrive home, a bit too produced. You are the product of two people, of course, but what could be more various than human nature? Still, those two people both came from two people. That’s a bit predictable, but anyway its the only common point; all the rest of the matter is free will and human choice. So you shake it off and you move on.

Later you are in the grocery store when it catches you again. You are halfway reaching for an orange when you think how marvelous it is that the oranges keep appearing, as if by magic. Not by magic, of course, but by a strangely relentless process, as though the whole world has been organized and arranged to keep the quantity of oranges in cosmic equilibrium.

It is an amusing thought but your mind wanders on again until you are eating the orange. The peel is off and you break open the cluster of sections, and as you bite into a section you see the ranks of little drops. You are no expert in biology but you start to think of all the subsystems that go into a living body. It occurs to you how our bodies are sort of elaborate machines for living in, and maybe even our brains are too. Human free will can’t exist unless there are humans, can it, and the humans have to come from somewhere, and evidently there is a machine for that called a ‘human’.

What’s the difference between mindless reproduction and a mind bent on reproduction? All the animals in the world frantically eating, eating, eating, just so that they can make some more animals, and so on until they wear out and flop over dead. Two things on the side of the road suddenly look the same, an exploded tire and a threadbare deer. It’s a depressing thought so you begin to wander around your home looking for signs of humanity, something with no productive purpose.

You can spot any number of things without purpose but they have all been produced and you can’t stop thinking of where everything came from. The disease has completely infected your mind. You start examining the doorjamb because at least that’s wood, and wood is organic so that’s something. But you are oppressed by the knowledge that the tree never meant to be a doorjamb until some kind of machine got hold of it. And who was it that said a house was just a machine for living in? Le Corbusier or something like that. A horrible thought. Your professor tried to convince you that the real thought couldn’t be adequately translated from the French, that the point was not to make a house mechanical but to recognize that the purpose of a house was for living, that the house was a system of components brought together for a purpose. But that’s the damning thing of the whole thought altogether, because now everything you look at, no matter how artistic you meant it to be, was brought there by you, it was brought there for you to live with, it is just the crazy bird’s-nest variation in your machine for living. Cars tolerate some variation, computers a little more; biology is an ocean of variation ordered and ranked into regular waves. No matter how much noise you stuff into your house it keeps right on being a machine for living in, a stage for the production of you, a container for life, a husk.

For the living know that they will die;
But the dead know nothing,
And they have no more reward,
For the memory of them is forgotten.
Their love and their hate and their envy have perished,
And forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun.

Go, eat with gusto and drink with abandon!
For the process is already in motion.
Dress well! Enjoy the company of all your friends,
And true love, every single day
Of your vain life. Whatever you hand finds to do,
Do it with all your might,
For there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

There in the roar and the clang of that factory you realize that you cannot even choose love. You have learned some ways to arrange some lovely pleasures but any love worth its name arrives unbidden, stands to no reason, and outlasts all its causes. Love can appear within the machine but it is not a product, it has no purpose and it has no price. You cannot force it and you cannot make it and you cannot choose it, any more than you can choose to become alive.

And then you see that love is the product of the machine, the only product that is not a by-product. When love is finished the factory is done; there will be rest and no more noise. Le Corbusier may have understood that a house was for living but he did not understand what living was for. A machine never makes what it already is. You cannot choose life.

When at last you have finally deconstructed the entire machine you realize that you cannot choose death, either. Death comes when the machine hammers it out, relentlessly and not always when you expect it because the machine has more wheels than you can ever account for. But if the details are confusing the pattern is plain enough: life, death, life, death, life, death, life. You cannot choose life so you cannot choose death, either.

Fortified by this new hope you take a fresh look at the factory stretching in all directions endlessly around you. Yes, the factory’s days are numbered, and all this work will end; but in the meantime you can make the work go a little better, because you are alive and you are here.

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