Sunday, January 22, 2012

Q: What do programmers and plumbers have in common?

A: Both make the world a better place in which to live.

I've been captivated by programming and software since I wrote my first spreadsheet formula back in the mid-eighties. Despite the complexity of languages to which I have evolved, for me, programming is a compositional act in which the lines of code are more akin to musical phrases than 'just-the-facts' morsels of an instruction set. That I can put them all together and make something that works is still pretty remarkable. That it turned out that I could make living from it is nothing short of amazing. That my code has made a difference for the better is the ultimate reward.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that coding is anesthetic. When you are in the throes of getting your stuff to work, you are completely focused on the abstract game of logical pick-up-sticks that you’ve made for yourself. Nothing else is noticed. Nothing else matters. It’s just you and the code; no food, no sleep, no kids. The state of the universe is of little concern.

Ten years ago I was of the belief that if all the coders in the world understood the awesome power we held and could unite under a common vision, we could create a place completely free of the ills that plague mankind. Turns out that our common vision is acute and episodic. It takes a lot to provoke us, but once provoked, we do act, as shown by our recent reaction to SOPA and PIPA.

Still, at the end of it all, it seemed as if we considered ourselves to be more like civilization’s plumbers rather than its guardians.  I had more than casual contempt for programmers that spent a lifetime learning the ins and outs of new techniques and products for no other purpose than to enhance one’s technical prowess in order to be the smartest person in the room. I was mad that those less versed in the complexities of the coding life, civilians -- for lack of a better term -- were articulating the Big Vision for the Planet and getting the attention due to the people that actually made the world go ‘round. My thinking was that the only action that mattered was the Big Action, that a gesture that was not big enough to get the attention of CNBC, Twitter or Slashdot, was an effort wasted.

I was wrong.

Today I understand the power of humility. Today I understand that plumbers are the true guardians of civilization. Being able to keep the sewerage from contaminating the water supply is probably a first order indicator of a civilized society.

Everyday hundreds of thousands of people sit down in a front of computers to write code that makes the world work. True, some of those people try to make the world work not-so-well. But, for the most part, those slinging the bits are good folks, with good intentions. Does it matter that many are doing so in a dream-like dance between the human mind and the artificial? Dunno. I do like to think that there is a certain advantage to being aware of one’s self and one’s situation. But, ‘so what?’, if it's otherwise.  The important thing is that the code allows the information to flow, uncontaminated and continuously to everybody, because a civilization without water and without information is no civilization at all.

Monday, January 16, 2012

In Memory of Nick Statman

My friend, Nick Statman was buried today at Hillside Memorial Park nearby in Culver City, California. He was 59 years old, two weeks short of his sixtieth birthday. My wife and I attended the memorial service and his burial.

My connection to Nick started as a commercial relationship. Nick’s and my paycheck came from the same employer. Making money was the binding theme that defined the context of our relationship, at the onset anyway.

My relationship with Nick moved beyond the commercial quickly. One day, about 6 months into my tenure at the Day Job, Nick approached me and asked would my wife and I like to join him and his family—wife, brother, in-laws and cousins, for a Sunday’s Dim Sum in downtown LA. I accepted. I was glad that I did. I enjoyed myself thoroughly in the company of Nick and his family, sharing the pleasantries of a Sunday morning get together.

Another time, when Nick learned that my wife and I would be eating solo on Thanksgiving, he invited us to dine at his brother’s rather than go to a restaurant alone for our holiday meal.

Over the three years I spent getting to know Nick, he and I, and our wives, would spend more time together, mostly eating and letting our pets, his dogs and my dog, play together.

Nick was a kind, warm, somewhat cynical, wit. I never heard him utter a bad word about anybody. He never raised his voice. Nick was a generous man, an overall nice guy.  I never left his presence feeling angry or hurt.

Nick’s brother gave a thoughtful eulogy. He ended with a simple phrase, “He was my brother and I am proud of him.”  I have found it rare for so few, loving words to describe so fully the enormity of a life.

I imagine that if you did the math, you’d find out that most of us spend about half of our lifetime with and  around others in the pursuit of making money.  The odds are that we spend more time in the “workplace” then we do at home. Yet how much do we really know about those others with whom we labor for a paycheck? And more importantly, how much do we really care about them? How much do we really want to care?

It’s been my feeling for a long time that when this plane ride we call life takes its final approach and we come in for the landing, in the final analysis, we’re all going to want the same thing--to be around those we care about and those that care about us. It’s the rare person that wants to die alone.

Thus, the paradox: few of us want to be alone, but in that place where we go to make a buck everyday, when it comes to the important things, the things that really matter, many of us are alone and, for the most part, are unknown. It doesn’t have to be this way. Nick Statman’s life was living proof that the workplace could be different. He saw that a relationship could easily go beyond the commercial. He understood community.

Nick Statman was my friend. I am proud of him and all he held dear. I will miss him in ways words cannot describe. May his soul rest in peace.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Q: What was the biggest fashion trend at CES?

A: Earphones

I just got back from two days at  CES 2012 prowling from exhibit to exhibit, looking at the newest and coolest technology that the Captains of Industry have put forth to fatten the coffers of the World Economy. I found pencil thin flat-screen TV's the size of my wall, 3D video cameras priced at consumer purchasing levels, home appliances united together in electronic, domestic bliss, cars that are more like computers on wheels than basic transportation and a plethora of other gizmos that will keep the factories of the planet churning out products of delight into the supply chains of every Big Box and online retailer from Sheboygan to Shanghai. (Whew.....)

I also saw a hell of a lot of earphones. I mean, a HELL of a lot of earphones. They were coming from everywhere. Go down an aisle, there's an earphone manufacturer. Given that I went down a lot of aisles in the 1 million plus square feet of the Las Vegas Convention Center, I am betting that there were enough earphones present in the facility to adorn the ears of every head in Nevada and Utah, maybe Arizona too.

So, it got me to me to wondering, why? I mean, the only time you put on the earphones during my pot-smoking adolescence was so that you could play Led Zep at the recommended volume and not incur the wrath of your parents yelling down from the top of the basement stairs to, "turn down that noise you call music." Otherwise, we'd get together, throw the vinyl on the turntable, light up the joint, turn up the volume and pass the album cover around for collective and individual ogling as music came roaring through the loudspeakers. We wanted to hear the music together.

A lot has changed since that time. First of all, I haven't smoked pot since the Reagan Administration, despite the fact that Ronnie provided more than enough reason for me to want to puff my way into a state of dream-like oblivion. The 12" vinyl disc, with accompanying album-art cover, has gone the way of the typewriter, leaving in its stead song based music downloads for playing on an iPod.

For all the good stuff about it, the iPod is not about listening to music together. I haven't heard of many occasions where the kids are sneaking downstairs, iPod in hand, to listen to the Devil's Music in a state of group euphoria. Parent's aren't yelling at the kids to, "turn it down", because there's nothing to turn down.Yeah, you can hook an iPod into your home theater. But the primary listening device for the iPod is not the loudspeaker. It's the earphone and its scrawny kid brother, the earbud.

Yeah, the entry point for it all is still the same two holes that Nature has put on either side of your head. But, it's fundamentally a solo experience. Yes, you can share your playlists online to those that are interested. But, sharing a playlist socially does not necessarily translate in to a society of listeners. After all, there is a certain bond to be enjoyed knowing that all your friend's parents are yelling at them too, to "turn down that noise you call music."

So, there were a lot of earphones at CES 2012, too many probably. Half of the manufacturers most likely won't be in business next year. The competition is too stiff and the product is becoming more subject to the dynamics of fashion, a dynamic in which, if you have "trendsetter" status, you get a two year ride; less, if you're marketing a style for women.

Or, maybe it hasn't changed. Maybe kids hang around the schoolyard and bond over the complaint that their parents keep coming into the basement yelling, "why don't you kids take those damn things off and listen to that noise you call music, together."