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Monthly Archives: February 2011

On Whining  §

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There are four categories of whining and/or whiners in the world.

  • Non-whiners. These people simply continue apace, slow and steady, no complaints. Whiners of all kinds find them infuriating and unempathetic.

  • Whiners about situations. These people generally whine about the way something is or the way things are, applauding and overcomplimenting everyone involved as though human situations were the fault of the gods or the stars. They refuse to ascribe blame even to those who are clearly the cause of the situations about which they complain.

  • Whiners about people. These people are always convinced that at least a dozen things in immediate sight are some loser’s fault. It doesn’t matter just how troublesome these dozen things are—they can, in fact, be relatively minor—nor does it matter if everyone involved is actually in exactly the same boat. This kind of whiner tosses blame about even when there’s nothing in particular to be blamed for.

  • Whiners about everything. These people constantly whine about people and situations. They tend to think every situation is deficient (or, more likely, horrible) in some way and that everyone around (except them) can clearly be blamed for this deficiency or horribility. They are convinced that they have it worse than anyone else on the planet—nobody is more miserable or more put upon—and to suggest otherwise is to infuriate them and cause them to whine even more loudly.

There is no such thing as a minor whiner. People that you meet that seem only to whine “a little” are just hiding their private face from you, either because they’re in a public situation or because you’ve just met. There is no bigger split than that between the whiner and the non-whiner. It is catastrophic, transcendental—and unbridgeable. There is no changing from one thing to the other.

— § —

Perhaps the most important and most overlooked aspect of social compatibility and the streamlining of social interactions and situations is whiner compatibility. Not only can whiners and non-whiners not be put together, but different kinds of whiners must generally be segregated from one another as well.

For example, to pair a person of type (2) above with a person of type (3) is to cause one to be horrified at all of the unfair aspersions being cast and the other to whine incessantly about the other’s inability to judge other people critically in all their faults. Both will feel as though the other has no empathy and, furthermore, does not deserve their respect, and the interaction (or any long-term relationship) will be strained as a matter of nature and course.

9th Floor  §

I am in Bobst library between my two classes for the day, having just gone over my notes once again to ensure that I know what I’m talking about (more or less—this semester, due to baby constraints, is a bit of a hodgepodge by nature) before standing in front of a group of students for a couple of hours.

Each floor in a library like this one—an academic library—has its own constituency, its own sense of place, its own culture, if you will. It took me a moment to find a floor that I thought would suit me; I first went to the second, but it was too studious, then to the fifth, but it was too open, then to the international documents floor (I forget already—the 7th? It’s not my library…) before finally settling on the 9th floor.

Here it’s quiet and there’s something of a mix of unshaven and scruffy sleeves-rolled-up types sitting in a kind of staggered array throughout the stacks. There’s a big window here with vertical blinds and just enough sunlight is streaming in. It’s an ideal place—the sort of place I’d like to “bookmark” and return to again for work purposes. It’s the sort of place conducive to things like dissertation research and writing for someone working on topics like mine. I like it.

As if to justify these first impressions, at the place where I sat down next to an interior wall, the following text appears, scrawled in pen just next to me, in precisely the place I’d write if I were to decide to write on the wall of the library:


The months are written in several different pen widths and shades. I don’t know for sure that each month name was written during the same year and during the month in question, but I’d like to think that’s the case, perhaps even by the same person.

The image of someone returning to just this spot regularly over the course of an entire year—to this view from the window, this desk amidst the stacks, this bit of sunlight streaming in—is reassuring somehow. It almost lends to this library a resurgent solidity, the antidote to the melting-into-air that creeps in around the edges of modernity.

I have to leave in about five minutes to teach my class, but I couldn’t be more glad I came here today between my teaching engagements. Hopefully I’ll remember where I am and come back again later.

Not Open  §

In the last six months I’ve transitioned, wholesale, away from open source. It’s been a sea change in my personal and professional life a long time in coming, and marks a break with over two decades of open source, free software, and open technologies advocacy on my part. (It is advocacy that’s also ending because I try not to be a hypocrite—if I won’t use it myself, I hesitate to advocate strongly for it with others, unless in particular narrow contexts and situations.)

Late last summer I began to experiment with Mac OS X. With the impending birth of my daughter and the intensifying work on my teaching and Ph.D. degree, life was getting very complicated, and I began to feel annoyed by all of the babysitting that open source software seemed to require. Every release of every software package seemed to have some nagging but that one just had to accept. Every update fixed some bugs but introduced others, and tended to require intervention in the meantime—reconfigurations, restores from backups, data arbitration of various kinds, and so on. No hardware worked. Sure, there were drivers, but instead of “drop sheet into scanner, forget about it,” the workflow on open source platforms was “start scanner application, manually begin scan, save preliminary data dump file, convert file to OCR-friendly format, run through OCR, import into database, remove temporary files” and so on.

More to the point, I was tired of the incredible web of dependencies that I had to maintain. The scanning-and-OCR example above gives a bit of a hint about this. Rather than simply being conceptually aware of a device (“scanner”), one had to be aware of and maintain all of the hardware and software items in various toolchains (“scanner,” “gui frontend,” “scanning backend,” “ocr software,” “database,”) and maintain them all. Multiply this by many different forms of daily activity (academics, web development, photography, personal data keeping, etc.) and the list of tools, interconnections, and their updates and current needs and bugs became overwhelming.

I was, quite simply, tired of spending so much time focusing on my computing environment and its maintenance and progress, to the extent that there was often very little time left over for the work that the computing environment was meant to enable.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the slow disappearance of the usable Linux desktop, from KDE 3.x and GNOME 2.x toward the KDE 4.x releases (which first emerged in 2009 and never really became usable) and the GNOME 3.x release (which promised to revolutionize the desktop, requiring massive reconfigurations in workflow, applications, and so on yet again).

With those things on the horizon, it suddenly became very seductive to think about an environment in which things might really, actually, simply be “plug and play.”

I was still, however, incredibly distrustful of closed technologies and vertical platforms (more than two decades in the open source community will do that to a person) and thus wanted to start slowly and with a minimal investment. I thus “hackintoshed” a partition on my Thinkpad T60. That impressed me enough after several months to attempt to make the switch entirely. I bought OSX and installed it on a default boot partition on the T60, intending to make a go of things.

In short order, I ended up assembling a “hackintosh” desktop machine out of commodity parts (still married to that ethos of openness) and then to a MacBook Pro, where I sit typing now. Each step along the way pointed clearly toward the next; rather than remaining cautious or being discouraged at any point, I quickly became more and more enthusiastic as I found my workflow improving apace.

Now it’s the end of February, and in the last six months I’ve bouth OS X Snow Leopard, iLife, iWork, Microsoft Office for Mac, Aperture, Adobe Creative Suite for Mac, DevonThink Pro Office, DevonAgent, Scrivener, Postbox, TaskPaper, ChronoSync, a Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner, an iPad, and enough hardware to end up with a Snow Leopard desktop and a Snow Leopard MacBook Pro.

And each week seems to bring still additional increases in productivity and, more importantly, increasing transparency in my life. Yes, it’s true, I tend to notice my tools less and less and to use them more and more. In fact, I don’t quite know how I would have survived the first few months of fatherhood and still managed to work and pay the bills if I hadn’t had the foresight to make the switch when I did.

— § —

The point of all of this is to point out that there appears to be some sort of a problem with openness. I don’t quite know what it is in a rapid-fire summary, but in my 20-plus years using open source software and “open” computing platforms (by this I mean commodity market and industry standard components and so on) I went through vast array of operating systems, applications, and hardware configurations.

I didn’t realize until I made the switch away that for over 20 years I’d been on a kind of “make it work treadmill,” always fighting tools that were meant to be cooperating with me. And now that I’m using a supposedly “closed” platform, I find myself more able to interface with the social world than ever before.

This brings me to a couple of hypotheses or analytical insights.

  1. Openness does not describe a social context, contrary to what many imagine. Rather, it describes a contractual specificity that is the property of a particular object. The social context inheres in actual use by people in society.
  2. There needs to be a set of metrics and a new set of neologisms to address the property of something’s being socially “open.” By this, I mean the property of being able to easily and quickly exchange data with others and interface with their hardware. Closed systems offer this better than open systems do in the marketplace, paradoxically.
  3. Many of the benefits long ascribed to open systems are actually those of closed systems instead. In a thousand years, it is infinitely likely that one will be able to open a Microsoft Word file stored on an NTFS-formatted piece of media than an OpenOffice document on an ext4-formatted piece of media, and the latter will be far more expensive in every way than the former.
  4. Open source critics are absolutely correct in their assertion that the cost-benefit analyses of open source platforms and deployments may tend to underaccount for losses due to decreases in productivity across the enterprise or user chain.

More interestingly, I feel as though there’s some deeper critique of “openness” that needs to be made on theoretical grounds, perhaps even Habermasian or Bourdieuian grounds, but I’m just not quite getting to it yet. There is a problem with openness, a particular inefficiency or limitation that is social, rather than technical or political in nature, that needs to be theorized and that I don’t feel is addressed by any of the critiques I’ve read so far.

But I can’t seem to get at what it is yet. Hopefully it will become clear in the weeks and months to come.

Late Nights?  §

Well this hasn’t happened for a very long time. Here I sit, at 2:47 in the morning, and I have been coding all night like it’s the old days. Okay, that’s a bit of a lie. I haven’t actually been doing that much coding. A small pile of PHP and about three lines of javascript is the extent of it. And it’s only web development work.

Still, it feels decidedly as though everything old is new again. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy (even as I dread) these late nights of techno-work. They used to be virtually every night for me, at a particular stage of my life that has been forgotten for a number of years. And somehow, right in the middle of middle age and fatherhood and a Ph.D. program, here they are again.

Apart from my own much more modest and unassuming project here that has kept me occupied once or twice over the last week or two, the siren that’s captured my attention at the moment is Deliberately Considered, a nominally social-science-y website created by my advisor, Jeff Goldfarb. He’s an interesting man, really the opposite of me in many ways—a tremendous social talent with a knack for explaining things simply and an optimistic streak about politics about a mile wide. (Compare to me: a social disaster who tends toward abstraction and complexity and is about as pessimistic about political prospects as they come.)

In any case, I’m clearly a bit rusty compared to my most design-y days of yore, but still, I’m making it work and things are looking reasonably good, and more to the point, this project is giving me that much needed alternate-thinking-modality time that I’m so sorely lacking these days. This bit of blog that you’re looking at right now is doing the very same thing. And once I start writing in non-academic ways again regularly, too, which is definitely part of the plan, maybe I can take a step back toward that “renaissance man” goal that I had always maintained as a youngster.

In the meantime, however, I have to get some sleep. It’s 2:53 and I’m a father that has to hold down a job and stay healthy in the midst of a very intense semester. Sheesh.

— § —

A quick shout-out to the, like, three friends that I have left in the world apart from my lovely wife and daughter. Sorry, in particular, to the one that sent me an inside-joke text message yesterday and to whom I haven’t yet replied. You can see where things are—I got up at 8:00 this morning and have been working straight through until 2:55 new-this morning.

But I’m gonna write back shortly. Like, tomorrow, if I can get myself to remember amidst the fatigued stupor that will no doubt be hanging about my head.

— § —

As an aside, I love this MacBook Pro. Love it. It’s a crime that (a) Windows still exists and (b) Linux and OSS developers can’t take a page from OSX, or at least try it out and use it long enough to realize what unmitigated disasters KDE and GNOME (but especially KDE) are.

Paper Mail  §

I hate paper mail—how I hate paper mail. Is there any justification for it any longer? At least once every other month I have to dedicate what amounts to an entire afternoon confronting stacks and stacks of burgeoning envelopes from every corner of the market and government, most of it absolute nonsense yet marked with enough personal information to lead to catastrophe if not shredded.

I hate that so much of my most precious resource, time, goes to sorting through this bullshit.

I hate that so much wood, energy, and fuel is used in distributing this garbage.

I hate that we actually have to buy shredders to shred this stuff that we never asked for in the first place, and that there’s so much of it that “shredder” becomes an annual purchase as they break in succession from overuse.

I hate that little really important business is ever transacted this way. Your banking, your taxes, your bills, and your school and career logistics are now all handled online. Instead, this pile is full of “credit card personal checks” that you didn’t ask for, offers from lenders you’ve never heard of or don’t want to do business with, unimportant material from the marketing “partners” of all the actually important organizations in your life, and the last $2.42 portion of any medical bill whose other $752,442.96 was covered by your insurer.

I hate that those $2.42 bills and a few other rare items really are important, for your credit rating if for nothing else, meaning that you have to sort through every last goddamn unmarked envelope in the stack of 100+ (assuming that you receive 3-4 pieces of mail a day like I do) just to see if anything that matters came through.

I hate that those people that on those rarest of occasions do send important things through the mail invariably are stuck in the middle ages and offer no other way to do business with them than to send a letter, check, or some other form of correspondence in a “return envelope,” that most archaic of artifacts, or worse, simply requiring that you find your own envelope and stamp, which ultimately means a trip to the office supply store and post office, sucking yet another afternoon, since nobody who is even slightly plausible as an ontological possibility actually keeps such things around any longer in today’s world.

And I hate that at the end of the day I always end up with 2-3 things that are “records” that I simply don’t know what to do with. Am I meant to keep them? Will they be essential for tax purposes? Can no-one tell me? And what do I do with these paper “records” in an era of digital “files?” Scan them in? And file them where, as what? They’re not searchable, editable, or even part of any other life workflow.

The paper economy needs to die. It has already seen its last legs and worn them into nothing. It is a pox, a black mark, a cancer upon humanity.


Teaching, Illness, and Jobs  §

One of the things no college or university seems to get right is the “sick call” procedure for instructors. I suppose that it never comes up amongst faculty and divisional/departmental administration at most institutions because the full-timers are all a kind of small social network, so “calling in sick” can be synonymous with “calling a friend to complain that you’re sick” and the logistics of class cancellation then gets handled as a kind of personal favor from healthy friend to sick friend.

Or maybe I’m imagining things. I don’t know. What I do know is that for part-time faculty, there’s generally no particular process that’s reliable. As a part-timer calling in sick, you begin by sending an announcement by email to your students, which is probably the most reliable part of the process. (I have no idea what part-timers did before email. I suppose that part of the answer is that the rise of part-timers historically coincides in many ways with the rise of email.)

After email, however, the path is often unclear. As an instructor, your goal is to let your students know what’s happening so that you don’t end up with the three or four that don’t regularly check their email sitting forlornly in an empty classroom waiting for an instructor and fellow students that aren’t actually going to arrive. So you tend to start by calling either the department (if it is near the classroom or rooms in which you teach) or facilities management (if the department is on the other side of campus). Often this leads to something of a runaround and successive phone calls to bewildered staff in various quarters. Sometimes the telephone journey ends where you thought it might, say at the department with the department administrator (“Okay, I suppose what I can do then is just write a note and go across campus and tape it to the door. Would that help? Yes?”), while at other times it ends up somewhere completely unexpected (“Yes, hi. Yes, this is the high performance optics lab. Yes, yes, that room is in our building. Sure, I can hang a sign like that. What’s your name and what class is it? Just let me turn off this laser…”)

Every now and then you get a policy that’s well specified, but that leads to nowhere useful—a voice mailbox for the entire humanities and social sciences division, for example, that lives at the dean’s office and also handles all kinds of other general traffic and that is unlikely to get checked, much less acted upon, by the time your 8:00 AM class begins.

The end result is always the same. The part-time instructor sits at home, ill and in slippers with a cup of tea and a worried look on his/her face, wondering whether any action has been taken at all and also whether he or she has acted correctly given the circumstances or will on the other hand be subject to some kind of corrective or complaint from department chair(s) or other supervisory relateds.

Not ideal. Would it really be so hard to create one extension on campus as the sick extension, and to have one person to take care of all of this sort of thing over the course of a semester? Or to have a form on a website—the sick-out form, as it were—accessible only to faculty and staff that, when completed and submitted, automatically chucks out a sheet of paper from a laser printer in a facilities office somewhere with the classroom and time at the top of the sheet and a notice of absence/class cancellation printed large in its middle, ready to be carried off and taped up by a greysuit with a walkie-talkie?

Maybe I’m just doing it wrong and have been for years. Who knows?

— § —

Talking of teaching, I also want to take a moment to complain bitterly about my favorite peeve, the “advice in relation to teaching” that one gets as a Ph.D. student. They’ll try to tell you all sorts of things. Be sure to do some, don’t do too much, do the right kind, don’t waste your time on it because it won’t get you a job, don’t be an assistant but do be an adjunct, don’t take one-offs but do form long-term departmental relationships, do get observed, no, don’t bother, just do your research and conserve your energy for publishing, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

And of course it’s all worthless and its very existence represents a crack in the polished sheen of egalitarianism that’s ideologically applied to the academy—the moment at which you can see the exploitation and class differences as clear as day. For Ph.D. students like myself, here are the simple realities of teaching:

  • You’ll do it if you can get it because you must work to stay in graduate school, plain and simple. Teaching is one of the few jobs you’re actually still qualified for and likely to get, it’s one of the few jobs flexible enough to give you time to spend on your own research and study and on your (often suffering) personal life, and finally in addition to all of that it’s one of the few jobs that might actually provide some benefit, however small, to the ever-suffering be-all-and-end-all that is your CV. It’s better, in other words, than a part time at the “Craftsman’s Co-op and Consignment Shop.”
  • You’ll jump at the chance to TA even if there are adjunct jobs available because the TA gigs are on your own campus and therefore near your department and any other meetings or research responsibilities to which you have to attend, they require less work, often pay just as much, and can be much more stable semester after semester because they’re based on your relationships to faculty and to the institution.
  • You get observed and work hard to get good observation and student course evaluations not because you think it’s going to land you a full-time gig, and not because you don’t care about your research, but because it proves valuable, when cold-calling new departments, for landing those additional one-off adjunct gigs that you need in order to meet your income requirements for a particular semester.
  • You’re doing to do as much teaching as you possibly can, often exceeding (by adding up two or three campuses) the limits that they place on even full-time faculty for teaching course loads, simply because this is your primary income source and because without taking a whole crazy pile of courses you can’t pay your bills, much less afford the books, professional organization memberships, office supply costs, and coffee costs that inhere in trying to complete at Ph.D.

In sum, all the advice I’ve ever received about teaching and how much of it to do as a Ph.D. student betrayed a singular lack of awareness for the very real differences in class that exist out there in society. Some of us are effectively trying to jump up a class by getting our Ph.D. degrees and really don’t have anyone able to foot the bill for our studies. Yes, scholarships and fellowships are nice and I’ve even earned my fair share, but this is a many-years-long process, you did have a life and responsibilities before you came to school in many cases, and not all schools are equally rich. There are going to be stretches of underfunding or even no funding to account for.

It would be nice if some of the institutional and professional advice began to move beyond the now obsolete imaginary of the young directly-out-of-undergrad hotshot Ph.D. student on a full scholarship who simply needs to TA one course, publish the five brilliant articles he’s already been developing since high school, and then move straight onto the job market at 22 where his good looks and young precociousness will land him a seat at Harvard, Yale, or Chicago.

That’s simply not a representative picture. Most of us are part-timers, most of us are older, most of us have more rocky and varied academic careers, and most of us will spend time while we are completing our Ph.D. degrees working and building personal lives. And yes, we’re going to continue to do it, so let me end by saying that the too-often heard piece of advice that only the young and wealthy should pursue Ph.D. degrees (though it isn’t often phrased in precisely those crass terms) is totally unhelpful and will generally be ignored, both by myself and everyone else.

Sociology Blog?  §

Teaching Understanding Media Studies at the New School for the fourth semester in a row has me once again reading through material on blogging by academics, most of it embracing blogging wholeheartedly. By blogging, apparently, we’re meant to:

  • Share our sociological work and research as it progresses
  • Build social networks
  • Begin to construct a durable online persona
  • Market ourselves as serious scholars
  • Inadvertently (but importantly) create our own facsimilie of the commonplace book

All of this sounds fabulous, so as someone that has blogged on and off (though mostly on) since 1999, well before the awareness of blogging as a phenomenon entered the cultural consciousness, I would seem to be the ideal candidate to create, maintain, and have success with the modern socioblog.

Only I don’t. For those, like me, that straddle disciplines uneasily, or that believe that the disciplines as they currently exist are nearly nonsensical and that much academic production is un(not in)valuable,  it seems as though the sorts of half-baked ideas and informal chatter that can litter a blog will generate negative brand image, rather than positive network effects.

My position in the academy has, since I was an undergraduate, been one of attempting to take a particular patch of high ground in pitched battle. I am continually vulnerable and can’t afford to betray my position until my defenses are ready. This has been proven again and again.

So what, precisely, would be on such a blog? No ground that couldn’t be defended against attack. Nothing that could be seen out of the context of a full network of conceptual and argumentative support. For me, in short, very little, if anything at all, that wouldn’t be more at home in a paper.

— § —

All of this navel-gazing somehow meshes uncomfortably with my dissertation topic, which keeps evolving. Every time I seize hold of it and really work in earnest, in fact, it changes again—never radically, always subtly, the latter creating in fact much more serious problems for the scholar and the ongoing scholarly project than the latter.

But in fact I’m thinking nominally about openness—in technology, originally, and somehow also in research, and in their relationships (very poor and ideologically blinkered ones, in fact) to one another. More specifically, I am interested in the spectacular failure that openness has become, across any number of societal dimensions. But of course to even begin to address this problem empirically, there’s a lifetime of work to be spent convincing the social-scientific crowd that openness isn’t the greatest, most successful thing since super glue and sliced bread.

— § —

And that’s emblematic of the reason that sociology has lost its audience, or at least the audience that I believe it ought to seek. Long after having decided to ignore the self-described experiences the public, and now having come to the decision to exclude also the first-hand impressions of the technocrats, sociologists have become a kind of literary community, a discourse, a language game, a club of the Serious People that think about other people In A Very Particular Way (the “sociological” way, or the “distinctive Chicago” way, or similar) without ever asking (for the question is so obviously irrelevant to the purposes and values involved) whether such ways are in keeping with (1) those peoples’ own understandings of their experiences, or (2) any particular social good that can be described and defended rigorously as such.

Here I think I’m in the Mills-Latour camp (an uncomfortable marriage if ever there was one, but it works here). The point is to represent, empathize with, and express the interests and experiences of public(s), not objectify them or make little lego bits out of them for assembly and reassembly in so many ponderously intricate combinations in the interest of keeping the wayward money of the wealthy flowing and the ponderously irrelevant-yet-detailed CVs growing. I would like to propose that it is generally a bad idea to willfully invert Occam’s Razor as a normative proposition, yet that is precisely the practice of most of sociology today. Take what everyone already knows, and rehash it arguing that it is in fact secretly its own inverse, and that nobody ever noticed this before because (1) nobody is as smart as you, and (2) “the social” is mysterious and subject to four and twenty kinds of manipulation by all sorts of agencies that current generations outside of sociology increasingly view as parts of a quaint 19th-and-20th century imaginary of the world, amongst these the national, the political, the economic, the demographic, and so on. Let me proceed rhetorically to drive the point home. What does it suggest that the biggest victory in sociological work is to manage to find a topic of study that “nobody has ever bothered to look at before” and dedicate a life’s work to it? This is, of course, what all of the guides for new graduate students and lectures on how to succeed in graduate school tell you to do—find something nobody’s cared enough to examine, or look at something that people do care about but do it in “a completely new way.”

Academics itself, in all of these aspects, is yet another spectacular failure of openness and the dynamics of its ethos—not inherently, but as a matter of the particular threads of historicity from which the present is woven—just like democracy, open-source software, the hippie movement, 24-hour Taco Bells, and the western embrace of Yoga and Zen.

The Goodness of Work  §

Very few things in life are better than the feeling of doing work in earnest while at the same time feeling happy to be doing work in earnest. It is an incredibly rewarding state of affairs.

It is possible, in fact, that only two thing surpass this feeling: the joy of spending time with one’s daughter and the joy of spending time with one’s wife.

Despite the insanity and the utter, complete, total, devastating lack of sleep and overall progress in the face of incredible demands…life is good.

Slow Progress  §

Things continue to get done. That’s not quite the same as saying that I continue to catch up. I’m not actually getting any nearer to meeting all of my obligations promptly, but as I run around like a maniac, type at the speed of light, and blow into—then back out of—classrooms again at a blinding pace, I leave a trail of completed tasks behind me.

Some things, like responding to all of my email, remain perpetually a week or so behind. Others, like the writing projects I’m meant to be working on in furtherance of my own research and career, are anywhere from one to six months behind at this point and counting, with no progress whatsoever being made.

Weekends are now no less frantic than weekdays, though I continue to imagine them somehow as a relaxing time, and thus pine away for them just before they arrive. When they do arrive, however, I quickly feel as harried or moreso than I do during the week, since during the week virtually all my attention goes to two things, (1) baby and (2) teaching, meaning that during the weekend I have to do (1) research, (2) writing, (3) cleaning, (4) personal and life maintenance, (5) sleeping, (6) grading, (7) reading, and everything else, and I simply don’t get it done. Every weekend begins with a list of the “10 big things” that have to get done during the weekend or something like that, and generally I leave the weekend with a list of the “8 big things” that still have to get done because I only managed to accomplish a couple of them, despite sleeping not a wink on Saturday or Sunday. By the time the next weekend rolls around the list will have grown again to become the “11 big things” that need to be done, and so on.

— § —

Obviously I haven’t managed to put any more time into this new incarnation of the blog, either to finish the content or to continue to build out the style, much less to return it to some place of honor in the link structure of my domain or promote it to anyone in any way or post links to it in all of my “profiles” around the web at places like Facebook.

I still don’t quite know how I’ll relate it to my academic website, what to do with my academic website (it’s in need of serious help) or whether these problems will ever, ever get attended to. Right now things are seriously simply too busy to worry about anything like that. When you’re running on 1-3 hours of sleep every night for six months, you know you shouldn’t be thinking about meta-tasks more than you need to, certainly not marketing-oriented ones.

— § —

A thankful shout-out to my parents, who will never read this so in a way it’s sort of futile, for the MacBook Pro. I’m far too old for gifts like this from my parents; it makes me feel just a little bit ridiculous. But it’s also true that I never would have bought one myself at the prices that they charge for these things.

More importantly, it’s turning out to be true that this is the most productivity-enhancing piece of gear I’ve ever owned and that I seriously underestimated the “it just works” Apple advantage, even as someone previously running OS X (a licensed copy, mind you) on a “hackintosh” machine.

I think I am now firmly and dedicatedly in the Apple camp until further notice. This is easily the best computing device I’ve ever owned and the amount of work that it has already fearlessly carried me through in the space of a single week is ridiculous. It’s also continuing to serve despite having been violated by me in its youth as I pulled it apart for a moment to replace the stock 250GB drive with a 1TB drive that will house every . last . goddam . thing in my data universe, synchronized with the desktop that I continue to maintain and don’t have time to figure out what to do with.

— § —

And now back to preparing for class, thinking about advisors’ needs, listening for baby awakenings, musing in a Valentines-day-y way about love and the future, and all of that other stuff that isn’t getting done while I sit here wasting time typing, even if I do type at well over 110 words per minute on this poor, wondering-what-hit-it MacBook Pro.

Wind Gusts, Plastic Bags in February  §

Came home from a brief outing to buy some groceries with my sister and found that a freezer-cleaning was in order. This led to something of a minor-but-general sort-out and half an hour later I was carrying garbage and boxes for recycling to the rear of our building.

The latter have to be placed inside plastic bags when left. I don’t know if this is just the policy of our building and, more specifically, of our spectacular super, John, or if it’s a matter of some city or borough policy, but in any case, taking boxes outside for recycling involves the use of very large, clear, heavyweight plastic bags for their storage.

I didn’t notice the wind, really, until I opened the bag, at which point it was blown wildly open. Rather than realize that I was standing outside in a cold wind without a coat on—something that I realized only upon re-entering the building and feeling warm again—what I suddenly felt was a kind of incredible emotional fatigue.

Or, call it ennui.

Call it whatever you like, it overtook me as I stood there holding the flapping bag, boxes falling everywhere. Something about the particular sensory complex of that moment—the combination of pavement and cold wind and relative silence and a certain gray light and a flapping bag and my utter distraction—carried me out of New York and out of the present into something ineffable about my past and the path along which I have come in order to arrive where I am today.

I’ve said on many occasions and to a decent number of people that the thing I like best about New York is the incredible anonymity that it offers. Suddenly now I feel as though I miss another kind of anonymity, a deeper anonymity that New York doesn’t offer at all. Here, one is forever at the center of things. Even if no-one bothers you, all understand and are aware of your personhood.

Suddenly I find myself missing the total isolation of the middle areas of America, in which one can drive two miles in nearly any direction and be literally off the map, in a place for which there are no markers, no place names, no streets, and no chance of meeting anyone else. In fact, I even miss being inside the city in the middle areas of America, in that particular automobile-wonderland-as-urban-fabric milieu in which one can play the flaneur without ever having to be interrupted or having to encounter another human face.

There is something to be said for the ability to have one’s anonymity by virtue of the density of the crowd, so that there is no need to respond to or reflect on others’ faces, but there is also something to be said for the kind of living in which most hours of most days are spent alone and with the knowledge that the solitude in question is relatively durable in most instances, interrupted only rarely and with the specific intention of doing so.

I miss the feel of the wide-open, of the heavy, wild wind and of concrete as a kind of momentarily pacified state of nature, as opposed to the brittle, man-made wind of the city, so full of human activity and its byproducts, not to mention concrete not as nature momentarily pacified, but nature utterly and terribly exiled for eternity.

Most of all, I miss the very different sense of space-time with which I grew up. City space-time is engaging, dynamic, exciting, productive, and a hundred other adjectives, but it is also shallow, brittle, superficial, and desperately unsublime.

Things are looking good…  §

Following last night’s discussion and the last several days of impulsive posting, I decided that the time was ripe to really make something of a push to turn this previously “temporary” or “test” WordPress installation in my hosting account into the real deal. The fact that I have wanted to post here for several days is not to be ignored.

It was time to strike, as they say, while the iron was hot.

So, I’ve spent a good part of the evening playing with WordPress and the Neutica theme, which I have now bastardized a little bit. I didn’t do much with the php yet, though there are a few things that I want to tweak, but I deleted (as in, wholesale deleted and/or blanked out) a good half of the stylesheet information across several different files and started from scratch to generate my own appearance but using Neutica’s block layout.

I like it. Looking at this page, it’s the first time in a very long time that I’ve felt as though I was at least a little bit “at home” posting on my own blog, something that’s tremendously important if the words are to flow well. Of course there’s still a great deal to be done if this is to ultimately be made presentable, but this represents a start, and I suspect I’ll actually use it.

— § —

At the same time, it really needs to be said just how much I miss Greymatter. I know that Greymatter is imagined to be far and away the most primitive blogging system out there, but

  1. That’s absolutely not true; the directory full of bash scripts to generate static pages and automatically post them to FTP in the first several incarnations of Leapdragon was far more primitive than Greymatter ever even dreamed of being.
  2. There were a number of advantages to this primitive structure, not the least of which was a much shallower learning curve and a much easier path to custom styling.
  3. Greymatter’s backend appearance was somehow much more conducive to writing—darker, more calm colors, less clutter and functionality, and somehow an overall much more even, flowing sensibility.
  4. The primitive structure and storage in plain text files made it a breeze to back up, recover from errors, export and/or migrate posts, and so on.

Nevermind, though. The days of Greymatter are past as there remain almost no hosts anywhere that are willing to allow (much less support) the running of complex platforms built entirely using Perl.

These days its down to mainstream CMS systems. Drupal is by far the most powerful and flexible I’ve encountered, but it may simply require too much work and be too heavyweight for commonplace applications like a commonplace blog. That’s where WordPress comes in, and as I get more familiar with it, it’s starting to shine quite nicely in its own way.

I’m pleased with how things are working out here. Very pleased, indeed.

More to come.

Chua + Academic Life  §

Two vaguely (I don’t know how) related things tonight at 11:50 in the evening after feeding my baby, who doesn’t sleep well.

— § —

My wife and I have become enthusiasts of the Amy Chua book that’s drawn criticism from so many quarters and been the inspiration for so many facile, sensationalistic articles. Granted, we’re only through about three quarters of it, but thus far it seems clear to me that once again what we’re seeing is the worst behavior on the parts of journalists and publics.

The former misreport on it in the way best able to generate public outrage (and thus issue sales and/or page views), while the public happily complies by dutifully becoming righteously outraged in so many colors and flavors about a book they’ve never read.

They’re sure that Amy Chua is a horrible, automaton-generating Chinese collectivist determined to beat her daughters into submission and that the book proudly relates tales of an iron fist and cold command applied injudiciously to a pair of long-suffering and naive daughters. Nothing could be further from the truth. The shocking thing in all of this coverage is that nobody has bothered to mention that the book is a veritable tribute to her daughters, dripping with love and respect and pride, and that any child would feel lucky to have a mother who wrote a glowing book about them and their strong personalities, sensitive and empathetic natures, and remarkable achievements—much less managed to get it published and turn it into a national sensation.

The notion that this book is the work of a narcissist or some sort of jingoist, Chinese nationalist, or anti-American/anti-caucasian bigot can be dismissed in the same way: the book is entirely about her daughters, her husband, and family life, and it paints them in the best possible light. If the family really did look and function as the book suggests it did on a daily basis then most American children should be so lucky as to have parents as caring, patient, determined, and tempered by good humor as Amy and her husband Jed.

— § —

In the same breath—or at least, post—I also have to bemoan a particular problem that has vexed me now for the better part of a decade, one that many Americans struggle with but that Amy Chua somehow does not. That problem is the problem of writing.

I used to write often and much. I enjoyed blogging long before most anyone blogged. I found it to be therapeutic, fun, inspiring, and generative. I haven’t really blogged that way in a very long time. Before I explain why, let mention, too, a central project in my life right now.

Task one at the moment is to figure out how to be academically productive. If I’m to be a successful academic, I actually have to produce…scholarship. This, of course, is a euphemism for text. I must produce text, not the least of which must be my dissertation and related materials—but of course it doesn’t stop there.

Problem is, academic writing has always been a struggle for me. I’m one of those people that “can’t write until I’m under deadline pressure,” only for me deadline pressure has never meant “the night before the paper was due,” but rather “4:00 AM the morning the paper is due at 8:00.” Obviously, while this may work at the undergraduate level and even help one to survive, in concert with much stress-induced coffeeboozing at the masters level, it cannot possibly be made workable at the Ph.D. level.

And yet somehow I made it work all the way through my Ph.D. coursework, scoring a 4.0 average to boot. But a dissertation is not a paper. It simply can’t be done on the intellectual or temporal cheap; it requires steady investment.

So I’ve begun to read everything that I can get my hands on about academic writing and how to get oneself to do it and to do it productively and at a high level of quality. Of course the advice in every quarter is precisely the same: “Write regularly and often. Every day, if possible. Make sure that what you’re writing about interests you, and share it as often as possible.” (Yes, believe it or not, this long and complex notion and related qualifiers are actually more or less the same across a number of books I’ve recently read.)

Of course I used to do this—back when I maintained the aforementioned blog. And I enjoyed it very much. And I know that it made me a much better writer. And it was nicely habitual, a component of my routine essential to my daily practice and mental health. Why did I stop? Because of the question of professionalism. I worried that it might not be a good thing to write in such a personal way for a public audience on a regular basis if I wanted to be an academic or indeed a professional of any kind. And of course I was right.

I’m fairly sure, in fact, that if I were to start blogging in the way that I used to right now, colleagues or at the very least students (many of whom regularly track me down via Google and point myself out to me on their laptops at the beginnings or endings of classes) would quickly discover the writing, and disastrous career moments would ensue.

The suggested option is of course simply to replace the personal writing with professional writing, but otherwise to continue to do it regularly and publicly. Indeed, I know any number of faculty members that do this, and am more and more closely working with one on his own blog now.

The problem is that I find academic writing tremendously boring. I really wonder sometimes whether I want to do it at all. I’ve recently begun to voraciously consume everything I could find about the death, decline, or sorry state of the western university system and sphere of academia and academics in general, and I agree with nearly every critique.

Academics are slow, plodding, trapped in an endless web of meaningless minutiae, and careful to support assertions after making them and to assemble the materials necessary to do this through hard research before making them. As a general rule, they make about one major assertion per decade, or a good three to four over the course of a productive academic life.

It may sound as if I am writing tongue-in-cheek here to anyone not inside the academic world, but let me assure you that I most certainly am not.

It is thus difficult for me to stay motivated to write academically. I’m simply not like that. I’ve always been full of assertions, preferring to fly by the seat of my pants intellectually in rapid-fire fashion, not dawdle and wade through reams of bland studies of dubious design assembling lists of citations and so on. I prefer to assert quickly, be attacked quickly if I’m wrong, issue a correction and/or retraction quickly, and move on having learned, as a result, equally quickly.

But of course if I am to write an academic blog, this must absolutely not be the case. Posts must be well-thought-out rather than rash, all assertions qualified and made moderate, a judicious kind of judgment applied to all decisions about what can appear and what shouldn’t, what I can talk about and what “I’d better not” talk about. Of course, I have absolutely no interest in regularly writing this way. I’d sooner quit altogether.

At the same time, however, though I still often have writing impulses and thoughts and insights that I’m dying to put to paper, I can’t apply or post any of these because they run afoul of prevailing academic sensibilities and rules of decorum (which state that you must be intimidating, flashy, gregarious, yet also inaccessible and holier-than-all if you want to be seriously considered for or a part of a faculty). The result is that I don’t post anything at all, and I don’t to it anywhere.

I envy Amy Chua’s position—that of a tenured faculty member that has nevertheless managed to admit to having a human nature and a “regular self” and that has also managed to admit to holding her own unique set of opinions, all without getting fired or putting a serious end to her career for the lack of professionalism that she’s left laying around conceptual space.

I had more to say, but it’s now an hour since I started this post and sleep is overtaking me. Suffice it to say that I am at a moment of tension between the desire to write and have a career in which I write and the desire to be a professor that must never say very much, and that must always wait ten years (five to find and/or develop supporting research longitudinally and another five simply for the effect of seriousness, heft, and authority) after thinking a thought before saying it out loud.

Flow  §

Flow is a difficult thing to explain to people, especially people that either don’t have it or don’t believe in it. It’s hard to make clear just how powerful it is (whatever it is) and how much it can shape, facilitate, or impede an evening or a year, a project or a major life triumph of some kind.

For this reason it’s doubly hard to explain to someone how and why and what it means that they’re getting in the way of yours, killin’ the feelin’, taking your flows-like-water and turning it into splashes-like-puddle. Little things of apparently little import are often the difference between flow and none, someone saying something in one way and not another, asking for this favor rather than that one.

Usually I don’t begrudge anyone anything. I am always willing to sacrifice for the greater good. Well, usually willing. Tonight I would really like to have kept my flow. It was carrying me, carrying me fine, carrying me necessarily. It had carried me most of the day. And then for the last several hours, everything I start to do is redirected by others—innocently and just a little; the intentions that I haven’t yet expressed are diverted when I am needed elsewhere—innocently and just a little.

And just like that, the flow that has been carrying me instead leaves me behind. The problem, of course, is that without the flow to carry me just now, without having flow, I am stuck, dead, in the water. I am out of energy, radically.

Toppings  §

Bought a slice at a pizza joint here in the village that I’d never been to before. A margherita slice, in fact—just tomato slices and mozzarella cheese, nothing else. Or so I thought.

The price for a 2-topping slice was, according to the menu, $2.50. When I got to the register, they wanted $4.50. I pointed to the menu. They told me I had a four topping slice: tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, pizza sauce, and basil (one leaf in the middle).

I paid to reward the sheer chutzpah that they displayed…but I won’t be going there again.

I’m baaaack… and using WordPress  §

So this is the inaugural post in what will be my latest blog incarnation. Yes, I know, there were to be no more “blog incarnations” after I transitioned to my super-fabulous “academic database” that was capable of holding research projects, blogs, and anything else I could think of all at the same time and integrating them and positioning them amist copious tag clouds and search tools. So what happened?

Like quantum mechanics, this question offers several different answers depending on the questions asked. I’ll present the answers without the questions, leaving you to imagine what they might have been.

Answer 1: Everything must start over again. That last spot was built before Mirai arrived, and nothing from that world exists—or can be allowed to exist—any longer and/or ever again. Fresh baby, fresh start.

Answer 2: Underestimated complexity. I have a habit of overdesigning things, and Leapdragon§Academe was no exception. It was powerful and intricate and incredibly cool—and required a dedicated employee to run and/or populate it well with data. Yes, it could have told me things about my data and created a cloud-based spot for Aron-Project-Analysis, but the fact is that before Mirai arrived I’d essentially put Ania to work running it (or rather, she’d volunteered to start filling it with data) and of course now that’s an unsustainable arrangement.

Answer 3: WordPress for words. I am still as in love with the concept of Drupal as I ever was. Compared to WordPress, Drupal is a much larger, more powerful tool—an industrial piece of equipment compared to the ballpeen hammer of WordPress. But at the same time, all this latest incarnation needs to be is a blog (once again). And it’s WordPress that has the nicer blogging features, built-in, without having to build them out. If I ran this thing once on Greymatter, I can certainly do it now on WordPress, no need to get all heavyweight.

Answer 4: DeliberatelyConsidered. I have started working on this website run by my advisor and chair and am acting as something of a managing editor (unofficially for the moment). The fact that it runs on WordPress gives me some incentive to host my own projects using the same platform in order to maximize my labor and knowledge-gathering ability.

— § —

Those that know me also know that I am more busy at this particular moment in my life than I have ever been before, to the point of lunacy. It is not merely that I spend all of my time running around putting out fires that proceed from my having been long overbooked in every facet of life; it is the utter maladaptivity of my life to the current state of affairs on top of this circumstance.

Hence the desire to eliminate, for example, the unnecessary complexity of Drupal and move to WordPress.

But, of course, the more pressing question remains: why blog at all?

The (somewhat personal) answer is that as I have blogged on and off over the years, I have often suspected that something in me and something in my life becomes nominally unbalanced each time I suspend blogging activity.

This last four-to-eight month period has made me sure of this. I am out of whack. Blogging is one component in a much needed course of “return-to-whack” therapy. Other components will include physical activity (i.e. exercise), more vegetables and less on-the-run food, more spiritual reading (no, not the Bible, don’t freak my pretties, things more along the lines of the Tao Te Ching and The Quantum Enigma), and more discipline in time and self management in general.

Things are spiraling out of control. But they won’t be for long. I know because (amongst other things) I am restarting Leapdragon with a 2012 edition and moving to WordPress from Drupal. This may not sound like evidence of self-mastry, but in fact self-mastry can be a deceptively complex topic.

— § —

As a final note, I feel as though I am finally beginning to approach a state of self-actualization that I have been pursuing since I was a teenager.

Now, when using a term like “self actualization” many will immediately visualize rooms full of so many blond WASPs in Los Angeles paying good money for bad enlightenment classes that blend new age fads with crackpot quasi-Buddhism and raw vegan goodness.

In fact, the sort of “self actualization” to which I refer is something that I will call “data completeness,” and it consists of the following:

  1. Always, no matter the context, having technological means at bodily disposal sufficient to enter, access, and or manipulate personal data with maximal efficiency.
  2. Finding that virtually all of the text and/or speech that one produces that is not directly addressed to an interlocutor, but rather to the future self or some abstract actor engaging in reference practices, can be easily recorded and accessed.

In more pedestrian terms, what I mean by “data completeness” is recording everything you think and write (and many things you say) in a searchable, digital way and having access to every last one of your personal files wherever you are, whether at home or on the go, in a way that lets you do as much real work or manipulation as you’re likely to want to do in whatever context you happen to be in.

More on this soon.