December 31, 2014

Boss Man

I'm typing this on a Bluetooth keyboard that is linked to my tablet. The whole kit and caboodle easily fits inside a place mat on my kitchen table. That's a far cry from the first automated typing system I used.

This  was back in 1970 when I had just gotten out of the Army. I decided to remain in DC rather than move back to Boston mostly because I already had a job guaranteed me at the U.S Department of Agriculture, plus there was a recession on. So resigning myself to a life of mere money-making, I returned to USDA and settled in at my old agency, The Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, a bureaucratic behemoth that ran all the farm subsidy programs.

I was put into a section that was responsible for issuing internal procedures, a massive library of manuals that filled an entire wall of book cases. This was an era still dominated by paper. An army of clerk-typists churned out ream after ream of paper drafts using electric typewriters, which at that time were the ultimate in electronic sophistication.

But just as the invention of the typewriter wiped out the copyist profession, so too were regular typists about to find themselves on the cutting edge of job extinction. These were the early days of office automation. The newest wrinkle was the word processing center. There were only a handful in the entire Federal government: two were in USDA, and for some reason, I was put in charge of one of them, most likely because no one else was willing to do it.

We used IBM MT/ST's, large rectangular boxes packed with vacuum tubes that were connected to specially-fitted IBM Selectric typewriters. Documents were encoded on magnetic tape about an inch wide. (You could actually see the magnetic coding of each letter on the tape, that's how big these things were.) The idea was you could revise segments of a document without having to retype the entire document. Since our issuances were redrafted many times, it seemed like a word processing center would make things more efficient.

My staff consisted of four black ladies, most of them a bit older than me, most of them reentering the work place after having had children. This was my first time supervising anyone, much less a group of women. The times they were a changing, and black power and women's rights were at the forefront of social change, and there I was, stuck in the middle of it all.

I learned a lot about supervising in the year or so I ran my little unit. As time passed, some of the ladies left for other work, others were promoted within my larger unit, and some were asked to leave. My greatest satisfaction came from recognizing talented people and getting them into better positions where they could advance and build a true career. I made some friendships that lasted my entire career at USDA.

Eventually, I was given a chance to join the regular staff. I spent the next several years editing issuances. Trust me when I tell you that pride of authorship could easily be the eighth deadly sin. Over the years, I learned what it takes to be a professional, to be able to do decent work even on the days you didn't feel like doing anything. I also learned that work should never be more important than the people doing the work.

For the rest of my time at USDA, writing and office automation would be the two abiding  elements of my work. I was lucky enough to ride the wave of personal computers and the Internet into a full-time job as a computer specialist, web designer, and programmer. Writing was an integral part of building web sites, as was the willingness to tear things apart and rework them endlessly until it was as close to just right as you could get it, something I learned in my years as an editor.

If you had asked me as a young man what I would do for my life's work, nothing of what I actually ended up doing would have made the list. No way would I have seen myself as a supervisor or an editor or a computer type. I just went with what I had at the time. I never said "no" when asked if I wanted to try something. But I always found a way to carve out a space at work that was my own, a space where I could take a chance on something new, where I could try something different and prove to myself and to others that I could get it done and that it was worth doing. For me, that's about as good as it gets.

December 21, 2014

Rush to Judgment

The Kennedy assassination is perhaps the most studied moment in modern history. The Warren Commission took nearly a thousand pages to arrive at conclusions that were immediately contested. The Zapruder tape has been dissected frame by frame. The events of that day have been painstakingly recreated many times. No event has been examined in more detail, and yet I doubt that anyone would say that the truth is fully known.

The Greek dramatist Aeschylus wrote that in war, truth is the first casualty. I would argue that the truth of anything is impossible to know, a truism we ignore at our own peril. Nowhere is this more evident than in the recent events in Ferguson and New York, events that more and more seem to have played a part in yesterday's killing of two NYPD patrolmen in Brooklyn.

The specific circumstances of Ferguson and New York have been gone over and over. Like the Kennedy assassination, there were many eyewitness accounts and videos of the events as they unfolded. Yet, after all the testimony both oral and visual, what do we really know? Two black men were involved in physical confrontations with white police officers (although in New York, the on-scene supervisor was not white). Both black men resisted arrest. In both cases, the policemen involved reacted with what turned out to be deadly force. Two men ended up dead in circumstances that no one thinks should have had that outcome. The debate goes on as to who was most responsible for what happened, who could have or should have shown more restraint.

If either side had reacted differently, perhaps we wouldn't be where we are today, dealing with another tragedy. A young man decided to kill the things he hated -- an ex-girlfriend, two cops and finally, himself. The debate will rage over what role the overheated rhetoric stemming from protests in Ferguson and New York played in motivating his actions. We may never know for sure. Clearly, this guy had a lot of problems we have yet to fully understand.

That won't stop the endless speculation on CNN and social media, or in the comments sections of online articles. It's funny how we always are told not to trust the media. But here's the thing: in today's world of Twitter and Facebook, we the people are the media. So, yeah, don't trust the media. Always keep in mind another truism: believe half of what you see and none of what you hear. How often do we need to see initial impressions turned on their head by later insights to remember not to rush to judgment?

We can never know the totality of events surrounding a moment in history, even when we watch events unfold on video. We can never know what was going on in someones head, what totality of life experiences influenced what they were thinking and feeling during a crisis. The truth of anything is impossible to know.

December 15, 2014


There's a reason why the Pharisees get such bad press in the Gospels. They were the Christians' chief challengers in the struggle for the hearts and minds of the Jews in the immediate aftermath of the Second Destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70AD. In fact, the Pharisees believed in the primacy of the Golden Rule and placed the highest value on compassion when seeking guidance from scripture. But every story needs a villain, and the Christians conveniently chose their arch-rivals to fill the bill.

As a way of coping with the loss of the Second Temple, the Pharisees continued and expanded a Jewish tradition of looking for new meanings in texts that might help explain what had just happened, a process called midrash. In applying midrash to texts, one skipped past the literal meaning of the words in search of new meanings, new interpretations that would have relevance to present day issues. In her book, "The Bible: A Biography," Karen Armstrong writes: "The goal was never simply to clarify an obscure passage but to address the burning issues of the day."

This wasn't something the Pharisees invented. The idea of reshaping the texts in the Torah to make them more relevant to contemporary audiences had been going on for centuries; nor were the Pharisees the only ones to look for new meaning in old texts. The new kids on the block, the Christians, also undertook to re-examine the Old Testament to find ways in which it presaged the coming of Christ. So yeah, a great deal of effort was expended on rewriting the Bible to fashion a narrative that would explain what was going on, be it the destruction of the Temple or the arrival of a messiah.

There is no better time of the year than Christmas to contemplate the harsh reality that writers don't let the facts get in the way of a good story. The only verifiable fact is that Christ was indeed born. Pretty much everything else we think of when we think of the Nativity -- the manger, the wise men, the virgin birth -- were written into the plot to create links back to the Old Testament in order to bolster the case for Christ as the messiah whose coming had been foretold.

And yet we cling stubbornly to the myth. Why is that? Maybe for the same reason that Hollywood continues to make movies about Moses, a figure who never existed. We need a narrative that explains the ups and downs of life, that connects us to those who went before us, that gives us hope, that somehow makes sense out a world that very often makes no sense at all. Certainly, there is more comfort to be found in the image of the baby Jesus in the arms of his mother than in the enigma that surrounds the riddle of quantum physics. A theory of everything is all well and good, but it doesn't comfort us when we grieve.

We are only human. We still need our gods. We still need our myths. The day that changes is the day we are no longer human. Some might welcome that day. Some might argue that day is much closer than we like to think, that we are well on the way to engineering our successor species. Will our replacements share a creation myth? Will they long for a redeemer, the great programmer in the sky? Or will they sleep a dreamless sleep and awaken to a world governed by algorithms? I for one am glad I won't be around to find out.