Wednesday night I took the El with a bunch of Cubs fans up to Lakeview, where I had dinner at a French place on Halsted and watched a late Brew and View movie at the Vic. On the way back down into the Loop, I took the slower, elevated Brown Line instead of the Red so that I could stake out the seat just below the forward-facing window in the lead car of the train. You can see a big chunk of the downtown skyline, including the Sears Tower from that window when the train jogs over to Wells. It was after dark, so I couldn't see very well out the window, but I could see a reflection of everything going on behind me in the train car, including the guy who watched me looking out the window, and craned his neck a little to see what I was seeing. He may have seen an involuntary grin on my face as the train made that last turn onto Wells. I'd never been to Brew and View before - I moved to Boston only a few weeks after turning 18. There was time for one 18-plus late show at the Metro and a lot of packing.
Saturday, when I realized the loaner bicycle I was using was a perfect fit (my cousin is taller than me, but not by a lot), I changed my plan for the day to maximize time spent biking between locations. Seven-ish miles from Logan Square to Oak Park, where the only real difference I noticed was the brand new library building. Ten-ish more miles from there straight East into the Loop, more-or-less underneath the Green Line tracks. The squeeze is on from both sides, shrinking the length of Washington Street where the apartment buildings have security cameras that face the street, and there's a new Target not far from Whitney Young. That leg deposited me on South Michigan avenue, a block from the Art Institute. They've got a new(ish) wing off the back of the building for Modern works now, and all my favorites are back on display. The summer I was 19 years old I worked a few days a week on Michigan and spent my lunch breaks at the Art Institute, unintentionally memorizing a slice of the collection. I decided that summer that my favorite is a tiny canvas by a surrealist named Yves Tanguy with a sculpted wood frame that extends forward ahead of the painting. I confirmed on Saturday that it is still my favorite. I also eavesdropped on a very tiny wedding party conducting an impromptu ceremony in an atrium and got laughed at by a security guard when I walked into a gallery showing a 60-minute video piece called Clown Torture and then walked back out again less than a minute later. Then I biked another six-ish miles back to Logan Square by way of a ramen place in Wicker Park and Reckless Records and a cocktail at Longman and Eagle and a patch of grass half a mile from Jenna and Nelson's house.
This is the longest trip I've taken to Chicago in years, and I can't remember the last time I had so much time to myself in the city. Most trips there trigger some rose-colored nostalgia (never visiting in winter helps) but this time through it was particularly acute. I had a trip in October planned already when this work thing came up, which is really helpful.
It was a nice week.*
* It got a lot worse when I started catching up on news from Marin and Missouri on Wednesday and Thursday. Then even worse when I came back to Boston and had a 5-hour release consume my entire weekend whole. But the part before. That was really nice.
I only got an A-minus in the second semester of the Java class, but it's a legit grad-level grade (which I assume meant subjecting myself to a stricter rubric) and I can't pretend I didn't do some slacking there, especially toward the end of the semester when I had that whole death-in-the-family thing to contend with. I only had one long dark night of the soul where I considered bagging on the whole endeavor,* which feels pretty good to me. I wasn't totally humbled, nor do I have much interest in turning these new skills into a career. I am pretty sure I'll take more classes that involve actual software development, but I'll probably stay in that 'Instructional Design' concentration. Probably.
* Weirdly, the necessary simple tedious MASSIVE coding requirements to build a UI for a Java program with interactive elements, which isn't nearly as challenging conceptually as a lot of the other content, was what drove me to despair. But at the end of it I had a working calculator program and I got to show it to my dad (who is a self-taught programmer) and he got to be like "Ugh, programming is so boring, I don't know why you bother with it when you're such a good writer" which was sweet.
When I called him to wish him a happy 99th birthday last year, my grandfather told me about taking a trip with his dad to buy a horse. We were talking about living, about the things that change around you, and he starts telling me about this horse, and I shut up and listen for a while. They were headed back to their home, with the new horse hitched to a cart, when my great-grandfather handed over the reins to his son. My grandfather was probably around 10 at the time and a little nervous. Cars had started to show up on the roads lately, and this was an unfamiliar horse, and sometimes cars spooked horses especially older horses, and spooked horses can be hard to manage, especially if you are around 10, but my great-grandfather wanted to roll a cigarette. So my grandfather took over driving and listened for cars, tense. Turns out the horse barely noticed cars, and was calm enough for a ten-ish-year-old to manage, and my great-grandfather had a smoke, and that was a day. One of 30-odd thousand days. Be the horse, basically, is the lesson, if there is one. It's a lesson for 99-year-olds more than 34-year-olds, I guess.
I cannot imagine him as a child. I have seen pictures, but don't really believe they are of him, exactly. Even as a young man, he looks to me like a grandfather-in-waiting because a grandfather is what I am looking for. I see the thinning hair and the glasses, not the motorcycle. At his 100th birthday party he gave a speech that included a revised telling of the story about the horse and the cars, and my aunt told us that he was prepared, at one point, to leave California behind, to move to the Philippines and take a job there. He ended up not going because he met my grandmother at a dance. He stayed in California instead, and got a union job, and had a daughter who met her husband in the Philippines when they worked on a guidebook together and another daughter who became my mother.
Seven or eight years ago I took a short trip out to see him and my grandmother, while my mom was visiting. I had a couple of books with me and spent hours each day sitting in the backyard reading while my grandmother bossed my mom around the kitchen and my grandfather tended to the garden and fruit trees. I looked up from a book at one point to see him balanced on top of a 6-foot ladder, placing a scarecrow in a cherry tree. The scarecrow was dressed in his old clothes and my grandfather was (only!) 93 at the time, and had been functionally blind for a very long time. I was sort of appalled at myself for not noticing what he was doing or offering to help, but he waved me off when I did offer, then came down off the ladder and asked me what I was reading. It happened to be a history book about the 1918 influenza pandemic and he said "Oh, I had that real bad. It almost killed me. A neighbor kid, from a rich family, died, and they were strange with me after." He would have been 4 or 5.
He rarely talks about it, so I won't either, but there was the Pacific Theater of WWII in there as well. Other possible endings.
So yes, I was ready to hear that my grandfather will be transitioning to hospice care, not for one thing in particular, but because maybe 100 years is a good time to decide that you shouldn't have to fight for every minute. I was ready, but of course I wasn't, because even thought I know the ending, I want the story to keep going. Good stories are always hard to end, for so many reasons.
This essay was timely, I guess is what I am saying.
Encouraged by the grade I got last semester, when I registered for undergrad credit (but did the grad-level work as extra credit) I've formally taken the plunge: Enrolled for grad credit in a class that counts towards the admission requirement for the program I'm theoretically pursuing. Assuming I stick with one class a semester, this will put me on a path that ends with a MS right around my 40th birthday.
Yesterday I finished solving the last problem in the first homework set, which meant returning to all the questions I had last semester about what kind of learner I am, whether I'm any good at this programming stuff, or just good at being in school, and, thanks to a brief conversation with a friend's colleague about this whole endeavor, what exactly I'm hoping to get out of this process besides being able to get a degree at something like of 4% of its sticker price while it is extremely convenient for me to do so. The conversation was initiated by a desire to find people in the process of 're-careering' which I had no real intention of doing, but maybe I actually want to? But in all likelihood I don't?
Anyway, I find recursion to be both understandable and magical. The last program I wrote will tell you whether a string is a palindrome, ignoring whitespace, punctuation, and uppercase/lowercase disagreements, and the guy who works at the Bon Me food truck on the Science Center plaza is starting to recognize me as a Monday night regular.
"Ha, I've actually got Žižek with me. Check it out, the cover is basically an illustration of an in-flight emergency!"
"Okay, if you do change seats, will you 'accidentally' leave your book behind?"
The gate for my flight from Panama City to Boston yesterday had its own security queue, one of those once-you're-inside-you're-stuck-here setups. I showed up maybe twenty minutes before boarding was supposed to start, and planted myself against a column near the gate agents' desk, mostly because there were a couple of agitated older women huddled at the desk and I wanted to eavesdrop.
It was hard to get the context, but it sounded like something had gone terrifically awry for the women, perhaps a cancellation that spiraled into several days spent in an unexpected hub city or some other similar routine-but-devastating travel disaster. One had no Spanish whatsoever, the other had a few words, enough to be sort of an asshole to the fairly fluent English-speaking gate agent while attempting to play ad-hoc translator. "Es el sistema!" she kept exclaiming, clearly trying to emphasize that the problem was some kind of communication or customer service fiasco, while her companion kept interrupting to ask for the gate agent's name. I assumed that one or both of the women was at the bottom of a lengthy standby list, trying like hell to beg a way onto a full flight. There was some fussing over "compensation," a form that was to be signed, some fretting over signing a document written in Spanish, blah blah blah. At one point the monolingual one mentioned she was acquainted with the chairman of the airline, and that she would be writing a very lengthy letter, because when she met him a few weeks ago, he asked her to let him know how her flights went. I'd never before heard someone make such a threatening comment while appearing to hold back tears, and wondered just how long she'd been stranded in Panama City. Panama City, by the way, is actually a pretty fantastic place to get stranded by your airline, especially if it's January and you live in North America, but it's a fundamentally shitty thing to deal with most of the time.* Not shitty enough to justify threatening someone's job, but I wasn't entirely unsympathetic.
Until I boarded the plane, that is, and realized that the thing she'd been so worked up about was a busted seat belt on one of the business class seats, which had bumped her down to coach. She had been reseated in the first row of coach, against the bulkhead, but doing so split up a family with three small children and a father who opened the conversation with the flight attendant by saying "You could not give me enough money." Both Business Class Lady and one of his kids had boarding passes with the same seat assignment, so attention then turned to my row, the second in coach. Business Class Lady went to pout in her broken seat while the flight attendants tried to work things out with us, mentioning once again the chairman letter thing on her way up to the front. Aisle Seat Guy had a friend near the back of the plane and was okay with moving, but was trying to see if he could play a little hardball himself. I filled him and Middle Seat Woman in on the background once she was out of earshot and we immediately began trading ideas for how to make her as uncomfortable as possible if she did manage to get seated in our row and/or ways she might compensate us for having to put up with her entitled ass. I suggested that she could re-seat one person for each alcoholic drink she paid for, and announced my intention to respond to any smalltalk questions from her in the most class-conscious manner possible.** Having somebody to mutually hate will bond strangers in a hurry, but Aisle Seat Guy eventually surrendered his seat to go hang out with his friend, leaving Middle Seat Woman and I, now thoroughly delighted with each other, to share eyerolls for the four and a half hours to Boston while Business Class Lady ordered drinks-in-actual-glasses from up front, pecked out her threat letter on an iPad, sucked up to the family she so graciously opted not to break up, and flipped through an Economist.
My favorite moment hands-down was at the end of the in-flight meal. We'd all gotten food because they still do that on international routes, but hers came with the cloth napkin and extra courses that you get in premium seating. Her desert arrived after everybody else had finished eating and the kid in front of her had reclined his seat. She told his dad to make the kid un-recline it so she could eat her ice cream and drink her fresh cocktail in maximum comfort. The dad had been sharing in the pre-departure eyerolling but opted for graciousness just like Aisle Seat Guy. Then Business Class Lady summoned a flight attendant to tell her how long, exactly that precious seat had been out of commission, and confirmed that she was not required to use the lavatory in coach.
I would kill to see that letter. I should have stolen her iPad while she napped.
* The exception, of course, being the flight back home after a too-short vacation if you happen to work for an understanding boss. That happened to me once, and even though it meant I was in Chicago without a coat for 24 hours in February, I had a hard time concealing my delight as I arranged for a free hotel room and replacement ticket to Boston with a customer service agent at O'Hare.
** Which, of course, would have been pretty obnoxious, given that it's hard to work that prole look when you're flying internationally on a leisure trip but that doesn't make me The Man, does it? I don't know any chairmen! Or chairwomen!
It's been a long time since I took a college-level class. I've never taken a college-level class that involved homework and exam questions with easily-identified correct and incorrect answers. Probably Analytic Geometry, which I took as a senior in high school, was the last time I took a class that didn't have at least one major writing assignment. So part of what's been fun about this class is the satisfaction of knowing you're right. The little program I wrote that checks every five-digit number to find the one where, if you quadruple the number and reverse its digits, ends up being the same number? It returned the number, and I multiplied that number and reversed the digits and yes, yes, that's right. I have to turn it in and get a grade and all that, but it's right. I'm right. I think that the people who've told me that I'll find programming fun are talking about this feeling. It's a powerful feeling and I'm so so tempted to extrapolate all kinds of stuff out from it. Like, consider the unhelpfully-reductive arguments the tech community makes about things like gender. If you start thinking of over-generalized explanations as more like booleans and conditional statement** ("If: Silicon Valley is a meritocracy (and it totally is, duh). Then: anyone who cannot succeed in Silicon Valley is lacking merit.") it's not so much of a shock. People who spend their entire working lives thinking this way end up, you know, thinking this way, even in contexts where it's really really not appropriate.
What I'm saying, I guess, is that I think the people arguing that everybody should learn how to program the same way that everybody should take math classes have a really good point. But it bums me out that in the rush to make sure everyone has a good grounding in STEM, it's being left unsaid that everybody should also learn how to read critically and write persuasively, and that a lot of people are terrible at that stuff, including some people who do it professionally. I'd like to think it's because that's a given, but I kind of doubt it.
Further to the gender thing, I'm wondering anew when exactly I decided to never take another math class again.*** I suppose if I'd gone to a different college, I'd have taken calculus, but not only did I opt out of the AP classes in high school, I went to a college that had no math requirement whatsoever. My one science class there was an honors seminar on the history of science where we read a lot of Stephen Jay Gould and, yep, wrote a bunch of essays. I was always good at what publishing taught me to think of as the 'hard side' disciplines, but never for a second considered pursuing a career in that field, despite having two parents with 'hard side' careers. That I ended up with a career in software organizations is, in a lot of ways, basically an accident. I don't recall the decision being anything other than a personal preference for lit and history over math and science, but it's also one of the very few areas in my life where I did the thing that, stereotypically, girls do disproportionately relative to boys, and that's always worth some scrutiny.
Now watch me just straight up forget to submit the homework that's due on Monday, which I totally finished like a week ago. If I do, I will beg my TA's forgiveness and blame my forgetfulness on something to do with menstruation.
* I'm still not so totally secure that I won't acknowledge I might be jinxing myself here. Knock wood and all that.
** Seriously, WHAT HAVE I BECOME?
*** Though when I had a client project based on a formal logic textbook, I did 'content QA' at night and on weekends for fun.
I've gotten several new jobs since, and the latest one allows me to take classes at the extension school for $40 each, so I'm trying to be a grown-up about it and enrolling in a program that is Relevant To My Career and not just audit art and literature courses forever and ever. I might change my mind, naturally. I'll almost certainly take forever to do this, if I do finish.
When I took that one course, I never got confirmation of my final grade by mail, and was never motivated enough to dig around online for it, so I only saw it for the first time after enrolling for my class this semester. As of right now, I'm an A-minus grad student in Historical Linguistics! As of this week, I'll almost certainly be dragging that average down by taking a Computer Science/Java course.
I expect this experience will either be very humbling, or the springboard to a new career phase in which I become a brogrammer.
So, the premise of the song is "Miley," a slightly hick-ish young person arriving in LA full of hopes and dreams and not a few fears, hearing a favorite song in the back of a taxi and realizing that it will, as the sages say, "be ok" and that the shared experience of loving a popular song can bridge the differences between a "Nashville party" and LA, "the land of fame, excess." The message, such as it is, is that we're all part of the same party that is the USA, pop music functions as the invite, and you'll be welcome even if you're wearing cowboy boots in a stiletto city. It's a cute song, and I can't help but be charmed by it. Here's what stuck out for me, though: The 'favorite song' in the first verse is a Jay-Z song. A song called "Party in the USA" with a video featuring huge American flags and pickup trucks name-checks a black hip-hop artist as a piece of universal cultural currency. That this is totally unremarkable is worth, well, remarking on. There's no element of a song like this that isn't deliberate and intentional, and the lyrics were even rewritten around Cyrus's persona after Jessie J. passed on recording it. So white girl - white country-music-identified girl - shouting out Jay-Z as something that unites us all, and it goes pretty much unacknowledged because, I suppose, it's beyond dispute, even though it's actually not. Moreover, Jay-Z and Britney Spears are, in the context of the song, functionally equivalent (the second verse shouts out a 'Britney song.')
White kids my age listened to hip-hop, of course, and had been doing so for years by the time I hit high school, but there was still a self-consciousness to it and the most popular acts of the day were either playing up their transgressive gangster personas or exploring political and 'consciousness' topics that made it clear hip-hop was still working through the process of becoming fully mainstream. Both strains still exist, and white rappers are still often regarded as novelties or curiosities, but there's something almost beside-the-point about the notion of 'crossover' in a Jay-Z-and-Beyonce-hanging-at-the-White-H
But then Miley decided to go all in on clumsy appropriation, sexualized provocation and scattershot weirdness** and I found out that she claimed to have never heard Jay-Z before recording the song.*** So I guess never mind?
* Maybe tomorrow we will talk about my thoughts about Ke$ha. I have some of those too.
** I still maintain that the dancing teddy (pedo?!) bear stuff could have been amazing.
*** Bet she'd like to take that back now, huh?
While Andy would have been happy to spend the entire trip in London, I've been there before and I liked the idea of riding the Eurostar to Paris, so talked him into flying into Heathrow and out of Charles De Gaulle. After I booked plane tickets, I realized that taking the Eurostar to Paris would mean, you know, visiting Paris, and there isn't much that I care about in Paris on the 'must-see' attraction level,* so my usual library guidebook binge isn't going to go very far. Not that it's stopped the library guidebook binge, because I love guidebooks and libraries and sitting around outside 1369 with a stack of library guidebooks on the table in front of me making little pencil notes in a draft itinerary or a less-structured infinite scroll list of 'stuff I want to check out in [destination]' that will always be longer than any trip permits. In this particular case, the list was alarmingly short before I started supplementing it with the more not-for-everybody finds I was able turn up online or via personal recommendations, where perhaps time won't be the limiting factor, but sheer crafty fearlessness. (I mean, I'm still dithering about whether or not to pull the trigger on a hotel in the 20th arrondissement because the cancellation policy is on the strict side.) This process became way more fun when I found the local Parisian crank on the Lonely Plant message board** and followed his posts to another, lower-profile board featuring photo-heavy threads like "My Kitsch Paris" and "Africa in Paris." I always do this kind of research, but it's never been so fundamental to my planning.
Which is all to say, anybody want to recommend stuff to do or see in Paris? I like neighborhoods that people are just starting to fret over, gentrification-wise, places with lots of street art (the not-really-legal variety), shops that do not emphasize brand names or trademarks, street food and good urban bike routes. I like weird stuff like the Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago and the place with the bloody animal mauling mosaics in Istanbul. Don't tell me about the catacombs. I know about the catacombs! We'll be there the week of Thanksgiving, probably for about four days.
Oh, and you can tell me what you like about London too, but London is way easier, especially since this will be a return visit for me and Andy will enjoy himself no matter what because we'll be there for the 50th anniversary of the first Doctor Who broadcast.
* That said, I was a little heartbroken, after recently reading Apollo's Angels and even more recently discovering a delightfully high/lowbrow CW reality series about a Salt Lake City ballet company, to realize that the Paris Opera Ballet will be dark during our visit. Andy is no doubt relieved, and not just because it means he won't need to pack clothes that will pass muster at Palais Garnier. I will also pay too much money for Laduree macarons.
** This is the sort of thing that is obvious if you think about it: Most of the destination-specific boards are dominated by a small number of opinionated locals or local expats who set the tone for the entire board, and are regarded as authoritative by even other heavy posters. This results in just as much a curated impression as a guidebook, but one that does not even attempt to appear objective. My favorite Paris thread on the Lonely Planet board is one where a guy asks for advice on the surprise overnight trip/super-fancy hotel/public proposal he's planning and nearly every response tells him that his grand romantic gesture is kind of stupid, and has he actually talked to his girlfriend about whether they should get married? The Paris guy finds little of interest in the city center, is enormously helpful in identifying interesting things in funkier not-purely-French neighborhoods, and once popped into every cafe on the Champs Elysees to find out exactly how much each one charged for a cola (too much!) He clearly loves his city in a way that is totally different from the way most people tend to love it.
For a while now, I've thought that this might actually not be a good thing to do - it's the one measurable indicator of how well the teams are doing, but doesn't actually tell us anything about whether the work was useful, valuable, blah blah blah. But because it's the one metric we use to evaluate ourselves, people do all sorts of sneaky stuff to boost the number of completed stories or points ("This'll be done by the end of the first day of the next sprint so let's call it done!" "Let's call this story done and create a new story for next sprint to track the remaining work. That story will be ANOTHER 20 points of effort.") Mostly when people do that stuff it just annoys me because it's generally a self-deceptive waste of time, but if I want the teams to knock it off, I should really stop incentivizing that kind of behavior by acknowledging teams when they complete a lot of story points or carry over fewer stories. Basically, I, and the rest of the leadership group, am encouraging teams to juke the stats to make themselves look good according to the measurement I've been using.
So I've been trying to introduce other ways to recognize good work, and convince the rest of the manager-types that we should knock it off with the metrics, or at least switch to metrics that better reflect what we're trying to do, like a release burndown* chart. I've talked about it with individual team members too, and every time we have the conversation, I start off by saying "Have you seen 'The Wire'?" so I can skip the complicated explanations and just say "We're juking the stats, and that's stupid." I've had this conversation five times now. Only one guy had even heard of the show.
* To do this, of course, we'd need to know what any given release consists of, which: LOLOLOL.