Sunday, February 25, 2007

Smokin' Aces

Really fashioning a weapon to get food -- I'd say that's a first for any nonhuman animal.
~Craig Stanford, primatologist and professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California, quoted in For First Time, Chimps Seen Making Weapons for Hunting

About eight years ago, a very critical production system at a major petroleum exploration firm crashed. Hard. Oracle Financials. No backups. Wouldn't come up. The individuals responsible for it had run fsck -y on it at least four times. Not mine in any sense of the word, but someone who knew someone who knew me called and offered a huge lump sum if I could resurrect it. I asked for twice what they offered, and they didn't hesitate at all.

So I took all of the vacation I had left from the job I had back then, and I went for it. It took just over twenty-seven hours, no sleep, lots of blind alleys and even more lucky breaks. More good guesses than bad ones. I became very, very well acquainted with od(1), I found out how Sun had changed the classic inode structure as of Solaris 2.6, the hard way. I got second, third, even fourth wind through the non-stop run. At one point, I really did cat > foo.c, typed in ~50 lines live, and it compiled, linked, and did what I wanted it to without further editing. Then a little later I panicked when I forgot for about 45 minutes where I'd been saving my ever-growing directory of utilities, cooked up on the spot. When I turned the final corner, when I knew I was closing in and it was just a matter of me not making any more mistakes, at least no unrecoverable ones, I stood up for the first time in hours. When I stretched, there were joints in my body that popped that I didn't even know would pop. Somehow, they knew to leave me alone. They just kept bringing more coffee, and I kept typing. The last time I pressed Enter, I stood up again and they came to watch too. They muttered, "come on, come on," like gamblers at the track with their rent money on the line.

I knew it would work by then. The last hour was a series of dress rehearsals before the performance. I actually spent a good fifteen minutes tuning the output, inventing nifty status messages, so they'd have something entertaining to look at.

After the database was up, and verified, and I was looking, feeling, and smelling like shit, I sipped bourbon with the guy whose ass really was on the line. He was self-described oilfield trash who'd gotten a few good breaks. His age spots were indistinguishable from the melanoma. We drank and smoked cigarettes in his office. I'd thought he'd be really happy that I'd put Humpty Dumpty back together again. He looked relieved, but no sign of happiness. He just looked tired, so very tired. After shooting the shit for ~30 minutes--mostly due to me asking him more questions to hear him keep croaking on, for reasons I chalk up to my borderline delusional psychosis--he thanked me, told me I was a "God damned genius," sighed deeply, and paid me in cash.

I never have shaken the feeling that I re-enabled something crooked that day. From the gleaming, climate-controlled data center, with its raised floors, the plush carpeting that started where the cubicles ended, to the people who smiled at me when I arrived and avoided me when I left, I felt unclean. I'd proven to myself and to anyone that was paying attention that I was clever and talented. When it had all come together, I remember thinking, "They can't take that away from me." Many time since then I've wished there was a way to take it back.

Oh. Smokin' Aces. Awesome flick. More surprises than obvious guesses. Buckets of blood, a little gore, moderate horrifics, and at the end, you wonder whether the guy left standing is going to do the right thing--or if there is such a thing any more.

I wonder whether I'll ever be done accepting money from people who--whether they realize it or not--are loyal to something wicked. That film got me to wondering: Is there a clean way to look into the eddying currents of the layers and layers of avarice, and to portray it in a way that will attract attention for anything besides the distraction of the same thing? Is there a way for me to express this so that it makes a difference, or would I just be amusing those who are engaged in the same insipid pursuits?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Propaganda at My Children's Public School

Advertising is what you do when you can't go see somebody. That's all it is.
~Fairfax Cone, born 104 years ago today

One of my kids' teachers told him today that Iraqis just want to blow themselves up so they can be with God; that the WMDs were there, but hidden when we weren't looking; that Iran and Syria are supplying the weapons they're killing our troops with; that God is on our side, and that bringing the troops home before we win the war would be a sin. I got so upset about this that my wife had to reassure our son that he wasn't in trouble. He and I actually had a great conversation about history, politics, and how human beings can make stupid decisions when they're angry or upset. The school district is going to hear all about this bullshit.

My nine-year-old proudly read me the letter he wrote to the President at school today:
Dear President George W. Bush:

I am a 9 year-old, 4th grade citizen writing my complaints on this piece of paper. It an honor writing to you. I hope you think my handwriting and grammar is at its best.

Syria and Iran are giving Iran weapons and they are teaching Iraqians [sic] how to make bombs. I do not like that because Iraq is basically blowing themselves up.

You can probably send troops to Syria and Iran to try and make peace, of course after the war if we win.

Thank you for reading my letter. It is an honor for you reading my letter.
It's a good thing that my wife was there to let him know that he wasn't in any trouble, because I about went ballistic. "Where did you get these ideas???" I demanded.

"From TIME For Kids," he answered, more than a little scared. "They handed it out to us in class, to help us write the letter."

"Let me see that, that..."

"Sammy, you're not in trouble," my wife interjected.

"Yes, of course," I agreed. I took a deep breath and said, "Sammy, I'm really proud of the way you wrote this letter. I just--I don't agree with the ideas in it."

I went on to explain that there are people in Iraq who are just like us, that they've lived in their homes like we have, that they don't want to blow themselves up, and that they just want to live their lives in peace. I went on to explain that

He brought me the TIME For Kids handout, and not a single idea from the letter he wrote was in the article. There's a summary here, but it's way shorter than the article, which included a handy pie chart and geographical representation of Sunni and Shiite populations.

It's the teacher. Sammy told me what she told the class:
  • Iraqis want to blow themselves up because they believe that this is how they can be with God
  • The weapons of mass destruction were in a building bigger than a Wal-Mart, and that they were moved before we could find them
  • God is on our side
  • It would be a sin for us to bring the troops home before we win God's war
I don't have words to describe how incredibly angry I was--and am about this. I suppose that the teacher is plugged into one or more sources of this distorted crap, and that she really does believe she's doing The Right Thing in this matter. I'm very grateful for my wife's common sense, because I really felt like calling her up at home right then and there.

This is going to be tough. This teacher has been recognized multiple times by the school district, and she came up with the meta-curriculum to coach the kids to pass the No Child Left Behind tests.

So I'm calling the district tomorrow, and I'm getting a meeting. If there's not a policy to handle this [understatement in 3... 2... 1...] bullshit, there will be, very fucking soon. I think it would make an excellent topic for the next Teachers' Workday. I'd be happy to present it myself.

On the bright side, I got to have a great talk with my son. I explained that politics in the classroom is tricky, that history sometimes gets interpreted in different ways by different people. I pointed out how sometimes everyone is really sure that one thing happened, and then new evidence shows up and people realize that they were wrong. I asked him, "Who knows exactly what's going on in Iraq?"

"They do," he said. "The Iraqis."

Man, I felt proud. We talked about how human beings say things they don't mean, don't believe, don't stand by when we're upset. I'd already established with all three of my sons that anger/upset limits blood flow to the brain.

I'd like to think that I'm raising him and his brothers to be critical with important things. Like war, and politics. Fourth grade seems a little early to be teaching him to take what the teacher says with a grain of salt. Then again, they're probably telling him that you can't divide by zero.

I hope I have the presence of mind to convince the school district to cover this at every teachers' workday. It was pretty damned inappropriate to present something like this to 4th graders, in my opinion. And I'm more than a little curious as to why the January 19th issue was used, especially when several issues since then include the State of the Union address, Bush's "plan for the nation" (twice), and Condi's Middle East tour.

Surely this is just a poor decision by one person, i.e., the teacher. There just can't be a conspiracy behind this. No way. It just can't be.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Called to Action

Somewhere someone is thinking of you. Someone is calling you an angel. This person is using celestial colors to paint your image. Someone is making you into a vision so beautiful that it can only live in the mind. Someone is thinking of the way your breath escapes your lips when you are touched. How your eyes close and your jaw tightens with concentration as you give pleasure a home. These thoughts are saving a life somewhere right now. In some airless apartment on a dark, urine stained, whore lined street, someone is calling out to you silently and you are answering without even being there. So crystalline. So pure. Such life saving power when you smile. You will never know how you have cauterized my wounds. So sad that we will never touch. How it hurts me to know that I will never be able to give you everything I have.
~Henry Rollins, born 46 years ago yesterday

Isn't it funny--sometimes ha-ha, sometimes strangely interesting--what gets us out of our normal routines and into action?

I was just thinking about this blog this morning. I was inspired to start it after reading hotcoffeegirl's blog. I emailed her to compliment, said something like "gee, I've always thought about starting a blog..." and she was at once supportive and curt-and-to-the-point. "If you want to start a blog, start a blog," she said. "Don't worry about the perfect design. Don't worry that no one will read you at first." Then she offered more support. It took a few days, and if you read my first post, you'll see that it was indeed a very shaky start.

This morning I'd decided that since I hadn't posted in quite a while, and I'm feeling very busy lately, I'd just clobber the blog and call it a wash. "Maybe some other time," I remember thinking, "when I'm ready."

Well, holy crap. Someone commented on my last post as a way of commenting on a response I posted on someone else's blog. Reminds me of Djikstra's famous paper: loops and loops of spaghetti, decipherable only to the author, if anyone.

"Oooh!" I thought, "a comment!!!" So I rushed right over.

I remember meeting a black guy with a mohawk back in 1980, at Raul's, after a particularly memorable show featuring the Next, the Re-Cords, the Dicks, the Mistakes, Terminal Mind, Standing Waves--surely there were more. It was completely amazing, that atmosphere where everyone's smiling, everyone's ears are ringing--complete relatedness, that feeling that we'd all been there for something important. Maybe it was: Raul's was almost gone. I'd moved away and come back just for that show--as had several of the bands.

So we start talking, me and this outrageous-for-then-looking dude. The guy asked whether I was in a band. I said no, but somehow he knew that I'd have liked to have been in one. Then he asked whether I had a rig. I knew he meant a guitar and an amp; I answered no again. Then he asked a question that has me remember that moment for ever: What are you doing about it?

"Nothing," I shrugged. He looked at me hard for another moment, then walked off. At the time, I felt about one inch tall. I'd been called on my shit, my ambivalence. I wanted something, but hadn't taken so much as the first step toward actually doing anything about it.

That guy was Doug Pinnick. I don't believe for a moment that he was recruiting me for King's X. I think he was just expressing active interest in another person, e.g., not just bullshitting after a show.

It would be three more years before I'd get a rig together. Wouldn't you know it? I was invited to join a band at the music store.

So what are you up to, really? And what do you want to be up to? And what are you doing about it?

I keep bumping into the idea that when you do the thing, you will have the power. It's as though the very act of doing something--as opposed to talking about doing something--you get the Universe's attention. People just seem to show up with things for you to do that take you further on your way. Miracles happen. OTOH, is it so miraculous that the rest of the world is more likely to notice you doing something, rather than saying something? If it wasn't for the television screen, for example, you'd probably have no idea what Wolf Blitzer is going on about, today.

Funny thing--the guy who left the comment isn't available: no return email, nothing on google but (heh) a long-neglected blog... Thanks. You may never know what you did for me.