Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Heroes don't exist.

I am of the opinion that the word hero is grossly over used. As evidence to support my idea, I offer this:

A bunch of people of the street gazing off into the distance, being billed as "our heroes" when all they've actually done is been lucky enough to land themselves a role on a TV game show that takes them around the world performing takes a distracted bonobo could probably accomplish with ease. If your society is attempting to call these people heroes then the word has been so devalued as to be meaningless. 

We have sporting heroes. In New Zealand, the All Blacks are regularly billed as sporting heroes.  What have they done to achieve this lofty pinnacle? They have worked hard to gain the opportunity to be played large amounts of money so that other people with more money can sell the spectacle and make some more money. That's all it is, selling the spectacle. We are sold heroes and as soon as we have bought one, another is rolled out to tempt us into buying that one as well.

Business heroes, sporting heroes, community heroes. The list goes on. Some of these people (probably not the business heroes) are undoubtedly worthy of respect for the hard work they put in and the good work that they do for the community. In the case of those who win renown saving the lives of their comrades on the battlefield in times of war or those who endanger their own lives in save others in times of disaster, heroic actions are no doubt performed. 

I don't believe heroic acts make the hero though. To declare someone a hero is to blind yourself to their flaws. And if they're human, they have flaws. Richard Feynman, world renowned physicist, Nobel prize winner, hero of physics, casual (and quite horrible sometimes) sexist1. We've had cricketing "heroes" that have been roundly condemned in the media for their off field behaviour.

Heroes are made to be looked up to, to exhibit behaviour that we can aspire to. Which is easy enough to do when you look at a single, specific behaviour of someone who has put themselves in harms way for the betterment of their fellows or excelled in some noble endeavour. Or it can be impossible to do as in the case of the heroes from the amazing race. The idea that we are going to find someone who is universally laudable in all aspects of their behaviour though, is ridiculous.

So the only place that we can find true heroes are in works of fiction. Only in fiction were all aspects of a person that aren't described don't exist. It is only in fiction where all the flaws can be removed. 

Then again, maybe I've just read to many comic books.

1. Yes there are arguments about context, i.e. his behaviour wasn't necessarily out of the ordinary for any men at the time. Doesn't mean it wasn't awful though. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Things change.

Last night twitter delivered to me this gem : Inside The Barista Class. It's worth a read, especially for those of us who have spent some time in hospo. Near the end, it begins to talk of the relationship between hospo staff and the customers. Or rather, of the interactions between hospo staff and hospo staff and between hospo staff and various groups of customers.When the neighborhood is still rough around the edges it feels like there is a certain amount of camaraderie amongst the staff and the customers - everyone's broke, everyone is trying to get something to work, somehow. 

Rarely spoken aloud, the tendency of Greenpoint’s service class to take care of its own was one of the only outright gestures of solidarity I witnessed, the only place where a distinction was made between the server and the served
Checks for Negronis, artisanal spicy pickles, hand-roasted coffee beans, and sometimes entire locally sourced meals disappeared with a wink and a nudge reminiscent of Fight Club’s ominous waiter scene.  
I've experienced that feeling of community, something I am immensely grateful form, but as a customer and a staff member. Strangely enough it makes me wary of being overly friendly with staff of somewhere that I'm newly venturing to I think.

As the neighborhood transitions and you get new types of customers slowly appearing, things change though. I used to live, many years ago in Shoreditch in London. At the time everyone thought it was in the process of gentrification. Even then though it took me a while to figure out that the backfiring car that I heard at least once a week were actually gunshots. Last year I got the opportunity to have a wander through the old neighborhood 10 years on. It was recognizable in terms of physical structure, they way that it felt though was just ... worlds apart. The area had become affluent.

There are some who are making similar observations. In my absence the area rose as an area of start-ups bringing with them new and crazy ideas. The writer, Cory Doctorow, I think gets it right when he describes start-ups, the ideas are crazy and most of them fail, those that don't often succeeding not because of their original idea but because they've learnt something from the failure of their first idea and come up with something new. The new Shoreditch started out as a churn of ideas and people some of which ended up succeeding, most of which didn't. As it became successful though, as in Greenpoint, the area becomes a little more polish, the mainstream begins to takes notice and almost by osmosis, moves in.

I think the first time I saw this phenomenon described was in William Gibson's Bridge trilogy where the San Francisco Bay bridge had been damaged, closed and then occupied by an interstitial community - a wild, unregulated place that new ideas come from. They are, almost by definition unstable - eventually either dieing or more likely producing sufficient success stories that they get taken over. Strangely enough - there is also a school of thought that maintains that areas like these are necessary, it's where new ideas that the mainstream either can't conceive of  or would have great difficulty in passing through entrenched power structures are conceived of.

It's sort of sad really. It means that I'll have to keep moving because these sorts of areas are, for me at least, the best places to live in.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Things you don't think about.

There's a fair number of people (I think/hope) that realize that the word computer was actually a job title for a person - a person that sits in an office somewhere and does the menial adding/subtracting/multiplying of numbers. In the early-mid 20th century the computer became a thing, a machine.
Though it would have been earlier if Babbage had bloody well got off his perfectionist arse and just built his damn computing engine instead of perpetually refining the designs.

Even before the first mechanical computers were built though, we had our first programmer - a woman by the name of Ada Lovelace, who we can very safely, I think, put into the category of extremely clever person. The human computers were around for a bit longer though. As best as I can gather, it was a mostly a position for males at the beginning of their careers. That changed round the late 19th/early 20th century when it became a job available to women with mathematics degrees.

Then in the 20th century, we get the invention of electrical computers. At which point, everyone should be introduced to Kay McNulty, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman, Betty Jean Jennings, and Fran Bilas, the programmers of ENIAC, which was pretty much the first electronic, general computer ever built. Yup, both the person who invented programming and the first programmers of electrical computers where all women. And for quite some time after that, right up to the 1960's and 1970's, computing was thought to be a suitable profession for young women (if they weren't going to be teachers or nurses).

So computing has over the years gone from being a male profession, to one that a female one and back again. Which, if it wasn't patently obvious before (which it was if you're the sort of person who pays attention), demonstrates that it's a cultural thing rather than anything to do with ability that has the industry largely dominated by men these days. 
I don't know how many people actually stop and think about the history of the profession though. It's a nice way, in computing at least, to challenge assumptions that people probably don't even realize that they're making.