The twittering of the Munchkins

oz

And now for something completely different.

I’ve spent the last forty — not quite, but almost — years of my life paying the rent by writing computer code. It hasn’t been a bad living, and I can’t complain. It’s also been more fun than not: nothing deep about it, really, but intellectually interesting enough to make the days pass quickly.

I always tell people that it’s like solving crossword puzzles for a living, which is not exactly right but isn’t too far off, at least as regards the hour-by-hour texture of the work. It’s very finical. A letter out of place spoils the whole thing.

The element that isn’t captured by that description is that there’s a certain very modest scope for creativity. A crossword puzzle, after all, has only one right answer, but any programming problem has many, and coders, like Talmudists, dearly love to wrangle about why solution A is better than solution B. There’s such a thing as elegant code, and such a thing as ugly, clunky code, and we all aspire to write the former.

This too is fun. People who don’t appear macho at all suddenly become very assertive. And people who you would think have no taste at all — judging by the way they dress, and the books they read — suddenly come out as aesthetes, and make good their claim to the title.

Alas, that’s all gone now. At least in the corporate world where I still have to make a living. I bet it’s still alive in the open-source world — in fact, I know it is. But in the sweatshops where most of us coders earn our bread, the glory has departed. It’s mere drudgery now: Taylorized and overmanaged. One of the chief villains is something called ‘Agile methodology’, nicely satirized in the TV series ‘Silicon Valley’ as ‘scrum’. ‘Agile’ is a horrible neocult, and it has become the bane of my existence.

If you read the Agile manifesto or the Wikipedia entry it doesn’t sound too unreasonable, though the smarminess of the prose ought to ring alarm bells in any reasonably alert and cautious person’s mind.

But what it has led to in practice is an extraordinary bureaucratization of programming, accompanied by an extraordinary proliferation of cult-speak. For example, there really are ‘scrums’. In fact there’s one every day, usually in the morning. Scrums are presided over by ‘scrum masters’. I am not making this up.

I believe it is now possible to get some kind of credential as a scrum master. Scrum masters are usually people who don’t write code, and don’t know how to write code, but presumably understand scrums.

One is expected to stand during scrums, and they really do consist of moving post-it notes around on a whiteboard. This is very important. The post-it notes must also be color-coded, which is a sore trial to color-blind me. I always use a note of the wrong color, and must be called sharply to order, usually by a scrum master who is younger than some of my own children.

These things are referred to as ‘scrum ceremonies’. Again, I assure you: I am not making this up.

There are other picturesquely-named personages too, besides the scrum master: stakeholders and advocates and what not. But as the old proverb has it, shit rolls downhill, and all the shit ends up on the heads of the coders. Coders are supposed to be able to push back, but in practice they can’t, and so they get stuck with whimsical arbitrary deadlines for code whose behavior has never been clearly specified. Then somebody changes his mind about the expected behavior halfway through the development process. It’s a case of bricks without straw, Pharaoh!

It’s a testimony to the decency of human nature, and perhaps to a certain vestigial sense of Munchkin solidarity, that the coders seldom turn on each other and try to shift the blame when the preposterous deadlines are missed. (Though there are exceptions, may they burn in Hell.) The usual excuse, often true enough, is that some emergency supervened because the last delivery of crummy code failed in production, and a fire had to be fought.

One could go on and on — really, somebody ought to write a book about it — but perhaps this gives you some idea.

All this has of course made the programming workplace a much more anxious, unpleasant setting. The sense of solidarity, though it’s not entirely gone, is much impaired. We all used to make merciless fun of the boss, among ourselves. No more. Every so often an easily-disavowed emoji will turn up in some chat application. That’s about the extent of it.

Much of this work is done by contractors rather than regular employees. I’m one of that mercenary army myself, these days. Contractors don’t ordinarily stick around very long — and for that matter regular employees don’t either. There is, of course, no such thing as job security for either category of prole.

One of the sad consequences of this transience and casuality, combined with the nutty deadlines and the absence of specification, is that one really ceases to care about writing good code. It will probably never go into production anyway, and if it does, you’ll be long gone by the time it blows up and exposes the bank to a billion-dollar lawsuit or public disgrace. Or both. And if it does, they will richly deserve it.

Not that I would ever deliberately leave a time bomb in some odious employer’s code base. Oh no. As Richard Nixon once memorably said, That would be wrong. Retro me, Sathanas!

But I write shit code these days. I used to care about error handling. I used to make no assumptions at all about the validity and canonicality of the data feed I was working with. I used to spend a lot of effort making sure that my code worked with improbable but possible edge cases. I used to care about optimization and thread and socket pooling and re-use and short execution paths and compact footprints. I used to care whether threads really bought you anything, or just made the code easier to write.

Admittedly, I was never very good at including comments. I have gotten better at that, because after all, they’re much easier to write than code.

I haven’t quite descended to the Skid Row of coding yet, which is what I call ‘cut-and-paste code.’ You take a block of four or five lines, and in your editor you replicate it a dozen times, from top of screen to bottom, with one or two variable names changed in each copied block. This is a sin against God and man. What you ought to do is factor out the repeated common logic into a function or macro or something, and call it repeatedly with different parameters.

But you see the cut-and-paste approach a lot these days, created by people who certainly know better. A couple of years back I had a boss at a big American bank — one that you love to hate; trust me — who insisted that I ought to take the cut-and-paste approach. Why? Because it was easier for him to read the code that way.

It hasn’t gotten quite that bad for me yet; the cut-and-paste gig didn’t last, and the bad boss is now a more or less distant memory. (God, how I hated him at the time, though.) But my product is crap these days, even without that particular descent to the Ninth Circle.

And it seems that really, this is what my employers want. Or rather, as Madeline Albright once said, it’s a price they’re willing to pay for turning an eccentric, artisanic occupation into assembly-line work.

The swarm

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Facebook has become Hillaryland, and no doubt will be for the next year and a half. Many of my so-called friends are busy ‘liking’ and re-posting inane, jejune meme-wannabes, most of which presumably originate from some eager intern at the Hillmill itself, or from junior-woodchuck auxiliaries like Daily Kos. The facebook S/N ratio, never very impressive, is now zero to three decimal places, with this superadded outpouring of imbecile campaign chaff.

They’re damn nasty, too, these people, if you show any inclination to demur. Here’s an example:

Okay, so what do you plan to DO about the imminent future of the world? Not vote? Vote for a candidate that is manifestly unable to actually win? Wow, yeah, way to stick it to “The Man” (or The Woman, as the case may be). I’m sure your unrealized principles are going to create great change in the world as you bash your head against the Republican regime. And please, stop with the straw man arguments; my unconditional support of HRC’s campaign =/= unconditional support of every decision she has or will make. Politics — like life — is more complicated than that. If you don’t like what is off the table now, just wait until we get a Republican president back in office. At least with a Dem in office we’d have a *chance* to get those topics back on the table. But I suppose basking in moral superiority is more rewarding than taking a hit to make real change happen.

Anklebiters of my friend’s ilk are now in full swarm. It reminds me of a famous scene from the movie Barbarella, darkly hinted at in the image above. Those who haven’t seen the movie can check out the scene here, though perhaps not at the office.

Incoherencies abound in all this, of course — interspersed in the overall texture of cliche, like raisins in tapioca. For example, just what sort of a ‘hit’ does my correspondent anticipate taking as a result of her vote for ‘HRC'(*)?

And of course ‘imminent future’ is irresistible.

But the incoherence is less interesting to me, these days, than the obvious intensity of feeling that provokes stuff like this. Where does it come from?

Needless to say, I have a theory.

My theory is that folks like my correspondent recognize, on some level perhaps not fully conscious, that they are entirely the objects of politics rather than the subjects. They have no place at the table, as a current buzzphrase runs. They have no influence on events. No one among our rulers cares what they think or consults them.

The only way they have to feel like agents rather than patients is the empty quadrennial ritual of a Presidential horserace. Hence this hollow mummery must actually be quite important; and anybody who says otherwise has dissed them.

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(*) Initials which always reminds me of a chain of gyms that used to exist here, and maybe still does: the ‘Health and Racquet Club’. Note the precious Anglophile orthography. There is signs and correspondences in all things, as Fluellyn says. No pain no gain. And then you might have the pain without the gain, which is perhaps more to the point with Hillary.

She’s doomed

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Above, the new logo for Hillary’s presidential campaign. What were they thinking of? This is surely one of the ugliest and most repellent designs ever. Did a committee come up with it?

This particular rendering — a PNG file — displayed at full scale shows the predictable sawtooth edge of the arrowhead. Do Hillary’s votaries regard her as so inevitable that nobody has to pay attention to this stuff?

But the image is disturbing on so many levels that one really doesn’t know where to start. Perhaps it’s sufficient to mention how hard, aggressive, and even menacing it is. Which makes it fairly appropriate, I guess — Hillary’s latent physiognomy. Or rather, patent physiognomy.

Compare and contrast with Obie’s soothing logo, which always reminded me of an ad for some kind of tranquilizer:

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Bibi the Irrelevant

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One is really beginning to feel almost sorry for Bibi Netanyahu. The sharp-elbowed Israeli jefe was able to shove aside some poor diminutive Franco-African chap and inject himself into the front line at a Charlie Hebdo demonstration in Paris, back in January, when Charlie Hebdo was still a thing. But his more recent attempt to crash the party, at a conversation among real Great Powers, about Iran, fizzled badly.

After the recent announcement of the tentative nuke agreement with Iran, the Israeli plug-ugly took it upon himself to insist that any such agreement had to include some kind of recognition of Israel on Iran’s part.

Now of course one of the obvious implications of any actual substantive agreement with Iran, on the part of the Powers, would be that Israel and its mad projects were left out in the cold. So Bibi’s petulant demand for the top brick of the chimney was manifestly ridiculous. But he made it anyway. Even with a weatherman, this blockhead doesn’t seem to know which way the wind is blowing.

Amazingly enough, the US State Department, no less, sent Bibi away with a contemptuous dismissal, entrusted to a rather junior porte-parole named Marie Harf. Hardly anybody reported this, except Fox News, and even they played it pretty straight. Ms Harf said explicitly that the question of Israel was in no way on the table in the discussions with Iran, and between the lines, that Bibi could bugger off.

God, that must have been fun. Lucky Marie Harf.

The Times inverts Middle East reality…

m4s0n501

medieval-monsters

… as usual. Today’s headline — a nice big one in the print edition — read

IRAN AGREES TO DETAILED NUCLEAR OUTLINE

What it should have said, of course, is

ISRAEL & CO. FAIL TO SUBVERT DIPLOMACY IN FAVOR OF WAR

Because the real story here is not that Iran has proven willing to “unclench its fist”, as the Times goes on to say. Iran has for decades been almost desperately willing for a normalization of relations with the so-called ‘West’ — with the important proviso, of course, that ‘normalization’ is not a euphemism for ‘recolonialization’. All the spook agencies — even the Mossad! — agree that the Iranian government has not been trying to develop nuclear weapons — though given the fact that Israel has such weapons, who could blame them if they did? The Iranians have always signaled their willingness to go well beyond their obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — to which they, unlike Israel, are a party — and indeed they have now agreed formally to do so.

As usual in dealing with the Empire, and its juiced-up, erratic, hair-triggered gunsels like Israel, all the ‘give’ has been on the Iranians’ side. Cf. the Palestinians.

No, what is new here is that for once the US and its lapdogs — collectively referred to as ‘the West’ — have decided to negotiate in good faith. They drove a hard — an unnecessarily hard — bargain, but this time, they didn’t go to the table intent on tipping it.

Like the failure to provoke a war with Syria back in fall 2013, this clearly seems to be a significant defeat for the neocon faction at the hands of what’s usually called, for lack of a better term, the ‘realists': that is to say, people who never did, or no longer believe that giving Israel a blank check is the one-size-fits-all imperial answer to every question the Middle East poses.

Hillary The Inevitable must be appalled. She and her husband have, after all, made a career of carrying Israel’s water. Will she face an agonizing decision: repudiate the agreement and make a lot of Democrats unhappy, or embrace it and let her opponent, whoever that might be, have all the true-believer Zionist money?

This should be fun. Or at least, as much fun as an American presidential campaign could ever hope to provide.

Friendly, or at least tranquil

flythefriendlyskies

More about unhappy airline pilots:

Commercial pilots in the United States are grounded by Federal Aviation Administration regulations if they are taking certain prescription drugs, including all sedatives, tranquilizers, anti-psychotic drugs and most antidepressants — with the exception, since 2010, of four: Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa and Lexapro.

Quis custodiet, and so on

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The likelihood of a pilot’s mental illness or suicidal feelings resulting in a crash in the U.S. is low; the Federal Aviation Administration maintains very strict guidelines for evaluating the mental health of aircrew. Under FAA rules, no one suffering from psychosis, severe personality disorder, manic-depressive illness or substance dependence can be issued the medical clearance to fly an airliner. Captains are required to renew their clearance every six months and first officers every year. Hundreds of people get refused every year.

That last sentence intrigues me. One would like to be a fly on the wall at a few of these proceedings.

Would you buy a used opera from this man?

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That’s Peter Gelb, above, who’s running the Metropolitan Opera these days. Running it into the ground, by all accounts, and not a minute too soon.

Don’t get me wrong: some of my best friends are opera fans, in spite of the old musicians’ joke to the effect that there are music lovers, and then there are people who are into opera. I’ve spent a few pleasant nights at the opera meself. Admittedly, it was mostly Handel and Mozart. Wagner is fun, up to a point, but one wants to take a shower afterwards. Verdi is a fine composer but he should have confined himself to oratorio. And dare one say it, Monteverdi is at his least interesting in the medium he is said to have invented. Mozart’s most lovable opera(*) is also the least operatic. And so on.

My opera-fan friends are buzzing just now about an item in The New Yorker (yes, The New Yorker) about the woes of the Met, under the mad Mussolini-like diktatura of Mr Gelb — who bears more than a passing resemblance to the late unlamented Steve Jobs, don’t you think?

I was delighted to see Eustace Tilley taking a swipe at a Ring cycle I also mocked, to the best of my ability, back in the day: one of Gelb’s satrap spectacles.

It should surprise no one that Gelb & Co. are now attempting to fund their overblown follies by cutting the salaries of the fiddlers in the pit and the singers in the chorus. The New Yorker piece linked to above gave some numbers about their pay. I was shocked. These are people who have spent years mastering a difficult craft and have succeeded brilliantly at it. They ought to be a lot better-paid than I am. They’re not. This is just obscene. But Gelb, like every other corporate executive, wants to reduce them to beggary. Gelb, I should say, and his board of economical billionaires.

I wish the Met every ill that could possibly befall it. I want to see it shuttered and dark: the dull tennis-court sized Chagalls relocated to a Masonic hall or a skating rink somewhere, the trashy tawdry building — Robert Moses’ work — crumbling like moldy icing sugar under the wrecker’s ball.

Opera fans will still go see opera in a garage, or a barge, or an abandoned derelict warehouse; and opera would be much more lovable under those circumstances, not to mention more affordable. The divine fiddlers in the band and more-than-competent singers in the chorus, I think, will find a way. We are a depraved and unamiable species but at our worst we retain a love for music, the dulce laborum lenimen, and I hope and believe that we shall never lose it.

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(*) Zauberfloete, of course. Let’s put on a show!

O treason most vile!

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Golly, liberals really love to call the cops, don’t they?

It seems that just about everybody I know is mad as a wet hen about the Republican senators’ childish, fatuous letter to the ayatollahs. A bizarre legal curiosity called the Logan Act has been exhumed — by liberals! — from two hundred years’ worth of well-deserved oblivion. Charges of treason are being proffered, prosecution demanded, garments torn, hair set afire….

Not surprisingly, the most insightful, rational, and adult response I have seen to the senators’ silly letter came from the heir of an ancient and sophisticated civilization, namely Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, who was kind enough to give this imbecile stunt more careful consideration than it deserved from anybody.

Perhaps hysteria evokes hysteria. As the Republican loons increasingly take flight from reality, it appears that their liberal counterparts feel obliged to keep pace.

It’s a depressing spectacle to see the enlightened, well-educated libs and the ignorant, obscurantist Yahoo flat-earthers scrambling for the same brass ring. Who’s the traitor? Who’s the patriot? Who’s the law-breaker, who the law-enforcer?

Of course one expects reactionaries to call people traitors — it’s a fundamentally reactionary concept — but it says something about the latent physiognomy of liberals when they show themselves so eager to do the same. There are, of course, precedents: see for example the American postwar Red Scares, organized respectively under the Wilson and Truman administrations.

One cannot, of course, leave this topic without observing that there are exactly two parties whose noses would be put out of joint by a rapprochement between the US and Iran: namely, Saudi Arabia and Israel.