josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

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14 Nov '14 04:26:02 PM

'It's "personal" because you pour yourself into it—your thoughts, your programming.'

11 Nov '14 03:54:05 PM

'The actual magic trick is making the worker disappear.'

10 Nov '14 04:30:27 PM

'… a spiritually corrosive quality…'

10 Nov '14 02:51:21 PM


9 Nov '14 02:11:18 AM

It is also why school sucks and recess rules.

9 Nov '14 02:10:05 AM

The more widely read a classic is, the more it sucks to read, because you know you're supposed to think things about it, and you want to, but you know that the things you think won't satisfy anyone until you also read the crap everyone says about it, which makes you kind of not even want to think the things you think about it.

This is why reading Emerson is better than reading Kant.

For example.

7 Nov '14 01:32:18 AM

Peli sez: 'blogs are the one thing we read backwards'.

I just called my own blog 'something I write for myself', using a phrase I had been thinking about (to myself) for a few weeks while trying to articulate why I thought a personal blog was particularly well-suited to something that could be called philosophical writing, and philosophical writing of a sort whose nearest analogue in traditional forms always seems to me to be the journal. But why? I don't know; so I had been, still am, puzzling over what the essential difference is between journaling for yourself and journaling in the open, where others can read you. I like the idea of a 'first reader' or an 'only reader' as a status a journal-keeper is privileged to have with respect to her own journal; or maybe 'her own first reader', as a way of acknowledging that writers can also be readers, but with some texts, there are only ever accidentally other readers. Then, in contrast, it could seem like the main thing about a personal blog is that it can be 'overheard', Mill-style, so that other readers have a view of an 'own first reader' form something like the way readers of lyric poetry have an outside or secondary or second-step view of a form—mode—that is maybe reflexive in its own characteristic ways.

That's not right, but it's the direction my thoughts about the form have tended in lately; maybe because I'm preoccupied with the openness, the lack of plan or definition—definition 'in front', in Thoreau's phrase from Walden—or the diurnal quality, the connection between the journal and each new day. I think of the new entry, the next entry.

I could have, like what Peli says suggests, thought instead of the last entry, the previous entry; and all the previous entries. I still remember—I can't find where—Tom Ewing grousing in the very early lifetime of this blog that reading blog archives—i.e., reading them backwards—was a pain. But I think that might only be true when you're looking for something, or, what would be more likely, trying to catch up, which means, to read enough of the past entries to understand, have a feel for, the newest ones. To be able to follow them.

But once you do, you don't read backwards (at least, you choose whether to go further back); you read forward, from newest to newest (almost). In that way, blogs are, like I said, 'more like people than pieces'. Before you know them, everything you can know about them is in their past. But once you do, and keep knowing them—reading them, returning, seeing them from one day to another—you can also know about what is (almost!) new for them, not yet in their past. Once you become a reader of a blog—follow it—you can keep following it as it develops. In that way, you share something more with its author than do those who haven't read it, haven't got a history of their own with it, which means, a familiarity with its history, its past. So that there's a way in which the blogs we read backwards are the ones that are finished, or dead; or new to us. The ones we read forward are just that: the ones we read.

6 Nov '14 06:55:09 PM

'Technology is what we share.'

6 Nov '14 03:45:20 AM

Wittgenstein's shopkeeper, a bit less so than his builders, has been regarded as not just an example of how we use words, but as a kind of exaggeration, a defamiliarization of routine behavior that could even therefore be read as a kind of critique of our lives, of how primitive we can be, have become, whether under the influence of philosophy, or certain pictures, or, at a grand limit, of something like, our culture.

Usually, I guess. Sure. I don't know. But lately more and more I feel like the shopkeeper, the builders. Feel that there is not so much an exaggeration in the service of critique, in the service of turning away from something we're not to want about how we act, live, in these examples—as much as there is an exaggeration in the service of our recognition that yes, that is what we do. Go from here to there, give this to him, send him there, put this here, look at that. We can do this with a sense of purpose, naturally, for something, and we can do otherwise; but we still do it, almost, I want to say, only ever do it.

—Rent comes up due. I subtract the amount from my balance at the bank. There's not enough.

I look for money elsewhere.

Since January I've gotten money from the state; from four employers—technically, two, since the two others required, as a condition of employment, that I employ myself and contract my services to them, as my clients—my parents (more than once); and, if I haven't lost count of it all, four friends (some more than once).

The state did what it could: it paid me a small but barely liveable amount for a set number of weeks while requiring me to look for work. It also required me to attend a job-seeker's 're-employment' course (the third one I have attended, as required, since leaving graduate school with my degree: one in Iowa, and two here—in the same classroom, with the same facilitator). It also, come the end of the line, informed me that there was nothing more to be had in federal money meant to pick up where the state money had left off (though there had been), unless my congressmen and yours chose to continue funding benefits for the long-term unemployed. (They did not.)

You can imagine what I learned from the 're-employment' course. You probably can't imagine what I've learned from looking for work, too educated, mis-qualified, again and again, for years now. —The weird combination, alternation, of unshakeable self-esteem and a feeling of absolute uselessness, hopelessness. Of being nothing anyone would ever want.

Some time later, when my sights had lowered after many months of job-searching, the first employer hired me after I passed a, I forget, thirty- to one-hundred-question multiple choice quiz on basic grammar and usage. Also after I signed a non-compete and a non-disclosure agreement. If I could fully describe what I do for them, you would appreciate how absurdly aggressive that is, how overpoweringly protective of knowledge of this effectively less-than-minimum-wage job and its procedures, knowledge that I'm not sure anyone would want, or could not figure out on their own, or improve upon. But sign I did, and sue they would, I believe. They just seem like they would. Their work has structured, and overflowed into so as to deprive me of, many of my days for the past several months. It is—at first it sounds so liberating, so convenient—work from home. My home, my computer, my phone, my internet connection—my costs—and their work. Each day's work has a deadline of the following day. The deadlines are observed vigilantly, managed punctiliously, remotely, by a tiny but constantly slightly shifting management team who, even despite their seeming policy of uncommunicativeness, can't help but radiate a harried, hounded, miserly mood of mistrust at having, every day, to control the behavior of their hundreds of employees like me and hundreds? thousands? of field workers (really, 'independent contractors') in accordance with the byzantine requirements placed on the work product, which is: reports. Reports reports reports. My day's work is to edit reports for correctness and compliance, chasing down any information required of their authors to make them adequate, and readying them immediately—serving as the first and, usually, only set of eyes—for distribution to the client for whom the reports are ultimately written. I only work on one client. There are really only a few kinds of report; essentially, they all sound the same. It is, in some sense, despite the complicated rules for editing the reports—imagine a Bizarro-world variant of Taylorism which had somehow never been touched by the idea of efficiency—eminently doable, mechanical work. But for that same reason, for me, somehow, dispiriting, emptying words of their meanings, dulling the point of saying sentences, of describing people, things (as the report-writers must do)—deadening all time and interest and making each placement of the cursor, each click of the mouse, seem to come to nothing—magnifying the completion of any minor task so as to seem Sisyphean. The money is a factor. This job pays by the piece. You are allotted so many pieces per day, every day, constantly (except when you're not). Each one you finish may net you a dollar. Three dollars. Five dollars (those feel like you've really done something). Given these amounts, you simply have to finish with many such pieces in an hour, at a steady clip, to make what could be considered an amount that is not hopeless. I have found that, really, you can't; or I can't. Probably by design—if it takes you longer, it takes you longer, and it's on you—but no doubt also because the work, at home, alone, in contact for the most part only with effectively anonymous superiors who tell you what you must do and what you have failed to do; and the work's nature, already mentioned, i.e. grim, have the joint effect of sapping any vigorous or sustained effort toward completing said work. Something about doing something, and knowing that, most likely, doing well (or not badly—on pain of managerial intervention) entails earning less overall; or worse, with less of that in view, simply doing something, and knowing that it can net you only $3, or only $1—causes a dumb, stubborn Bartlebyesque catatonia, or maybe anxiety, or maybe both, to well up and consume everything you do. Or don't do (quickly enough).

When I first started working for that employer, they put me on a reduced load of work (after a certain amount of dead time in which simply nothing happened at all) while I was being trained, which meant, having all my work double-checked. (Officially, 'released', I would become the only person, usually, ever to be responsible that my work was right—as if a publisher sent things straight off to press as soon as one person had read them.) Then, even after, the load was light. I couldn't live on it. There wasn't enough.

At more or less the same time (raining! pouring!) the second employer—or client, in their case, according to the extremely serious-sounding documents I electronically 'signed' in order, as before, to work from home—contracted me for a project wholly determined by what usually seemed to be their own sole client, always known but for some reason of legal mystification hardly ever named: your favorite search engine and, less and less so, mine. Their hundreds or thousands of independent contractors were to evaluate the quality of search results and of the web pages pointed to by those results. For that purpose we were given, before hiring, a multi-part, week-spanning exam covering the detailed guidelines they had written for their system of evaluation, covering its main concepts, explaining its criteria, and giving examples. We were encouraged to study these guidelines. After work began, we were also encouraged to study these guidelines. At almost every point where the possibility of advancement or improvement existed, we were advised to study the guidelines. This employer essentially metered its assignments of labor, and its evaluation of the quality of that labor, quantitatively. You began doing little: half an hour, an hour a day. As you accrued successfully completed tasks, and thus a higher rank, you earned the opportunity to do more work: ninety minutes a day, two hours a day. Any rise was, by design, gradual. And not simply for arbitrary reasons. Their guidelines were credible; they would have impressed and put to shame most teachers and their half-assed methods for grading student work. So fluency with, and mastery of, the guidelines, their use, took practice. Time. (This was a frustrating irony I felt: not enough work to live off from one job, I accepted another, only to receive… not enough work, fast enough, from it.) Time, and failure. The remedy for which was—instruction from the community of more advanced workers and managers aside—'study the guidelines'. So study I did, for no pay; and practice, for no pay, on the 'simulator' on which correct evaluations were already determined, and it was my task to learn to judge as it judged; which was the same as, ultimately, to judge as this employer, its employees, the thousands of other workers out there, and ultimately, its (only?) client wished that we would judge. As with the actual, paid tasks. In a way, it was good work. It was challenging and (however little one was allowed to do) paid well. But it was, as I said, metered. Metered for time, metered for quality, metered for availability, metered for deviation from the (adjusted) community consensus. The hard part, for me, was that work was generally only available at certain times of day—often in conflict with deadlines for my first job—but not assigned, and not announced, so only available just then to people who would be there waiting to do it. 'There': really, here, at home, at my computer. I was quickly put in mind of pellets, feeling ratlike; then of shackles, joining me to the computer, the source of work. I set up a widget to check on the availability of work for me. It would ding, and I would jump over to see if there was work. The widget was imperfect. Sometimes it would ding when there wasn't work. But there would generally (not always) never be a ding without work. And, when it was there, it would have to be done, or be foregone. So, quickly. On the meter. Say, for many of the tasks to be done: in nine minutes. Or 9.0 minutes, in the precise style their metering called for. You might think: OK, nine minutes, ten minutes, twelve minutes. Work a little slower, make a little less, right? But no. For whatever reason, this employer or its client determined that the speed with which the tasks were done was an important factor, so in effect, part of the training regimen called for learning to do the tasks as quickly as was prescribed, never slower (or your average would balloon). And, ha ha, not really faster, either, in the sense that working more quickly would not, aside from its effect on your overall average rate, cause more pay or a greater (because accepted more rapidly) amount of work to accrue to you, given the employer's fastidiously applied invoicing policy (you are a contractor: you work, then invoice them for the hours of work for which you are to be paid): no more and no less than efficiently-enough performed work in the assigned amount shall be paid (so: you invoice them, but they reply, and tell you whether or not they are in agreement with your invoice, or dispute its conformity to their policies prior to your acknowledgment of failure to conform to their policies).

I became anxious. Sleepless, heart-throbbing, jumpy, desperately anxious. I wasn't fast enough. I received notifications that my rate of work was deficient. I made errors. I received notifications that the quality of my work was deficient. I knew I should try to be more cautious. I knew I should practice more. I knew I should study the guidelines. But I also knew there wasn't much work. And I needed that money. So I would take each new task, trying to quell my frantic feelings, trying to make accurate judgments, trying to keep up, trying not to let my scores fall, trying not to make too many mistakes. I couldn't do it. I was too anxious. My numbers fell. I didn't have the luxury of a real job—many people did this one, I heard, only a couple hours a week, several a month, for a little extra cash; few for any real length of time—and so once I was put on 'restricted' status, my availability of work reduced, and instructed to do more unpaid work on the simulator to try to earn a return to a higher status—the costs of trying to hold on to the job were too great, in time, and most of all, in misery, so: I let it slip away.

At first, neither of these jobs was paying much, or paying fast. The second especially so, with more than a month of lag time, and only one payday per month. There wasn't enough. So, as I worked, or tried to train myself (without pay) to do the work, I looked elsewhere. And for something quicker, easier.

I found something, better than nothing, with the third employer, if they could be called that. Again, technically, I was an independent contractor, selling my labor. And 'selling', and 'labor', in a very brute sense. The employer is essentially the online on-demand temp agency branch of your favorite industry-disrupting merchandiser. The work is conceived as a kind of analogue of artificial intelligence, fantasized as done by a computer. It is still done with computers: but by thousands of humans on the internet, piece by piece, cent by cent. Some of it does literally seek to exploit the human involvement the internet makes possible. So, for instance, I have earned a tiny bit choosing grammatical (or more grammatical) sentences or sentence fragments from pairs of alternatives, both obviously machine generated or machine-extracted, apparently serving as the John Henry to some neural network in the process of being trained and tweaked. Or: I have earned a tiny bit by reading English sentences aloud, into the microphone of my computer, apparently to supply data for some company—reportedly Chinese—looking to get its speech recognition technology up to speed. Or, a bit less intelligently, I have taken scores of surveys for psychology researchers, management researchers, market researchers, anyone who needs warm bodies to fill out bubble sheets (yes, even on a computer) and contribute data points to some effort to study the role of gender in workplace conflict, or the effect of political affiliation on susceptibility to persuasion by media sources, or just to figure out whether certain kinds of people might like some dumb movie about an international conspiracy or something. Or. Many of the tasks available, the majority, are nothing but data entry, in many cases set up to serve as back-end processing for the money-making startup scheme of some charmed Harvard MBA, transcribing images of receipts into computer-manipulable data from those receipts, or entering the contact information from images of business cards, or googling evidently semi-powerful and ambitious people seeking to become more powerful, in order to monitor their leading search engine results and make sure that damaging results have somehow been suppressed through—another line of work, another sort of task for another employer—the work of the shadow industry of search engine 'optimization', data cleansing, whatever. Or. I have, a little bit, to see how it was (too much work, not enough pay), moderated images based on how pornographic they were; or based on how inappropriately much dick was showing in them; or I have clicked on tags to identify the types of actor and person and body and sex act in a tiny grainy photo-sheet array of stills from a porn clip, presumably to facilitate the more efficient distribution of the product (if you can't search for it, then you can't find it). Or. I have transcribed audio. Interviews. Tutorials. Economics lectures (lots of math read out loud, difficult Indian accent). Corporate promo garbage (always with the worst music underneath). Sometimes, little tiny chunks of audio, in ten-second bursts, even of the same three or four sources, all mixed up and out of order (the better to distribute on demand to the global labor force, as well as to distribute the cost to the employer of employee error, or straight up nihilistic gaming of the system, trying to grab as much as can be grabbed under the eye of dumb automation in case no human ever really gets around to checking on the quality of the result). Or. I have, in actually kind of a relieving bout of meaningfulness, scanned research articles for citations of a given article, and written little summaries of the use of the article and its role in the argument of the citing paper—feeling, for a short while, like my dozen years of advanced education was good for something. Or. Or. Or. There has been a lot more. None of it for very long, and none of it really that I could stand to do for long (again, too slow). Sometimes it pays a bit that makes you feel like maybe you're not a slave. That's a key term among the workers there, who do actually interact, off-site, grousing about the conditions and sharing information to protect themselves against exploitation (mostly in vain): 'slave labor'. They rate the desirability of a task or a type of task based on how much it is not like doing slave labor, since for most of the rates there, however much of a record of good performance you have built up, it… is. Many of the tasks explicitly prohibit workers based in India, or elsewhere in the English-speaking world (and sometimes, elsewhere than that—else they would be shanghaied by workers without adequate English even to do the intellectually menial work there is to do), where, perhaps, the low rates and even the most miniscule rates—cents per micro-task, seven cents, five cents, three cents for anywhere from a minute to too many minutes worth of time—can, somehow, add up enough to make it better than nothing. For me, now and then, lacking anything better, it has been, sometimes—mostly because I could count on the money coming soon, a few days later. Enough to get some groceries, help cover a bill, get some quarters for doing laundry.

So, for a while, I worked mostly for the first employer, particularly after giving up on the second one, ramping up my workload, finding a way to grind it out, and here and there when I needed to for the third employer, or whatever it should be called when you're a kind of internet day laborer, and no one employs you. At times, it was not enough. A friend, out of the blue, sent me hundreds of dollars in the mail. To fill my pantry, he said. You would, if you had to know, be surprised at who gives.

The constant in these three sources of income has basically been having the pay for everything I do being constantly, totally at the discretion of someone else inclined to refuse to pay on the basis of a determination that the work was of insufficient quality. A yes/no distinction, when you're down to the level of the piece, the task that lasts all of five minutes. A don't-screw-up distinction.

This infuses everything I do, no matter how easy, with a certain anxiety. A feeling of powerlessness.

Another friend causes envelopes containing cash to appear. Cash, and notes of encouragement. I need the money, for actual things, but sometimes, it has been so charming that this money just appears because of her generosity, that I feel like I should be happy. So I buy a soda, or a sandwich, with some of the money. I hope that I'm doing something okay by trying to be happy for a moment.

Another friend says, geez, that's terrible, I'll have some money soon. He gives me money, apologizing that it isn't more. Once, I remark to him, having noticed, that now if I'm cooking and there's a grain of rice left in the box, if I drop one in the sink, I literally think of it as something I could have eaten, something I paid for and can't waste. I feel a moment of—something. I count it.

Needless to say, none of the people giving me any money can really afford to give me any money. For some reason, I don't seem to know any of the other people, who can afford it.

Then, for a while, the first employer effectively laid me off. Left me with little to do, for longer than I could afford. Until things picked back up, on their terms. With this work temporarily—forever, for a while, how long, could not be said—in a doldrum, I sent out a call for leads, help; a friend forwarded me a message from a non-profit she knew someone who knew someone at, looking for temporary workers. The work: data entry at an hourly rate. A rate above ten dollars an hour! I wrote; I applied; I got it, but only just barely, since my shaky availability—still worried about holding on to work with that first employer—left them unsure whether I would be the best choice, since they really preferred a quick burst of full 8-hour days of entry for a week, maybe two, to get the work at hand complete. I showed up before they had gotten around to voicing their misgivings, so they figured, fine. So enter I did: names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, legislative districts written on postcards collected at events like the state fair. I commuted to work; I worked in a cubicle and sat at a desk; for a few weeks I felt like an employee, with co-workers I saw almost every day. I worked, for obscure reasons, briskly, with no rest, no slack, the permanent employees in the office lolling about talking as one does when its permanence causes one to feel a certain kind of ownership of, entitlement to, one's job. When it is not just work—to do, to be paid for, but a job—that one has, does, is. (Suggesting the tempting fallacy of denying the antecedent: if you don't have a job, then you are: ….) I typed, clicked, scrolled, looked up, corrected, deciphered, sorted, card after card. When we—there were two others—had finished entering, turning all the cards and their scrawls into a useful—because computerized—list of supporters (who might be contacted again for support in the future, although when we would sometimes call them up to get help figuring out what they themselves had scrawled in expression of their interest in our organization and its political advocacy, they would say: NOT INTERESTED), we sorted them. Into stacks, 134 of them, one for each legislative district, 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B, 3A, 3B, up to 67A, 67B, to be handed, perhaps, to their respective legislators, as proof of numbers, a proxy for people. Democracy at work! Then, with that—the work was done. They took us out to lunch. I ate curry, I drank milk straight from a coconut. It was the best I had been treated by anyone who had only just put me out of work in, I don't know, forever.

—Rent is due. There's not enough. I add up the reports I have edited—$1, $3, $1, $4.50, $3.75, $1, $1, $1…—and can expect to be paid for on the day that rent is due. There's not enough. I send a note to my parents. I explain what I need, not really expecting anything—they don't have any money, either—but hoping. While I'm waiting, I send another note, to a friend. This friend just the other month took me grocery shopping when I was down to nothing, making the best of expired batter I found in the cupboard. On our circuit of the store she would pass something, say, 'Do you like this?' If yes—'Let's get two, let's get three.' If I wouldn't normally spend the money, not treat myself anyway—'Well would you like this if you could buy whatever you wanted?' If yes—'Let's get two, let's get three.' Confronted with generosity that gives and gives more, I don't even know what to do but take and hope I can someday give again. But then, a month or so later, here I am, in a spot, with no one to ask, so I ask. And she gives again. And 'you can repay me never.' She comes to see me, bringing Chinese food in the little boxes, a stack of cash folded over. Later, I count the bills to see where I stand. My parents send a note back to me. They can send me what I need, they say, but they want me to send a check in return, in the same amount, to hold until I can cover it. I wait for the mail. When it comes, I add the amount of the check to my total. There's enough. There's a little breathing room. I look at what I have, already in the bank; I look at what I hold in my hand, the check, the bills. Since I've moved here, I live close to a branch of my bank, and I've made a habit of going in for quarters, with little place else to get them these days. To do the laundry. I look at what I have, with, after I pay this rent, money tight again: could I afford to do laundry? Not quite, less than $3 in quarters. I have two dimes and a nickel. I put them in my pocket to take to the bank with the check and the money. At the bank, I fill out the deposit slip, even writing in my account number—I know it's not necessary these days, but somehow it reminds me of visiting the savings bank on the town square in the place I grew up—and I arrange it like so. I give the teller the slip, the check, the bills, the dimes, the nickel, and I ask for cash back in quarters: $3.25. The teller is a service industry lifer, all contorted expressions and exaggerated friendliness. She takes the slip, slides it through the scanner attached to the computer, and digs around in a drawer. The computer prints a receipt for me and she produces a handful of quarters from the drawer. She offers to use an envelope for the quarters—another throwback to childhood bank visits. She even, absurdly, asks me to help her count them out. Four quarters—one. Four quarters—two. Four quarters—three. One quarter—and they all go in the envelope she's asked me to hold open for her. When I leave the bank, I pass a mailbox in which I put an envelope addressed to my parents, containing a check for the same amount as the one I just deposited—the date line blank. Besides the check, there is a note: 'Thanks for helping me hold on.'

'I send someone shopping. I give him a slip of paper marked "five red apples". He takes the slip to the shopkeeper, who opens the drawer marked "apples"; then he looks up the word "red" in a chart and finds a colour sample next to it; then he says the series of elementary number-words—I assume that he knows them by heart—up to the word "five", and for each number-word he takes an apple of the same colour as the sample out of the drawer. ——It is in this and similar ways that one operates with words. —— "But how does he know where and how he is to look up the word 'red' and what he is to do with the word 'five'?" —— Well, I assume that he acts as I have described. Explanations come to an end somewhere. – But what is the meaning of the word "five"? – No such thing was in question here, only how the word "five" is used.'

I've seen it noted once or twice that Wittgenstein—he is the 'I', after all—sends someone shopping without any money. Perhaps because of the encouragement in §1 of the Investigations to think of this shopper as a child, tentatively learning to play her part in the grown-up ritual of shopping. In that case, especially, you would think that the money would be important. Crucial to the ritual. The child has to learn to hold the money, keep it safe, then hand it over to the shopkeeper at the right time. The timing is all-important for the ritual. And children, before they master it, can become so flustered, bashful: they rush through, or do things in the wrong order. I don't know why, but I have this feeling that one way they do it wrong, 'misfire' the act of buying something, is to collapse the whole interaction, transaction, into simply: handing over the money.

One thing Wittgenstein's example imagines about money, and about work, is the way in which it's done by other people for that money. If you have money, someone else will go from here to there, give this to him, send him there, put this here, look at that. Do what you want.

Occasionally, contrary to how we live, what we do, it changes hands for other reasons.