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Author: Steve

I live and work in the Philadelphia area. I am an ETL software tester by profession but I also enjoy writing, tabletop gaming, reading and thinking about history, binge-watching Netflix, and traveling with my BFF. We especially like going to the Big Apple to catch a show.
Crisis as opportunity

Crisis as opportunity

I posted more frequently than usual the last couple of months, but then sort of stalled out. I’ve got some more generations posts planned, but I have been much too busy, at work and at home, to finish them up. So here’s a quick post with some thoughts about work.

Since the year began we have been involved in a massive undertaking to transfer about a dozen years of historical data to a group of data scientists modeling credit risk. It’s a big chunk of work that leverages my skills with ETL and database. Don’t ask me what the modelers are doing exactly, they are all way more educated than I am.

This leads me to think on how I have been employed in the financial sector for my last few gigs. First I worked for a mortgage services organization, basically at ground zero of the housing crash, for a company that purported to be the good guys helping struggling homeowners who were delinquent on their bills. Then I worked for an investment firm, on a project that modeled counterparty risk. And now for a consumer bank.

In both cases where I’ve worked with risk modeling, it is financial institutions directly responding to the GFC, and the implication of what another debt crisis could do. The response is both voluntary and imposed by government regulation – that is, institutions are complying with regulation, but also pursuing their own risk mitigation strategies. The Global Financial Crisis was a Big Chill for the financial sector.

A lot of money is being spent on all this analysis and reporting. It is basically overhead from the perspective of financial companies. Is it really going to do any good? I would say the answer is a clear maybe. Still, it hardly makes sense not to incur the cost. It is better to attempt some oversight, however uncertain its benefit, than none at all.

And for me, and others of my ilk, it’s clearly a great opportunity. All that regulatory overhead is paying my bills. It is part of the story where my life has only gotten better since the crisis started. So I guess I should be looking forward to the current administration’s trade wars destroying the global economy. Who knows what opportunities that will bring?

The Machine Stopped

The Machine Stopped

As a software tester I get how difficult software development is, and why software technology so often fails us. The problem space of testing for all possible scenarios is too vast to traverse within the time frame of a fundable development project. It’s likely that some scenario will be missed in the journey from design concept – which always look great on paper – to actual implementation – which often fails to meet expectations, usually because the expectations are not accurately communicated.

Therefore I was not surprised to learn that two recent Boeing 737 plane crashes were the result of software failure. This article by a former crash investigator explains it a bit, even comparing the software that aids airplane pilots to the software you use on your mobile phone. If you’ve ever been frustrated using your phone, imagine how airplane pilots must feel, operating their software-laden fly-by-wire systems. The stakes are obviously much higher for them when those devices fail.

As the article points out, there is a paradox where reliance on safety technology sometimes makes us less safe. Relying on computer software, which is bound to be error-prone, seems insane. It’s only possible because our genius system of corporate capitalism deflects liability away from individuals and underwrites risk through insurance payments. But take it from someone who has been testing software for most of his adult life: all of those automated and networked computer systems that pervade our lives are full of bugs. You won’t see me getting into a self-driving car any time soon.

The Hashtag Queen

The Hashtag Queen

Last weekend I watched The Baldwin School’s production of Marie Antoinette. It was a challenging play for a high school to put up, and they did so brilliantly.

The script covers the Queen’s life from her early years in the French court up until her fateful end, focusing on her character and attitude, and her reaction to how her adopted country perceived her – which is to say, in an unflattering light. Marie Antoinette was the victim of scurillous slander at the expense of her virtue, and scapegoated for France’s problems, particularly the country’s financial troubles and food shortages. She was blamed because, as an elite living in a bubble, she was unwilling or unable to appreciate how her actions looked to her poor and desperate subjects.

Marie Antoinette was known as the Butterfly Queen, but she might have been called the Hashtag Queen instead, as she was victimized by the same kind of mobbing that happens today on social media. Back then, they used word of mouth and the printed page to transmit information, instead of the Internet, but the effect was the same.

In fact, from what I’ve read about the French Revolution, there are many parallels with our time. France was divided into partisan factions, each seeing the other as a threat to society. The extreme left and right (the terms originate from this era) each enforced their own version of political correctness, making centrist politics untenable. Fake news was as much of a problem then as now, with rumors spreading across the country, inciting the factions against each other. Does it really matter how information is spread? It’s not about the technology, but about the social predilection.

The production I saw reminded us of current events, by dressing the revolutionaries and prison guards in yellow vests. How bad could it get today? I do think that the French Revolution was more violent than we are likely to experience now because the people then were so desperate – France was struggling to emerge from the feudal period, and people were literally on the brink of starvation, meaning they didn’t have much to lose.

In France during the time of Marie Antoinette, everyone eventually got tired of the extremism and just wanted law and order. That was how they ended up with Napoleon. How things will all play out in our time I cannot say, but it is always prudent to reflect on history.

Silent Joe

Silent Joe

I just wanted to weigh in with some thoughts on the news stories surrounding erstwhile and possible future Presidential candidate Joe Biden. Biden was born in 1942, which according to Strauss & Howe generations theory puts him in the last birth year of the Silent Generation. This generation was actually first recognized and named in the early post-war era, in an essay in Time magazine.

The Silent Generation were too young to fight in World War II, and came of age after peace and prosperity had been secured. With all the battles won, and the social order locked down, they became careful conformists, with an easy future laid out before them. They developed a reputation for technical expertise, for nuance and respect for process, and for a sense of fairness and compassion.

These are the very qualities which are getting Biden into trouble today. On the political side, he’s been accused of helping Republicans, voting with them or endorsing them. In positive terms, his behavior might be called “reaching across the aisle” – after all, isn’t working with the opposition party one of a politician’s duties? Well, maybe not so much in an age of hyper-partisanship, where there is no room for compromise.

The other problem the world has with Joe Biden is that he is physically affectionate with people. This has exposed him to the “me too” outrage movement on social media. Biden is a sensitive guy – so much so that he released a video apologizing for being insensitive to the new social mores surrounding the expression of sensitivity. You could say he was being meta-sensitive, or perhaps simply that he has the misfortune of being empathic in an age that has rejected empathy.

This is not to say that Joe Biden couldn’t be a competent President. I mean, just look at how low the bar has been set. But unfortunately for Biden, he is not a man for the times. The personal qualities which served Biden well in his long career and not what the electorate is currently seeking in a Presidential candidate, and should he make a bid for the Democratic nomination, Biden will have a tough time competing in an already crowded field. In fact, his cohort Bernie Sanders (b. 1941) stands a better chance, precisely because he goes against the grain of his generation, with his radical ideas and firebrand attitude.

Lunch in the land of opportunity

Lunch in the land of opportunity

Someone at work left the company, which means the mandatory going away lunch happened. I remember at a previous position I was invited to a going away lunch in my first week on the job. It was just assumed that I knew that guy who was leaving. It was a strange way to start a gig, but of course I went along with it.

Anyway, at my current job, you may realize if you are following this blog that I work almost exclusively with Indians. So we all go to an Indian restaurant (which is one of my favorite cuisines) and enjoy the excellent buffet. The men sit at one table and the women at another. I am the only non-Indian present.

At the end of the meal, the guy who is leaving, who is at a somewhat senior level, gives a little speech. He very graciously thanks everyone, and then advises us all to always be working on our skills. That is the best to ensure we will have confidence in ourselves and our careers will go forward.

I can’t help but think that India – or at least this man from India, or these Indians with whom I am lunching – has embraced the ethos of the neoliberal market state. That may be an over-analytic or pigeon-holing way of thinking, but that is just the kind of thought that pops into my head. Here is this group of professionals, all in the United States on work visas, who clearly fit into the structure of a globalized, meritocratic labor force.

Meanwhile, young Americans are being told – or internalizing – a different message. Skills will get you nowhere, the economy is stacked against you, it’s better to vote for free college or universal basic income, we just gotta pry control of government out of the hands of the billionaires. I can’t help but wonder if my current situation represents an economic mode that is about to end, or that will survive, or be vindicated, in the times ahead.

Basically Millennial

Basically Millennial

In an earlier post I mentioned Millennial angst about being “basic” – a slang term for ordinary or conventional. Here’s a couple of satirical videos that make fun of this idea, from the College Humor channel.

So there’s a contrast between being a “basic bitch” versus being a “bad-ass bitch” – that is, a regular girl versus an interesting or stand-out girl. Now, for the last generation which was similar to the Millennials – the GI or Greatest Generation – being a regular guy or gal was something to be proud of. And I think that for Millennials, satire like this video is cover for a heartfelt desire to just be basic – to enjoy acceptance without having to take the risks associated with trying to stand out apart from your peers.

The male version of the above video.

You can see in these videos what Millennials have done with customs which for previous generations were marks of rebellion, of a break from the bland culture of postwar America. Customs like yoga, astrology, and tattoos, which once defined the counterculture, have now been appropriated into mainstream culture. And these videos make fun of them for being the new definition of bland and unimaginative. Even down to the backward baseball cap.

Those young adults who do push the limits of style and behavior may be admired to a degree, but for most Millennials it’s OK to stick to basic conventions in personal expression. How much more is there really left to explore in that sphere? As the zeitgeist moves away from the inner world to focus on the outer, Millennials will save their collective energy for bigger things.

The Circle of Life

The Circle of Life

This past weekend I traveled to Washington D.C. to celebrate my sister’s birthday. I stayed at my mother’s house. It was comforting to walk up the stairs to her familiar front door, a door which has welcomed me for nearly three decades of visits. A fixture in my life, anchoring my wandering soul.

I slept in the basement, which Mom uses as an art studio. The furnishings in there are older ones, including some that I remember from growing up. Again there was a sense of comfort from seeing these things; their material fixity reassuring me of the constancy and immutability of the past. For all the changes over the years, these things remind me that the past experience which made me who I am today is definite. It cannot be erased.

As William Blake put it: nothing lasts, but nothing is lost.

Of course the fixity of these material things is an illusion; they will all crumble away into nothingness in the due course of time. What is important to us in life is not stuff but our loved ones, and the relationships we have with them. That is why in all my wanderings, I keep circling back to the family in which I was born and raised.

We gathered for the celebration in a cheery restaurant – siblings and friends and relations all together again for the first time in a few years. There have been many changes in that short time – moves from one state to another, jobs lost and gained, marriages, divorces – but still we remain a family. So happy birthday again to my sister, and may we never forget our true and perfect home, in our hearts.

Joining the Millennial Fold

Joining the Millennial Fold

One characteristic of the Millennial generation as a peer group is their desire to fit in, to be conventional. For all the angst about being too boring – or “basic” – about leading uninteresting, fuddy-duddy lives, there is this undercurrent of wanting to just be normal.

Social media is the great definer and enforcer of what is normal, and no site does that better, IMO, than reddit. Its system of upvotes and downvotes ensures that the consensus opinion is always prominent. The hivemind cannot be resisted.

Millennials who are stuck on the fringe of society are using reddit to fold themselves back into the conventional world. For example, children of anti-vaxxers can look for help.

Another great example is the subreddit for Millennials who have escaped the outlier belief system of the Mormon church – https://www.reddit.com/r/exmormon.

Through social media, Millennials as a generation are establishing a definition of what is conventional and acceptable, despite the efforts of some Boomer and Gen-X parents to raise them in an environment fragmented from the rest of society.

On Being an IT Guy

On Being an IT Guy

If you ever saw the TV show The IT Crowd, you probably recall that at the company where the characters work, the tiny IT department, consisting of two gacky guys and their hapless manager, is relegated to the building’s basement. Meanwhile, on the upper stories, the people who are employed in the company’s daily operations are all young and beautiful and lead glamorous lives. This clip from the show’s first episode illustrates what I mean.

Now, as someone who has worked in corporate IT – or Information Technology – for most of his career, I can attest to the fact that there is something like a class distinction between the IT workers and the people we serve, whom we call “the business.” They are, after all, the ones whose activities contribute to the company’s bottom line, and our role is to support their needs. We refer to their needs as “business requirements” and strive to develop software solutions to meet them.

Ultimately, an internal corporate IT organization is a service organization, and developing a service mentality is the best way to thrive within one. This is despite the fact that corporations do make an effort to capitalize the costs of software development, to try to transform at least some of that massive payroll into a corporate asset.

The IT Crowd exaggerates the difference between IT and the business, but the hyperbole is based on a grain of truth, of course. Where I work the employees on the business side don’t sit on a whole other floor, but rather on the other side of the same floor. They each have their own cubicle, while on the IT side we sit in an open environment. It’s an odd little status difference.

The business employees are more likely to be full timers as opposed to contractors. And they tend to have longer tenure and be a bit older. In fact, I’m a bit old for sitting over on the IT side, surrounded by people who are mostly younger, and mostly Asian. It feels a little like my career wandered off in a different direction than that of my age cohorts. Where is everyone from my graduating class? They must all be vice presidents by now.

It is a bit disconcerting to be one of the few middle-aged Americans that sits in my area, but that is where my choices have led me. I will simply continue to enjoy learning new technology and applying my knowledge to help my business customers. That is the value I provide, and that is the deal I have made with the corporate world. Being an IT guy may not be very exciting, but it sure does pay the bills.

On Millennial Burnout

On Millennial Burnout

My last post was inspired by a meme that was about Gen-X in that Gen-X was absent from a graphical depiction of generations. The graphic was actually titled ‘Are Millennials the “Burnout Generation?”‘ and referred to a recent BuzzFeed article by Anne Helen Petersen – in other words, it’s really a meme about Millennials. The article in question is very well written and well worth the long read. Here are some thoughts on it.

The Millennial generation is known for the sheltered way in which it was raised, with heavily scheduled lives, hovering always-involved parents, and pressure to achieve. From this childhood mode of life they graduated into an adult world that was already occupied by Boomers and Gen-Xers, and arranged to suit the more individualistic lifestyle of those older generations. The transition has been jarring for Millennials, which shows in the struggle they have with becoming self-determined, or as they put it, “adulting.”

Boomers and Gen-Xers might wonder what the problem is. After all, we’ve been living like this for decades. Yes, life is complicated and often inefficient. So just deal with it like everybody else does. But expecting Millennials to play along might be unreasonable on the part of older generations.

Perhaps, without the structure and guidance they were used to growing up, young adult Millennials feel unmoored. They are now supposed to find their own purpose in life, but instead many are wondering what is the point. It seems like a whole lot of effort for little reward. Millennial “burnout” may simply refer to a rejection of the frenetic hyperindividualism of the past and a yearning for a simpler way of life.

In that sense, burnout may just be the first step in a transition to a new social era. An era that is no longer focused on self-fulfillment, but grounded in a higher collective purpose. There will be less to do, but what there is to do will have more meaning, more value. Change is in the air.