Wednesday, May 18, 2016


When I was in high school aeons ago, our papers came back with CAT at the top.  (This was a secular public high school.  My friend’s papers at St. Andrews were handed in with JMJ at the top:  “Jesus, Mary and Joseph”.)  CAT was not to invoke the protection of cats, but to provide a template for grading.  C was for content, A was for appearance, and T was for technical stuff like spelling, punctuation and usage.

As far as appearance went, the idea was supposed to be neatness, good handwriting, margins and the like.  When I taught, I had a thing about pages torn out of spiral notebooks and kept a paper cutter to get rid of all that froofraw on the edges.  When I was a student we were writing with ink fountain pens, the kind with a little cartridge so we didn’t need the hole in our desks where the inkpot used to go.  We were working towards uniformity, conformity, predictability no matter the material culture.

Technical skills in print were no problem for me because I read so much.  The brain teaches itself if it’s exposed to some kind of norm.  So I didn’t learn rules, I just did what I knew and it was close enough to the standard to pass.  I didn’t learn the “why” of it until I was teaching, but by 2000 no one was teaching it anymore.

The point of writing is content.  And behind content is thought: research, relationships, ideas, all sorts of skills that were hard to pin down, esp. for a kid because they come from experience.  Few teach content these days.  Now and then a wave goes through society about “creativity,” which is almost always defined as exceptional, “brilliant” and worth money.  The old flattery of “you’re gifted enough to write a best-selling novel”, might mean something that everyone thinks is “good,” but they don't expect it to be so "good" that they can’t understand it.  It’s considered immoral to be better than everyone else.  So there’s a collision or a schism.  

On Netflix at the moment is “The Lost Interview,” an interview with Steve Jobs done by the English Channel 4/PBS  It’s also on YouTube —in fact, there are several vids that deliberately set up Jobs against Gates.  The idea is the brilliant and colorful LA guy against the dreary monotone Gates.  There’s a lot of truth to it.  In fact, in the Seattle area smart alecks have always said that Microsoft only succeeded because of three things:  IBM gave it what Jobs calls a Saturn-level rocket boost; Gates Senior was an extremely powerful and competent lawyer; and somehow Microsoft was capable of legally stealing Windows from MAC. Jobs says MAC got its OS from learning about object-oriented OS in early days of research.

He insists that the MAC team succeeded because it was simply more high-powered and creative, but also they shared a sense of something he called “good taste” by which he means something like aesthetic sophistication, the pleasure of interaction, the fittingness of instruments.  He says the company was full of poets, artists, brilliant people who did computer work as a second string.  They went at it hard, like Cecchetti teaching ballet or strict Zen masters keeping students awake with a stick or serious boot camp.  Not that they were violent, but that their standards were high and everyone expected the others to keep up.  

This was considered of high value, a matter of pride.  No one sued for having been pushed or oppressed.  Jobs says these bright folks were a pain in the butt to manage and there was a lot of argument.  But put bluntly, MAC v. Microsoft and Jobs v. Gates is -- in the end -- LA v. Seattle.  Hippies v. Nerds.  Cultural.  Jobs would say unions and laws converted curiosity into bureaucracy and pushed teaching down into second-rate work which soon became low pay.

Jobs distinguished between the teams who develop the products and the sales and promotion people who get it out there on the market.  He says that if things are going well and the product has a monopoly, the sales and promotion people have no motivation to experiment, esp. to risk something that is truly new.  So this side of the business becomes confident and busy and rises to being management.  They don’t “get” the need to develop new products.  To them, it ain’t broken.  Don’t fund.  Don’t investigate.  The genius innovators wander off.  Research passes by, the product gets old and moldy, and the business collapses.

He’s NOT talking about the T in CAT.  He IS talking about the A, the Appeal of the instrument.  Maybe the following article is about the T, the technicalities that so absorb the software designers.  

These days on a writing platform called “Medium” no one is talking about content.  But it’s the kernel and justification of writing as a form of thought, the whole reason for the A and T to exist.  It’s the flame on the candle, the engine in the auto.  Content has two ends:  the nature and support for creators of content and the nature and access of the readers of content. We are in a time when content is pablum, ground up for easy sales, often recycled.  If it doesn’t sell, they think it’s because of poor promotion.

Jobs has some key parables he tells.  One is an article in the Scientific American about studying animal locomotion and how efficient different species might be.  So they made a chart and humans came in about a third of the way down.  Condors were at the top.  (Solar power!  Riding the thermals.)  Then someone tried humans on bicycles and they blew every other animal off the map.  It was a native skill, augmented.  This is the work of the computer.  It will not make uncreative conforming people suddenly creative.  It will make the bean-counters more efficient.  But we’ve come to a time of exercise bikes, their wheels deliberately going nowhere, powering nothing.

For the other side of the computer, the consumer, he has no parable except his own life.  He sounds like Henry Ford, who paid his people enough for them to buy a Model T.  His innovations are ways to do things cheaply, quickly, and one-on-one, preferably in a simple enough way for people to do it themselves.  This is all good and he’s generous about sharing.

The swerve.  Recently the Town Council was visited by half-a-dozen high school kids for a civics assignment who witnessed a quarrel between two styles of smart, ambitious men.  It was loud, profane and the mayor had to use his Big Voice.  Most observers lay low and silent.  The reaction of the kids was sneering, scoffing, turning their attention to their pocket computers, muttering about the superiority of their families.  They did NOT want to understand or think of solutions.  The vibe I picked up was fear.

There’s a sub-subject here.  The man who was trying to enforce the zoning laws of Valier to keep a business out of his residential zone, looked like a nonconformist: shaved head, cockroach killer boots (well-worn), and sort of cowboy wardrobe.  He said he had camped in a trailer by the lake for three years before he could afford a house and valued the house because it had the same view of the lake.  He’s a carpenter with a good reputation.  

The other side was one white-haired man flanked by two middle-aged businessmen, looking standard, prosperous, and manly in a sports kind of way.  They could have been sons.  He wants to build a two-story house that is a business downstairs, but not a shop — more a warehouse.  No signs, no visitors.  HVAC sales installed in homes.  We want new businesses in this town.

Developed into a short story, I would make the guy in boots the hero because he seems the lone innovator willing to risk and drive for success and valuing beauty..  That’s why I use a Macintosh.  But I don’t drink, so I don’t know the local businessmen.  The older man seemed to be from out of town.

My guess is that these Valier kids couldn’t evaluate the argument — because of fear.  Their parents want Valier to grow, but they dread change and so do their kids.  In fact, most of these kids — regardless of skill-level — will not leave to the larger world unless driven out of their comfort zone.  Whether Valier should be a pretty place, tolerant of artsy types, or whether it should be Masonic-solid and keep the “old values” is window dressing.  Outsiders remain outsiders.  

But white residence in Valier only goes back to the building of Swift Dam about 1910.  Before that it was open range and before that — for millennia — it was buffalo country.  The true insider has got to be a buffalo hunter.
"Real Meat" by Bob Scriver

Seattle was fish country, very prosperous.  It’s still prosperous for some.  They tend to be A and T people.  Content is problematic even there.  Gates is admired because he is rich, but not resented because he is a philanthropist in the way men were in 1910.  In short, he buys the public.  That’s not original.  But then Gates is NOT original.  Nor are most people who are scared.  Jobs is accused of being cocky, reckless, arrogant.  He's just not scared.

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