Unpacking a favor

29
Apr
2009

Last night I was chatting with a friend (who shall remain nameless) over IM. He told me a small group was going to meet for dinner and invited me to come meet them there at 8:30 pm. I asked him what time he would be showing up, and he said 8:30. “Really?” I asked. Because as much as I like this friend (and it is a lot), in the entire 5 months I have been in New York and through the many times we have met up, he is never on time unless I am meeting him at his house. He told me that yes he would be there at 8:30 and balked a bit when I suggested that he was never on time. He assured me that he had never missed a flight. “Great,”, I said, “so what you are telling me is that airlines are more important to you than friends.” I explained to him that I didn’t care one bit what time we agreed to meet. I only cared that whatever that time was, we would be there per our commitment. Why was it ok to always make people wait an average of 15 minutes extra for you? I explained that to me it was quite rude, a way of saying to the other person that their time wasn’t as valuable as yours.

This apparently touched a nerve in him, causing him to search his memory for any “rude” thing I may have done to him in the past. What he hit upon was quite a surprise to me.

About 4 months ago, in an email, he asked if I could do his company a “favor” and translate a brochure into French. He asked me to estimate how long it would take and if I had the time to do it. Being that I had just arrived in New York and was quite broke, I assumed it was a potential contract for work, so I calculated the number of hours it would take me to do it (about 3) and sent him an estimate for the work, thanking him for thinking of me. I never heard back from him and had forgotten about the entire thing.

That is, until he brought it up last night. Apparently, I was being “rude” for not doing this work for his business for free. And then he told me it really didn’t matter at all, he had completely “let it drop”.

“Oh really, then why bring it up now?” I asked. “Clearly this is something that has been bothering you.” And being irked I suppose at being called on being late had jogged his memory of a perceived slight. I was fascinated.

“What else should I be doing as a favor for your business?” I asked. “Free web site design?”  He said he would never ask me to do free web design. So why was the translation work different? Perhaps he thought it was a 5 minute job or something (which if it was, I probably would have done it for free), but I clearly wrote in the email that I thought it would take me 3 hours. Perhaps, knowing how I love the French language, he just thought it would be “fun” for me? I asked under what circumstances I should rely on his professional services for free? No information of that type was forthcoming. The best I got from him was “Anything within reason.” Which is funny, since that is a completely subjective measure.

I told him there were any number of personal things I would do for him, such as watching his apt, bringing in mail, walking his dog if necessary, talking him up to friends, bringing him chicken soup when sick, etc. Ultimately, I suppose it (very roughly) comes down to the following: If it is personal, I am willing to do a lot. If it is something for your business (ie something you will make money on) you should probably be willing to pay for it in some fashion. If for example, he had needed help with understanding a french tourist brochure or visa application for a trip I would have been more than happy to spend a few minutes explaining it to him. But to translate a brochure for selling his product? It never occurred to me that this would be the kind of thing someone would ask a friend to do for free, without so much as a “I’ll buy you dinner” offer. And if somehow the fee I asked for this contract was too much, I certainly never got a counter of any sort. So it was quite surprising that this friend had waited 4 months to bring this up, and only in the context of being called on being late all the time.

Of course there are exceptions to the personal/business split above, and they happen all the time. There are all kinds of things we do which help each other in business that are quite easy, such as talking up a product, introducing people, giving advice and feedback, etc. All of these things I have done for this friend and others, and I am happy to do them.  There are even cases where I have solved computer problems for people in a work context without getting paid, just chalking it up to good karma.  And I am paid back for these things (by this friend and others) in the same sorts of intangibles.

I am not sure (being that we are all individuals) what goes through the minds of people and how they decide what is “work” and what is not. It is clearly a subjective process. This friend is still my friend, and will be, as I am very fond of him. This event is over in my head and heart, as of this blog post. But I was surprised by his reasoning, and it still escapes me.

From Cyberwar to Swimwear

28
Apr
2009

Today I got caught up in another mini wikiadventure. It started innocently enough, with a fascinating article in the New York Times on cyber security. In the article, they mention the setting up of a “National Cyber Range” for testing attacks against the internet and computer targets. They compare this with the post WWII nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. This of course led me to some Wikipedia articles on those tests, which in turn led me to a history of bikini swimwear. I had no idea how the swimwear got its name until today. There was  apparently an “arms race” among swimwear manufacturers to make the smallest swimsuit possible. Just prior to the nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll, a swimwear maker had released the world’s smallest one piece called the “Atome”. In response, french engineer Louis Réard, releasing his even smaller two piece design soon thereafter, named it the “Bikini” because it had “split the Atome”.

I am really not certain what I will do with this information in the future, but I assume it will involve cocktails and the filling up of uncomfortable silences.

Summer Madness

26
Apr
2009

It seems we have dispensed with spring altogether, as this weekend was hot. And seeing as how it was the first hot weekend, people were out in full force all over the city, especially in Central Park. I enjoyed a lovely picnic on Saturday with several French friends, and a really yummy brunch (at Telepan) and walk in the park with my buddy Jonathon today. Click on the pic below to go the the full album.

Is the future here yet?

25
Apr
2009

Went to see a fascinating film at the Tribeca film festival called Transcendent Man, which is a documentary about Ray Kurzweil and his attempt to achieve a sort of immortality. I won’t try to describe Kurzweil’s complex belief system here (you can read the wiki article and other sources for that), but in  a nutshell he believes that the exponential growth of technology will take us to a point in the very near future (which he calls the singularity) in which it will overtake us and (with the creation of artificial intelligence that surpasses human intelligence) direct itself. He believes (and hopes) that at this point we/he  will merge with and/or be replaced by this super-intelligence and direct our future evolution. I tend to think this will happen as well, albeit in a somewhat different manner. As I have written before, I think our technological path is leading us to a point in the future where we will be completely linked and borg like, for both good and ill (or neither if you prefer). We will at some point cease to be separate, individual entities, and will shed our humanity as we evolve into something else. I see this as a long term process that we are already well down the path towards, but I doubt there will be some single moment in time that we can point to and say, aha, this is it. Boom, we are no longer human. I believe this will happen gradually over time, as we make ourselves more interconnected, replace our body parts with bionics and such, and enhance ourselves. People will not go kicking and screaming towards this future, they will welcome it step by step, bit by bit, for convenience sake. Already when you talk to young people today about how exposed they are to the world on facebook and the like, they stare at you blankly. Why is my generation (and older ones) so bothered by our loss of privacy while they are not, for example? There are certainly all kinds of questions to be sorted out between the technical haves and have nots and the social order, and there is and will be great social upheaval, but the writing is on the wall if you ask me.

The most interesting aspect of the film however deals with Kurzweil’s body obsession and fear that he was born just a little too soon to make it to this point in time. He is obsessed with taking care of his body long enough to be able to “upload his mind”, long enough to achieve this “immortality”. It is the driving obsession of his life, as well as recreating his father (who died of a heart attack  at a fairly young age) in some new virtual world. He clearly wants to experience this new world of human evolution, and yet he uses terms like “upload” or “backup” his consciousness, which always leads me to want to ask the teleport question about what happens to the original. Does it just get destroyed but that is ok b/c the copy continues on? I don’t know about you, but it would be small comfort to me to be destroyed even if a replica was continuing on with all my memories…

Or maybe it is more like the darned sock analogy. I’ve got a hole in my sock, which I get a patch for. Then another, with another patch, and so on until there is no material left of the original. Is it the same sock? In reality, over many years our bodies’ cells have replaced just about everything that we were born with anyway, so what is the difference? The difference is, in Kurzweil’s (and admittedly our) future, the sock will no longer resemble the thing it started out as at all. It will have transcended sock-ness completely. And we will have transcended humanity for something else, something unknown.

Drinking in a bit of gay history

23
Apr
2009

I’ve never been to Fire Island or P-town, but at least I can check this off my list. Last night after dinner with friends in the Village, we stopped by the oldest running gay bar in New York, Julius. Although it has only been a gay bar since the mid 1960’s, it has been running apparently as a tavern/bar since 1867, and it would appear that the decor hasn’t changed much at all since then. It was the famous site of a 1966 “sip-in” by an early gay activist group known as the Mattachine Society, to protest rules preventing serving alcohol to homosexuals. It ended up resulting in a court case which overturned these rules, paving the way in part for the Stonewall riots and modern gay rights movement.

As I mentioned, the place looks like the interior hasn’t changed much since the 1800’s, with wagon wheel chandeliers and musty wood barrels and layers and years of accumulated funk. Think of a cross between a bowling alley, a barn, and a saloon and you are getting warm. It was the very soul of unpretentious and I quite liked it. I couldn’t say this would be any kind of place to meet your future husband (or one night stand either, for that matter), but it is a fine place for hanging out with old friends and reminiscing about the revolution.

Freedom’s just another word

21
Apr
2009

An old Yiddish proverb goes:

If you have nothing to lose, you can try anything

I was thinking about this today after talking to a friend who was quite distraught over the state of the economy and his low amount of incoming work. He needs to maintain projects and billing at a pretty high rate just to keep his financial life in place and meet all of his obligations. I asked if he wanted to go out to dinner this week and he told me that really, he couldn’t, he was “broke”. When I told him I was surely the far more broke of us two, he assured me that he was the more destitute.  Being quite sure that he generates many times my income, this could only be true in the sense that he has far more to lose than I, and that he is freaking out about losing his multiple mortgages and style of living to which he has become accustomed. And he is not the only one. I have other friends who are likewise entrenched in a certain level of material comfort that they are hell bent and determined to maintain, seemingly for its own sake.

With each passing day it seems, I continue to be thankful that I have so few possessions compared to so many in this country. I mean, I don’t feel deprived of anything (except health care, but I should have that taken care of soon). I really don’t. I go out to eat and drink with friends quite often, I have a roof over my head and easy transportation. I have a gym membership and Internet access and a laptop. I read books and watch movies and meet people. I drink coffee, I take strolls. And of course, I travel. Out of the possessions I have, they could all be destroyed in a fire or taken in a theft and it really would be no big deal.

I keep returning to this theme since I have been back, because I am confronted with it everywhere. The more things people aquire, the more worried they are about protecting them. The more worried they are about losing them. The more stressed out they are about maintaining a certain level of income to be able to support all these things. At my current billing rate, I will make about a third of the money that I made when I was VP of Technology, but I can honestly say that I am orders of magnitude less stressed than I was when I had that position. I also have a great deal more freedom in my schedule. If I feel like working today, I will. If I feel like taking part or all of the day to go to a museum or read or stroll or meditate, I will. The things I have “given up” to be in this way are not in any way necessities of life. I do not “need” expensive clothes, a multitude of gadgets, or excessive displays of wealth. I live very well indeed without owning one or more houses or cars. I feel a great freedom to try new things, consider any life changing option whether it relates to the kind of work I do, the place I do it, who I do it with or how. People often ask me if things are less exciting now that I am no longer traveling. But to be honest, I still feel pretty much how I did while I was traveling. I don’t feel settled or tied to this particular thing or place, but neither do I feel a need to be constantly moving somewhere else.

There are a vast array of potential reasons for our conspicuous consumption, or the acquiring of vast amounts of things well outside basic need or comfort. We acquire them for reasons of status, to show others how important we are. We acquire things out of a false sense that they will make us safe and secure. We do so because in our consumer culture if we do not acquire, we are not participating in the organizing principle of our society. We acquire to fill the loneliness and to pass the time. But is more stuff really the answer?

I am not in principle opposed to having any of these things, but in anything that generates great feelings of attachment there is a danger. Buddhist teaching sure has that part right anyway. They teach that our unhappiness comes from our attachments to some things on the one hand, and our aversion to others on the other hand. Of course, grasping is very much at the core of what it means to be human, and no amount of conditioning or meditation will or should wipe away the sensual responses that are central to who we are. It is the greatest gift to be born into existence, all of it. But we strive so much to contain the uncontainable, instead of appreciating the breathtaking thing our very existence is and sharing it with others. We should be able to enjoy the experiences we have without needing them to continue. In short, we should be striving for being, not having.

A truly bad date

20
Apr
2009

Another one, you ask? Yes, but rather than get upset, I am grateful in that they give me a story to tell, something to blog about. Here are the reference points in today’s bad lunch date:

– 10 minutes late

– Constantly talking about himself, never asking any questions of me.

– On the rare moments where he was catching his breath or eating and I could get a word in edgewise, I would start to talk about something, but he would interrupt me to tell me how the thing I had begun to talk about was related to his life. And then he would launch into another long story about it.

– He talked about past relationships and how they had gone wrong or bad, including stories of drug use, knife threatening, and restraining orders.

– He ate a lot of raw onions and chewed in such a way that pieces would land on me on occasion.

There was more, like wondering aloud why old boyfriends had left him (and ascribing reasons that were convenient), and almost leaving without leaving a tip. But all in all, I would rather get root canal than go on another date with this guy.

Competing impulses…

19
Apr
2009

You run to catch a subway train that has just pulled into the station. Being that this is a weekend, the next train could be many minutes away. Someone is fumbling at the turnstile, makes it through, and is running towards your car with you standing at the door. The bell goes and the doors start to close. The conductor is yelling to not hold the doors, as it holds up the train and the system. But you want to help this person who is running towards the train by holding the door for them. Which do you do? What is the greater good? The health of the system as a whole or the health of society due to small acts of kindness on a personal level? Anyone?

Are you kidding? I can barely remember last week.

15
Apr
2009

I just adore the (semi)randomness of life. I was down in Chelsea today on my way to the gym, and noticing that I was feeling somewhat low energy, decided to pop into the corner store in front of me to grab a Clif bar in advance of my workout. There in line was a guy who looked kinda familiar. He stared deeply into my eyes and said “Stephen? Wow!”

So, ok….clearly he recognized me. And he did look familiar, but I really couldn’t place him.

Then he said, “It is me, Marc.”

Hm…Marc…and then it hit me: We dated for 4 months in San Francisco around 1993. It was really stunning to run into someone from the distant past, I thought. He has been living in New York for the past 10 or so years.

I said, “Didn’t you move to Miami?”

“Atlanta,” he said. Whatever. How was I supposed to remember all that? Then he started asking me about people we used to hang around with from the cafe I worked at back then.

“Oh my god, how is Eric, how is he doing?”

I searched my clearly pea sized memory and came up with nothing. “Eric who?” I asked.

“Eric, the French guy”

Um, duh, they were all French where I used to work…I gave him a blank stare.

“Air-EEK, the French guy. With the big, full lips…”

At this point I wondered if he and Eric might not have had, as the French say, un liason. He was giving me stares that indicated he thought I was either super lame for not remembering, or a victim of early onset Alzheimer’s. So I faked it:

“Oh OF COURSE. Air-EEK. With the LIPS. Yes, Yes. Ah, good old Eric…I have no idea how he is, I haven’t seen him in at least a decade.”

Then he gave me a head to toe look and said, “Wow, you’ve got some grey hair coming in there…”

Mean comments about his slightly protruding belly flashed in my head, but I simply smiled and said “Yes, we are all getting older. I can’t believe it has been 15 years since we last saw each other…”

We awkwardly exchanged phone numbers and promised to call each other and get a coffee sometime. It might happen, I thought. Maybe I can get Eric to meet us there…

Many dead ends

14
Apr
2009

Today was one of those days when I worked very long and hard and accomplished nothing tangible. I have a site I am working on that is presenting some technical challenges, and I have gone down many design and programming dead ends today. As is often the case, many of these dead ends stem from decisions made to to try to speed up the process in the first place. For example, I decided to start this design using a free template as the basis, but it turned out that reverse engineering the decisions of the template designer and fixing some of his coding mistakes actually took longer than it would have to build the thing from scratch. Live and learn, I say. (But really, I am not sure I would have made another decision even knowing what I know now.)  And I am still without a design that works as it needs to. Sometimes the road to greater knowledge is full of rocks and potholes and wrong turns. And sometimes, you need to get away from something to be able to move forward on it.

I think I will take most of the day off tomorrow and start again on Thursday. Saying that makes me realize how happy I am to be a freelancer.