Tuesday, October 21, 2014

[overboard]

[It might be a normal evening --
Sinking sun,
thin shadows thinner still.
My lazy thoughts, adrift,
Lie light above deep waters
Deeper still
When your memory surfaces:
As blind and real and
Dead as a corpse:
As breathtaking and dumb.

So the sun sinks, unfazed,
But I'm overboard,
deepening,
And deeper still
Beneath iron waves
Bound to your deadweight.]

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Something for you

I've read a few things recently by fiction writers about writing: writing that is in their souls; writing what is in their souls. They write to explore the unknown parts of themselves and bring life to those darker, hidden possibilities.

I'm not that kind of writer. Where they explore with writing, I just tell. By the time the pencil's on the page, the exploration is over. What matters now is how I can put what I learned together in a way that makes sense of something for me, and something for you.

This blog is all backstory. Overtones, undercurrents, things that would otherwise go unsaid. Sometimes it's real, sometimes less so, but there's no fiction here. The less direct items do sort of conglomerate reality outside the immediate realm of the here and now. Still, I wouldn't call them fiction. I wouldn't know what to call them.

What's interesting, though, is the sense people make of them. This last people thought they knew about ... but then on second thoughts, maybe they weren't so sure. Wait, was I talking about ... you? How real was it?

Well, I'll tell you.

That piece is a plea to a grown-up from the idealistic child in themselves. It's a question to the world. It's a question to the particular people I connect with, and the ones I used to. It's a question I know you ask yourself. It's a reflection on what becomes of fresh, youthful ardour in the long rays late in the day, and an admonishment for a world gone dull when it could be so much more. It's a prayer-promise-to-self and a spiteful rage-post on betrayal and self-betrayal.

Was it about you? That's not the question. Was it real? That's not the question either.

What it is is a piece of me, made for you.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The letter

[Dear [name],
I miss you. Not the current you, because Jesus Christ you've turned into a boring fuck. I miss the old you. The you that had a sense of adventure. The you that could take a chance—that could, on occasion, be willingly lead astray.

What in hell happened to you? Bogged down now in mortgages and long-term relationships and the safety of the suburbs, every "radical" step only ever "radical" by the most middling standards? Directionless, yet buoyed by a zombie haze, feeling nothing, wanting nothing? Angry now only at the government, the voters, the parking inspectors, the rent collectors?

Don't you remember how it was? Don't you ever think about that?

I do. I think about it all the time, but mainly in the darkness after midnight, when there's no light to distract me from the task. I remember all we used to dream, every one the worlds we imagined combined into a single, vivid, incredible whole. Tessellated evenings cockeyed with colourful drinks. The friendly stranger with the dog on the street. Every plan we hatched and discarded for a better one, and only me eager to follow them all through.

Because you were all talk, even then. But I knew what could be, and I wanted you to see it too. Sometimes I even thought you did. I remember the light in your eyes when you smiled.

I hope you're happy with the way things panned out: your partner's hostilities washing over you like turbid water, your Saturday afternoon joint and superannuation. A life kept as pain-free as possible. 

I hope you're happy, because I'm not. And if that makes two of us, then what the fuck?
Alida]

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The weirdest thing

I'm all about drama, it has to be said. But in recent times something objectively weird has happened. It's the writer's greatest fantasy—and, possibly, worst nightmare: one of my characters appears to have come to life.

Years ago I set up a few extra Twitter accounts so I could play out an interactive story I'd written. It was fun, I ran the story, and then I forgot about the characters I'd made.

Until last week when one of them favorited one of my tweets.

Woah, I thought, as reality met fantasy and both worlds reeled around me. Hacked?! Panic-stricken, I tried to retrieve the password, but the account's tied to someone else's address now. I checked the accounts of my other characters: one's been taken over by a stranger, and all tweets and followed accounts deleted. The other two remain intact.

But this character? Still following the accounts I set up for her. And enjoying them if the favourites are anything to go by. No tweets of her own since those she contributed to my story, but she favorited another tweet of mine today.

Having a tweet favourited by a character you invented for a story is a pretty weird feeling. Who hacks a dormant account so they can chuckle over the accounts it follows? What are the chances that a random hacker would like the same things as my character?

I'd say it was creepy, but if we forget the hacked-account angle, the whole thing becomes entirely tantalising. Since the account was created for an imagined person, it's very easy to pretend that whoever's using it now is actually that character. Which is at once a wonderful and terrifying and terrifyingly wonderful prospect. Imagine! And if it's nothing more than a product of my psyche, why would it have shown up in Real Life (Official) now? Am I finally losing my mind?

I don't know, but I'm enjoying the mystery.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Footnotes from a non-fan

This whole Robin Williams thing, eh? I couldn't call myself a fan, and yet his death has prompted so much talk of suicide that it seems to have reached people who wouldn't otherwise have been overly engaged by the ending of his life.

One thing that's great is that some of those making commentary are doing so from the perspective of their own suicidal inclinations.

How refreshing; death is part of life, after all, and given that sentient humans are capable of choosing to end our own lives, it seems silly to pretend the thought never entered our collective mind.

We must all have known people who have taken their own lives. We can, surely, also assume that we've all thought about it in relation to ourselves, either in abstract or more practical terms. Even those now asking what Williams could possibly have had to be depressed about must have given the topic more than a passing thought.

This suicide is the first I've heard of since last year, when I woke in the middle of the night with the same compulsion. That time, it was a compulsion—unexpected, overwhelming, necessary. I never fought so hard against anything as I did against that. I was never so scared of—or for—myself.

Whenever I hear of a suicide, my first thought is, "Oh! If only they'd told someone!" Because things change, and suicidal hours or weeks can segue into mere difficulty, given time. But time is crucial. And the suicide doesn't care for it—what matters is this moment. Which is why it's so important to be there for anyone who express a desire to die.

I told just one person about that night: the friend I felt closest to. I wrote to them a couple of days later, but they did not respond. They kept silent, told no one. And when I finally confronted them, just recently, months after the fact, they brushed it off, saying, "It wasn't real" while avoiding my gaze.

Self-harm is hard to come to, even for some of the supposedly intelligent, respected, sensitive people who might claim to be your friends.

When a famous person loses a death-battle with something—drugs, mental illness, whatever—the media, and we as part of it, rush to encourage others to ask for help if they need it, as if there's a solution in the seeking. There's not.

Self-harm is complex because we are complex. Both those who want to do it, and those who would stop them, are human. We make choices on the basis of sentiment rather than sense. We all are weak. Those who have never wanted to kill themselves are no "better off" than those who have.

There is no "better off". There's only this moment, and what you do in it.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

So you think the tech industry's fucked...

"The greatest minds of our time are dedicating themselves to making a Buy button more clickable."

So moaned someone in my Twitter feed last week (or something similar), and then someone else this week. And then I read this post about how everyone's disillusioned by the dystopia we've made.

All of which prompted this Public Service Announcement. I think it's time we faced some facts.

1. The greatest minds of our time are not building web interfaces. Or even websites.

Apparently the web worker's self-obsession has now reached a point where even in condemning the culture in which we work, we naturally continue to regard ourselves and our peers as members of some kind of elite.

We're at once insatiably competitive and exclusionary in the extreme. It's as if, on some level, building the web has convinced us we're God's gift to humanity—or at least the first world. Yet there's so much going wrong in the world, and we don't know what to do.

Well, here's the thing. We are not the greatest minds of our time. We're not even working with 99% of them.*

Some of the things the greatest minds of our time are doing include:
  1. Developing research technologies to study things like the brain, space, hadal zones and genetics.
  2. Tirelessly lobbying governments for things like social justice and environmental policy.
  3. Working with and in support of individuals in disadvantaged, dangerous and difficult situations.
  4. Making art.
Good news! The greatest minds of our time are out doing great things for humanity and our planet! They're not bothered with buttons.

2. Selling things on the internet is not serious business.

Web workers love to take their work very seriously, as if doing serious work will warrant our being taken seriously as people. But even if your Serious Internet Business has shareholders or investors, what the vast, vast majority of web workers do aids only in profiteering. And—come on!—profiteering is hardly serious business.

Serious business comprises all the kinds of things we're rushing to social media to express grave distress about:
  • governments blowing up schools full of children
  • rebels stealing schools full of children
  • children shooting up schools full of children
  • governments sending boatloads of children to certain psychological disaster in detention
  • rebels shooting planeloads of people, including children, out of the sky
  • entire nations denying basic human rights to entire generations of children, or children of a certain gender
  • entire cohorts of rebels systematically abusing the basic human rights of entire cultures of human beings—or just killing them
  • environmental disaster
  • food and water security
  • disease.
More good news: this kind of actual serious business tends to be what the greatest minds of our time are focused on.

3. There is no point loving technology for technology's sake.

I know, so many would laughingly scoff at such an assertion and say I'm crazy. We love technology! What's wrong with loving technology?

This. Loving technology for itself is like loving words for themselves. What good are words unless they say something valuable? What good is technology unless it does something that's actually valuable in the context of the serious business I mentioned above?

And if you have the insight and skill to create technology, what are you doing wasting your days on anything but projects of value?

Really. What are we doing?

You have arguments, I'm sure. We're all entitled to fun, right? And hey, connecting [paying audience] with [charged service] is valuable to those people! Your USB-cup-warmer-monitoring-app enriches users' lives! And, listen, you have a child to feed, clothe and educate in a system that, if you're in Australia (or other first-world country that values individual over community wellbeing) will cost you your home or said child the opportunity to buy one for themselves.

Well, here's the thing. That keep-me-comfortable attitude keeps us miserable. We work in what should be one of the most progressive industries there is. Yet technology is beset by exactly the same conservative, patriarchal, short-sighted self-protectionism as every other sector.

What we don't seem to get is that we're part of the problem.

At the very least, we've got to see what we do in the context of what's happening in the world, not what's happening in our industry. What we do is not life-and-death. In most cases, it's not even important! If your biggest challenge for the day is an intellectual one, you're laughing. Have fun! Enjoy it.

Of course, we can always go further, and use our powers for actual, objective good. The good not just of our own children, but of the entire generation that can't afford to get an education any more. Or can't attend school without fear of death. Or doesn't have any schools to go to. 

That should be what we're doing, don't you think?

*Figures are approximate.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

This is not about you

A friend tweeted this today and it touched something of a nerve. Three lines in particular:

"If there's not a penis or an MBA involved, a decision can not be made." This seemed to sum up the whole of my working life—which has, admittedly, involved two brief stints outside of IT.

The line, "I don't want to fuck them [my colleagues] over" was another.

The line "I'm grateful" induced rage.

The problem of workplace sexism is everyone's problem. It's an unavoidable fact that commerce is dominated by men, and we've all been raised in a commercial environment that has gender bias at its core. That's history.

The problem is that, despite the opportunity that emerging industries like technology have to change this situation, they continue to fail to even begin to do so at the most basic level. It is a great disappointment to see such an opportunity squandered.

And women, dare I say it, aren't exactly great at advancing the cause. Why not? Take a look at the comic.

"I don't want to fuck them over."
First, we always disqualify our current employers, colleagues and friends from the public comments we make on gender bias.

I enjoy my current workplace but that sentence about penises, MBAs and decisions applies everywhere I've worked. That's not a slight on all my employers and clients and colleagues ever: it's a statement on the nature of the tech industry.

Alas, frequently, even when those things are present a decision remains elusive. In my experience, tech "decision-makers" are terrible at it. Male decision-makers, in particular, dilly-dally.

So much so that these days, one of my standard fallbacks when I'm dealing with someone who's flipflopping over a decision on something I've presented is, "Oh, sure, well, if you want to make that call, that's fine. Is that the directive then?" It never is. There's always a lot of backpedalling. I use this tactic because it's proven time and time and time again to be the shortest route to getting my ideas approved: reverse psychology works a treat on the indecisive.

These are the kinds of tactics women develop to get around gender-related bullshit. Which is entrenched in the industry. Including wherever it is that you work.

"I'm grateful."
Second, women go around stating publicly that we're "grateful" for our jobs. What, have we just come out of the Great Depression or something?

Technology work is work. It's a commercial exchange: your talents and your time for money. If you're any good at all, you'll be able to get work. Right now, most tech employers are bending over backward to offer free lunches and open bars and god knows what else to attract good people. People like you.

It's time we stop saying we're "grateful" for our jobs and accept the fact that, like everyone else in the workforce, we've just earned them. It's that simple. And that boring.

#lovemyjob
Third, we're too quick to jump on the love-my-job startup bandwagon. Where's the healthy scepticism, people?

If you want an example of a sector that's inherently masculine, in which exclusivity is entrenched and beer-swilling-brotherhood cliqueyness is not just the norm but actively demanded by employees, tech startup culture is it. Look no further, ladies. Step right up, be overworked and underpaid, start drinking at 11am and hashtag all your tweets #lovemyjob.

Why does anyone do this? Could it be that leaping aboard the startup-worship bandwagon is seen as an easy way to fit into what is an inherently exclusive culture? I hope it's not just that.

But let's face it: startups aren't objectively better places to work than established businesses. They have nothing intrinsic to recommend them over five- or 15- or 150-year old companies. They're just at a different place in their boring old company life cycle.

Maybe that suits you better at this point in your life. Great. Go nuts! Just leave out the propaganda.

It's not about you
That piece does much to point out that sexism isn't personal: it's general. It's inherent. It's not about me or you. It's not about employers we've had or clients we've worked with.

It's about incredibly uncreative thinking on the part of people who run and manage and work in technology businesses and who, supposedly, have both people and profitability at heart.

For women to proliferate the myth that working in technology is some kind of miracle, and that they're "lucky" and their company is "great" while pointing out that the industry is appallingly, inherently gender biased is duplicitous at best, and deliberately undermines the advancement of both women and the industry as a whole at worst.

Isn't it time we took a more balanced approach?