When the sign in the parking lot shows the speed limit in KM/HR, you know you’re in for some serious science. Last weekend was the Open House at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the freeway signs near Pasadena were bubbling over with excitement like it was beaujolais season. “Hurrah! It’s here! A Ticket to Explore JPL – this way!”
There were also cops in extra-large and extra-darkly-tinted vehicles at every major intersection, and IDs required for entry (tickets were free but had to be reserved in advance). It occurred to me as we drove in that there was going to be enough people at this event to warrant a terrorist threat. In space, if we detected an asteroid that might hit us, JPL would probably launch something to swing the asteroid off its path or actually collide with it (depending on who’s president). But here on the surface of Earth, if something’s going to hit us, we have to rely on good old-fashioned bag searches and vapor-waking dogs. But then again, some of my friends used to joke that as kids in Los Alamos during the cold war we were safe from getting bombed because wouldn’t the Russians want to keep all our scientist parents alive?
Having attended a few “Family Days” at the Lab in Los Alamos I’m always wishing for a little less hype and more day to day stuff at these types of events. For example, the real JPL mission control room pales in comparison to a “Control Center” fabricated for the movies, but there is nothing like seeing the ID-activated vending machines that track the use of special machining drill bits and tools, the safety glasses overflow storage, or old soap dispensers from the 60’s.
NASA’s mission control (the red LED lights don’t actually do anything):
NORAD Control Center from the movie WarGames (when that red light starts to wail, well…):
Plus, all the obtuse illustrations and charts of data that are scientifically significant but don’t look good on social media are hanging in the hallways you can’t get to, and you can only put your nose to the glass to look into the labs with nano-technology experiments sitting on top of Laminar Flow Isolating table supports (awesome for playing air hockey).
But there’s nothing more fun than watching the real Mars rover crawl over some Southern Californian rock, and then laying down and getting rolled over by its little cousin. Apparently each wheel has its own engine. Felt like some little kid next to me kept elbowing me to move over.
They sure have tire tread all figured out.
We skipped the long wait for the Spacecraft Assembly Facility, after hearing the guy say, “If you can hear my voice you’re looking at a 45 minute wait for about a 5 minute visit,” opting instead for the guy who lured everyone with a: “Welcome to the solar system where we’ve got AC.”
My story about an asteroid named C#41 who crashes into the moon was just published at Entropy so we paused in the middle of the solar system and had a wake for the little guy.
A visit to the Fabrication Facility AKA the machine shop put any resemblance to Disneyland out of my mind, but the ice cold water bottles that cost $1 (A BUCK!) probably did the trick as well. At the shop there were 3-D printers, vending machines for bits and gadgets, rolls and rolls of thermal fabric. We were told the next big thing was going to be 3D printing using metal, namely powdered aluminum, which is so explosive the technician must remain completely free of charge, as a single spark will send the whole building into space. No party tricks like rubbing a balloon back and forth across the top of your head to get it to stick to a wall…
We got to meet the guy who’s idea it was to add the star to the top of this postmark. His friend designed JPL’s postmarks for years, and he told us anyone can suggest a design to the post office and they decide whether to create a stamp for the occasion. Hm…
Very unlike “Family Day” at the Los Alamos Lab, there were plenty of stickers to go around, and JPL bags being given away by the dozen at the end of the day.
Before taking the Intro to MIG Welding class at Molten Metal Works I thought the only similarity between welding and riding at the track was that in welding you move circularly in a straight line, and at the track you ride a straight line in circles.
Turns out there’s so much more connecting the two (too bad the technique used to build a bike is usually brazing or TIG welding, more on this later), beyond the specialized equipment, footwear, head protection, and complete opposite needs in clothing (lycra = flammable as f**k, but I certainly would enjoy seeing a bib short pad go up in flames).
My track certification was taught by Andrew the Vietnam vet with a belly the size of a bike helmet, and the MIG class was led by Zach, 40 years younger than Andrew, with biceps the size of the argon tank, yet graceful like a true ex-Marine. Both classes spend a huge percentage of time on The Safety Lecture: at the track it’s all about being aware of where the other riders are, and your mantra is: “If in doubt, go faster.” In the shop it’s all about being aware of where your own body is, the process being electrical, if you’re not paying attention you can and will complete the circuit. “If in doubt, unplug.”
The acronym for how to move the wand for MIG welding is D.A.S.H. – don’t know what the H stands for, but the other letters stand for Distance, Angle and Speed.
Our project for the class was to weld a metal pillow. 2 flat squares of metal in a lap join, grind the welds, then fillet join a plate (which we got to cut on a hydraulic band saw – with Zach watching like a hawk) and a bolt in order to use an awesome drill/tool I forget the name of to blow up the pillow, giving your work a stress test, to see if your welds bonk. FUN!
First we had to practice taking out and installing the “consumable” filler wire, which is fed through the welder to the gun at a controlled rate, to be mixed and melted with the steel to create the join. The cord from the welder to the gun is quite long, so when we pulled out the wire Zach said we could either toss the wire in their recycling or take it home. It’s steel wrapped in bright shiny copper so of course I wanted to take mine home, and David let me have his too. I placed my coils of wire at my station as we convened at the demo table to watch Zach clean his metal sheets with isopropyl alcohol (cleans bike tires too!). Next thing I notice is the two ladies also in the class roving around everyone’s station collecting their coils of wire. The nerve!*
When I said “Hey, they’re kyping my filler!” they mumbled something and tried to give one coil back. I had to demand that I originally had two pieces, and they conceded. Harrumph.
My wire. MINE!
Some practice beads:
Some tack welds:
Attachment of the plate and bolt using a fillet weld:
All the helmets had different pictures of bands on them. I used the Iron Maiden one, here’s David with his Justin Bieber sticker:
Courtesy to other people is to say “Welding” before you pull the trigger, in case they don’t have eye protection on. Courtesy at the track is to say “Stay” before you pass them, in case they forget that thing about riding in a straight line.
The final product! Sealed nice and tight. Not that I’m going to attempt a balcony or a trailer hitch any time soon.
Here’s the video that started all of this obsession with steel.
In addition to the fact that my Italian is as full of agricultural expletives as Dario Pegoretti’s, he and I have the same joke about Parmesan cheese (“Next time at least buy the Grana Padano”) and drink wine by “going up the mountain backwards,” meaning, we drink the good bottle before we drink the crappy bottle, so we can be sober for the first. MIG welding is the first step towards learning TIG or brazing, so someday I will become Dario Pegoretti.
*I confess to doing a similar type of move in Japan, when the people I was traveling with didn’t eat their kinome leaves, thinking it was a branch of cheap garnish. But at least I asked!
Famous people are not necessarily interesting people if you’ve only got a few minutes to chit chat, like really, wouldn’t most people, famous or not, just say, “is the chicken BBQ done yet?” or “do you think there’s onions in the guac?”
But we’ve got a short list, a very short list, of those we’d like to have those few minutes with, and Sean Thackrey is at the top, though technically David’s met him a long time ago. He used to work at the bookstore ST frequented, and ST has kindly remembered this fact over the years.
The drive to Bolinas on Highway 1 was a winding northern California classic, part fog, part sunshine, sheer cliffs overlooking a slightly angry ocean. We made a brief stop in Sausalito, which we made very brief, after designating it the Lake Como of the Bay Area, if you can judge a town merely by their galleries and penchant for regattas.
Our instructions for arriving at ST’s “barn.”
Park, let the dogs out, knock on the door.
The dogs were so happy to be face to face with the quintessential San Francisco guy: ST in his denim shirt and black turtleneck, work slacks and his marvelous Peter O’Toole look. San Francisco people from his generation (Alice Waters, etc.) are pretty much in a league of their own. Plus he’s missing more teeth than me, only his gaps are more uniformly distributed and wine-tinted. The dogs checked out a couple of his crushing tanks and his historical-plated pick-up truck, and got started munching on his weeds.
We asked ST whether he commuted to the city over Highway 1 when he worked there (he was an art dealer before he become a wine-maker). ST said yes, winding roads can lead to motion sickness, but how could he complain about his commute, since it was the centerpiece of other people’s vacations.
ST told us he now had a feral fox which he was feeding regularly, some mixture of duck fat, egg and dog food, confirming Stevie’s frantic suspicion that this whole damn place smelled like fox.
We got onto the topic of the Siberian experiment that bred foxes for tameness, in which the foxes got cuter after just a few generations, and ST said that was just blatantly impossible, and if it were possible, then it was purely heart attack material, that is, to have anything bred to be cuter than a fox.
When we went inside the barn Stevie got to lick ST’s pans and even chew on a discarded cherry pit, while MO vapor waked the fox food. DUCK FAT is her middle name afterall.
In the kitchen hung the shrine to Aquila:
When ST explained that the things at the bottom were Belgian glove molds, we hit on the idea of soldering two of them together to create menorahs for Belgian Jews, a niche market for sure, but certainly one which would buy our product.
The other 2/3 of the bottom floor of his barn held wine barrels, which we are thinking might be around 30,000 bottles of wine give or take a few thousand. On the shelf were bags of Vole repellant, but I’m not sure how many ounces of repellent works for one vole.
The assistant Tim came and pulled some wine of out of barrel to see if it was good enough to start bottling. We took our leave and told ST we were off to Marin Sun to get some burgers. We told him that we heard the tasting room at Marin Sun wasn’t working out, and asked why that was. ST said they were a good customer, and sell quite a bit of his wine, but they don’t have a dedicated person to actually stand there and talk (i.e. understand) his wine. In other words, he said, Marin Sun is a butcher that also cooks, they buy his wine but they are not a tasting room. Get it?
Thank god foxes don’t live long enough to develop cholesterol issues.
When you dream about riding a slingshot to the moon as a kid, or you think it’s normal for your father to explain centripetal force using an orange, a chopstick and a inclined hard back book, or you do full arm swings holding a mesh-bag-inside-of-a-larger-plastic-bag instead of using a salad spinner, riding in the largest indoor velodrome (The Stubhub) in the country is more than a little awesome.
First thing to go through my mind was that I had no idea how to get off, much less stop, having never ridden a fixed wheel bike before. That was soon alleviated by my friend Lucie who told me to just get close to the rails and grab it, which seemed reasonable since the rails were large and soft like a stuffed-animal snake (quite different than grasping/bashing into the wooden barricade when I was learning how to ice skate). Her next piece of advice was that when in doubt, pedal harder. As counter intuitive as that may seem, when you are clipped into this thing on wheels and there are no brakes, your adrenaline will actually kick in when the bike begins to feel wobbly and you will actually pedal faster. Or at least it did for me. Although at one point I was reminded of my cat, who once got a back foot tied up in the handle of a plastic bag, and the faster she ran away the more air went into the bag resulting in a much larger evil thing chasing her down, and more drag, causing her to run even faster.
I wanted to spend my time on the boards riding either the black or red line as consistently as possible. This is awfully hard, since the best way to stay on the line is not to look at it. Just don’t. If your head is down when you go into the curve, you will see just how banked it is, and your mind screams “Holy crap that’s crazy steep” just before the bike follows your gaze and heads down the slope and then you are screwed. Looking ahead (and you’ll need a little bit of “being in the zone,” or “using the force” type of thing) is something that applies to all sports where the body is supposed to go somewhere, like skiing and track and field, as opposed to tennis where you really should keep an eye on the ball until the last moment, requiring “the zone” or “the force” to come save you in a wholly different way (ask any tennis player who all of sudden can’t serve or any basketball player air-balling free throws). Believing in friction works pretty darn well too.
(If your eyes glaze over when looking at graphics like the one above, just know it’s the “normal” force that keeps you from flying out of the county. It might help to envision the “normal” force as a string bean, or toothpick. The chopstick was normally used by my dad to represent velocity.)
Riding on the track felt like a completely different sport than riding on the road. There’s no “I’ll just push real hard here and coast for awhile.” There’s no escape from the curved part, after each straightway there’s always another curve. There’s no ‘glory’ from riding indoors, and by ‘glory’ I mean the dirt and pollution plastered all over your face, but there is certainly nothing like the look-Mom-I’m-sideways feeling of whizzing around a banked curve. Holding one’s line is where it’s at, whether on the road or track.
The track is also much more fatiguing on the legs, and the muscle ache will catch up with you as you cruise around forgetting how many laps you’ve done. One of the best techniques for post-rides is to use the foam roller to relax the legs. As with everything sport recovery related, proper technique of the foam roller is critical.
My visit to the Velodrome was made possible by the Fireflies and Connie Paraskevin from the Connie Cycling Foundation. It’s not every day you get to hang with Olympian athletes, she’s terrific (although I didn’t get to see how big her legs were), and her cause completely worth donating to. She’s the only American woman to ever earn an Olympic medal in track racing, and she’s a four-time world champion, and, she doesn’t have a bike named after her?
The cool thing about winning an award in New Mexico is the almost certain guarantee that the prize will be made of Nambé. Nambé is the pride of New Mexico, an alloy of eight metals developed by a Los Alamos scientist. It can retain temperature for long periods of time, is food safe and can be used on the stove or in the oven. Plus it’s shiny! But the cool part is that the company was started by Pauline Platt Cable, who was the secretary of a foundry that cast bronze and copper cookware. The original owner retired in 1951 and left it to Pauline, who worked with Martin Eden, the scientist, to create Nambé.
Even cooler is a Nambé award for Women in Science, and though I have no memory of how I happened to be awarded one, I am very proud to lug this around:
The word Nambé comes from the Tewa Indians meaning “people of the round earth.” According to the NY Times, girls are leading boys in science exams everywhere on this round earth but in the US.
But not in this little part of California, not when you can send Hello Kitty into space. Congrats Lauren Rojas. I salute you with my Hello-Kitty-inside-a-Kobe-beef-outfit.
If you ever wondered how come I am such a fan of colloidal suspension of tiger-striped polyphasic foam or why I thought the argumentative atmosphere of Cal Arts was just an extension of home life or why the hell my cat speaks one language and my dogs another, here’s the primal source.
There just wasn’t a way to know my dad casually. Even if you didn’t understand physics, or mathematics or the other things he was passionate about, like playing go, or skiing, it was impossible not to get caught up in his quest to make things better, to try harder, to figure things out. He instilled in me the idea that you can always do more, and to never be satisfied with “good enough.” He was the King of the Satisfaction Upgrade. This meant to have high expectations for other things but save the highest expectations for your own self. This didn’t mean life was all work, however. When I was younger he inspired me to never give up, but when I worked too hard he always reminded me of the breakthrough discoveries solved by scientists while they were on vacation.
There are some people in the world who you meet under one context, and then after awhile you find out something else about this person that surprises you. With my dad, no matter what the context, for better or for worse, you got the entire package. This meant he would always keep his word, he did everything he could when friends or family needed help, and I don’t have to tell anyone here that he was a champion of integrity, a big fan of math puzzles and intellectual debates on all subjects. What you might not know are some facts of his life, so I would like to give a little timeline.
In 1937 the Japanese invasion of China forced the government and many universities to relocate west to Sichuan and Yunnan. Amidst this chaos my father’s parents met at a train station in Wuhan and decided to spend the rest of their lives together. Two years later my father was born, in a small town called Bei Wen Quan near ChongQing.
In 1948 as China entered a civil war, my grandfather took a job in Taiwan, thinking that it would be a yearlong assignment. Instead, the communists took control of the mainland and it would be decades before any of them could go back.
In Taiwan my father studied Chemical Engineering at the National Taiwan University and received his masters in Atomic and Nuclear Physics from Tsing Hua University. In 1962 he received a scholarship to U.C Berkeley to study Theoretical Particle Physics for his PhD and together with my mom began a new life in the United States. It was an adventurous, and thrilling time to be here.
My dad was part of a generation of forced ex-patriots. He came out of China at a unique moment where the old China no longer existed and the new China was yet to be. He believed in all the traditions and values that the old China had, but he also knew America was the future. From the moment he arrived until his death this was the profound balancing act he navigated on a daily basis. He took care of his parents, and helped them with their English, and he took care of his kids, and helped them with their Chinese.
After graduating from Berkeley my dad had post docs at MIT and Northeastern University, so we moved to the east coast, where I remember summer road trips picking apples, looking at foliage, and of course, doing math problems.
In 1976 he was hired at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where he worked until he retired. He worked on various experimental and theoretical projects, and published over a hundred papers on subjects I can barely comprehend, such as Regge-Pole Formalism, Origin of the B-dot Jump, Energy Loss of bunched beams, and Monte-Carlo calculations, which to me sounds like one of his theories on beating the dealer in blackjack.
Though he loved the landscape and the mountains of New Mexico, he couldn’t quite handle the local food, and the nearest Chinese market was a two-hour drive, so instead he performed small garden miracles by growing Chinese vegetables no one believed could grow in the high desert climate. He also watched Los Alamos grow from a town where we were the only Chinese family around, to one that had a Chinese Cultural Association. An association that had many informal meetings on the ski hill, even.
He spent many lunch hours practicing figure 8s and jumps at the skating rink, but I don’t think I have ever seen my dad so happy as when he was on the ski hill. Not only did he master the black diamond mogul runs, he figured out the perfect velocity, angle and weight distribution to approach a mogul in order to maintain absolute control of his speed. During my last year in high school, we had an arrangement: provided I kept up my grades, he would occasionally pull me out of class in the middle of the day to drive up to the ski hill for a few runs.
In 1984 my father’s parents moved from Taiwan to live with him, and then the garden really took off. My grandmother was an exceptional cook and my father always bugged her to write her recipes down. However, every time she would make the dish the recipe would get an addendum or a revision. This endless tweaking, the continual quest to find ways to improve something, was a trait my father got from his mother, so watching him go crazy trying to make sense of the recipes, to comprehend the final, final and ultimate final number of tablespoons of salt, was very funny.
When my grandfather developed dementia my father was still working at the lab, but he wanted to find a way for my grandfather to be cared for during the day. When an unemployed mathematician offered to help out, and this mathematician also happened to be a really nice guy and also Chinese, I think my father came as close as he ever was to believing in something as totally irrational as fate.
In 1999 and 2001 my husband David and I were awarded grants to travel in China to study tea and the classical gardens. My father prepared an exhaustive itinerary, and we zig-zagged across the country armed with not only the typical stuff like history lessons, cultural tidbits and political criticisms, but select Huan Lee specialties like how to speak the Shandong dialect using a rule of switching the inflections used in Mandarin, what the local specialties were and which towns were worth a detour just for a meal, and to beware the steamed bun that shows the meat on the outside but is empty in the middle. Every time we called him he would ask “Where are you?” This was followed by “What did you have for breakfast?” After that he’d recommend a list of sites to visit, including specific objects of significance, such as a certain poem carved in stone, a painting, or even a famous old tree.
It wasn’t until we returned from our second trip that we realized he himself had not been to many of those places. The itinerary he planned for us was based on memory and his historical perspective of a country he had left when he was 10. We were his eyes and ears, we soaked in the famous hot springs of his birthplace, Bei Wen Quan, and we even went to visit Cixian, his actual lao jia, or “old home,” which he had never been to. He was so proud of China’s past, and so hopeful for its future, and so he was one of its fiercest advocates as well as its harshest critic.
Following my grandfather’s passing in 2001, my father retired from the lab and moved to Moraga to enjoy the bay area, to marry Ying, and be close to his grandchildren. Somehow, though, the lack of stress in his life backfired and he suffered a heart attack on the tennis courts in 2004. He recovered from the heart surgery fine, but had an allergic reaction to one of the medications, and it poisoned his lungs, causing him to stay in the hospital for several months. We all think it was a gift to have him live for eight more years, as he was able to finally enjoy his retirement. He took the cruise down the Three Gorges, and travelled to Taiwan, and Hawaii.
My dad taught us to always look for the interesting parts of things, and also to do things that we loved, because that would make them interesting. He showed us how much fun it was to change spark plugs, how playing pool reflected Newtonian physics, how to cut a block of tofu into thirteen exactly uniform pieces. Sometimes he got carried away, for example the rules governing sponges and scrubbies in the kitchen still strikes fear in me, but my father never had an opinion without a well-reasoned argument to back him up. This is not to say he was always right. He wasn’t. But he respected you more if you could match his level of debate, because that meant you put in the effort to think about it. Looking back, these debates were never about him telling me what to think, while I was growing up, he was teaching me how to think.
Sometime after graduating from college, my father told me something that I think would be what he’d like to leave everyone with today.
He told me I should remember the words of advice he’s given me, the problem solving tips that he’s shared, and that I should think about the things he’s criticized, to really think about them, because now that I was an adult, I wouldn’t necessarily have him around any more for guidance.
And in the end, it all comes down to the “Physicist’s Afterlife.”
After my dad left his hospital room he found himself floating in a very dark space filled with pinholes of light. It was hard to tell which way was up and which was down, but he felt all the strength returning to his body. His lungs filled with air. Slowly the lights grew larger and larger and as my dad turned to look around him he saw Richard Feynman standing right in front of him.
“Welcome Huan.” Richard said. “How was your journey?”
“Oh. Very relaxing! I’m curious though, I felt some sort of a low-gravity situation on the way over here.”
“Well, that’s to be expected. Welcome to the physicists’ afterlife. Are you ready for today’s puzzle?”
“Wow!” My dad said, excitedly. “Is that what we do here?”
“All day long if you want. But there’s plenty of other activities too, like skiing and tennis and go. We have some of the best chefs too, myself included, and wait until you see the stock market!”
“I’m very excited.” My dad said. “What’s today’s puzzle?”
Richard Feynman turned and pointed to three doors located on the wall behind him. “Where would you like to go today? To a beautiful little picnic spot, filled with wildflowers, pretty birds and rock formations… or …would you like to go to the Puzzle Wonderland.”
“What’s the Puzzle Wonderland?”
“The Puzzle Wonderland is a very special place. At every fork in the road you will encounter the guy who always tells the truth, and the guy who always lies. Every creek you cross you’ll have to figure out how to get yourself, a fox, a chicken and a sack of grain to the other side one item at a time without the fox eating the chicken, or the chicken eating the grain. At every farm house you see there will be dueling brothers with odd shaped land that needs to be divided evenly. There are stacks of coins, plus other goodies like hot tea, fresh fruit and unlimited macadamia nuts.”
“Oh yes, I’d like to go to the Puzzle Wonderland, please. But I have a question.”
“Sure. What’s your question?”
“Are the macadamia nuts roasted?”
“OK, great. So how do I get there?”
“See these three doors? Two of these lead to the nice picnic spot, and one door, only one, leads to the Puzzle Wonderland. Now first thing is for you to pick a door.”
My dad pointed at one of the doors and Richard Feynman walked over to it and spray-painted a large red A on the door. “We’ll call that door A. I’m not going to tell you if you’ve picked the picnic spot or the Puzzle Wonderland, I’m not even going to open it. What I will do is show you one of the other doors that leads to the picnic spot.” Richard Feynman went up to one of the unmarked doors and opened it a crack. “Yup. Lovely, just lovely. Just missing all the puzzles. This one we’ll call door B.”
My dad craned his neck so he could take a peek inside Door B. The other side looked very sunny, with a faint smell of jasmine.
Richard Feynman smiled. “Now you have to make your last choice. Knowing that door B does not lead to the Puzzle Wonderland, you can keep the original door you’ve selected, Door A, or you can switch to the last door, Door C.”
“But I don’t know what’s behind A,” my dad said.
“But you’re saying I can also switch to door C. Which means you’re really asking me whether my chances of getting to the Puzzle Wonderland are better if I stay with my original door A, or if I switch, or if it doesn’t matter whether I switch or not.”
“Hm,” my dad said, lowering his gaze to the ground. “May I have a few minutes to think about it?”
“Here’s something to write with.” Richard Feynman said, handing him a pad of paper and a gold cross pen.
After a little while my Dad handed the papers back to Richard Feynman and said, “That’s my final answer.” He had a smirk on his face as he walked over and rested his hand on the doorknob. “Am I right?”
Richard Feynman nodded. “You sure are. Have fun in there. Hey, later tonight Albert and Hans are meeting me for a game of bridge. Would you like to be my partner?”
My father scratched his chin. “You and me against Albert and Hans?”
Yes it’s Guys, because the two IT Gals I have had to deal with have been so irredeemably mean and scary I can’t bear to meet any more. And if you think I’m throwing down some girl-hate I have to say I think the Gals didn’t start out mean and scary, they became that way because they had to prove themselves in horribly unnecessary ways plus I can only imagine what listening to the Guys go on and on about Honking Network Speeds on a daily basis does for your complexion.
Bad IT guys are not just crotch-pulsing, Mountain-Dew chugging dudes with expanding waistlines. They’re awful inside too. They can’t/won’t explain anything in plain English, which just proves that they don’t understand the concept, they can’t problem solve their way out of a paper bag, and they like it that way. In other words, chances are they don’t understand jack, but because they keep putting Band-aids on their systems rather than solve the problem, it means in a few months they’ll have to re-Band-aid, and in a few months after that they’ll have to re-Band-aid, and all this means job security. In effect they are holding their company hostage because the system they set up is so fucked up it can’t be fixed without a serious headache.
So what? So what.
A good IT guy pretty much works himself out of a job, and this is the answer to “Why are there no great IT Guys?” He does things right from the beginning, then sets up the system with a good eye on the future, and after awhile the powers that be will think he’s expendable. Yes, the boss will hum a show tune every time he passes the network room and sees all the little lights blinking green, but he won’t credit the IT guy. Instead he’ll refer to his own techie prowess, his years of PC noodling, his dog’s tip of the tail splotch of color, his wife’s lovely ass, everything except the person actually responsible.
This boss gets so far into his virtual cloud that he comes to believe he no longer needs IT. And he gets very smug because his first idea was to save money by getting the guy in the mail room to do IT part time without a salary increase. This latest idea, to punt the position altogether, is pure genius. Any douche bag can hit restart, he thinks, the fuckers practically run themselves. And this is where it gets funny.
Everyone knows when you run PeeCees there will come a day when Windows wants to Windoze. And when it does, this particular bossman—of a company so far up the 1% that if you think of the largest company you know, and then go bigger, you’d still be wrong—cannot do his job. But his job is important, it’s about making deals. DEALS!
And just like the question of whether a tree falling in a forest makes a sound if no one’s around, you wonder whether a boss screaming at his offline computer makes a similar noise.
Let’s give this boss a grossly underestimated annual salary of 2 million (not including bonuses and % of the DEALS). This gives him (roughly) a daily rate of $8000. Let’s say he’s scrambling, bullying, trying to get “any stupid IT Guy” to come in to fix his shit so he can get on with his very important DEAL before it goes sour. Let’s say boss man was paying Good IT Guy $75K (grossly overestimated), so… if the PCMAN temp agency can’t get someone over there and his problem solved in nine days (!) he will piddle away the entirety of the IT Guy’s salary, plus forfeit the deal and his commission to boot.
Oh, youpeople who fault John D’Agata for being a liar, a fact-molester, and a manipulative meany.
Oh, you “sharers” of videos, “thumb-uppers” of call to actions.
Lets get a few things straight.
– It took the US decades to improve working conditions for ourselves (and it’s still ongoing), even with a democratic system at the top.
– John D’Agata has never claimed any more territory than that of the essay, and has never tried to massage facts in order to “underline a cause” or “raise consciousness” (in the Kony/Foxconn sense). His stakes are intellectual and insular, as he is playing with representation similar to the way certain photographers (Dorothea Lange, Jeff Wall etc.) have been doing forever. (Well, maybe not forever, but—*yawn*—the literary world can be so conservative. If they’re so banked on nonfiction telling the truth, then why are they insistent that fiction writers have experience, or better yet, an identity, in what they’re writing about?)
– The hubbub around Mike Daisey and his monologue “The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”* and the fact (!) that This American Life aired part of it, stood behind it, reaped a shitload of PR from it, and then retracted it (with even more PR) as a bunch of lies is not doing the Chinese people a whit of good. I could ask: since when did TAL become a medium of truth rather than a radio show sharing personal experience, (I wouldn’t believe a word of David Sedaris for all the iPads in the world) but that would be sort of besides the point.
It’s one thing to fail to do any kind of fact checking, and quite another to be half-assed about it.
Hello Ira Glass, you can’t have it both ways (and yes, D’Agata can, as I will get to later). TAL explains in the apology broadcast that Daisey told them his translator couldn’t be reached and their response was “…because the other things Mike told us – about Apple and Foxconn – seemed to check out, we saw no reason to doubt him.” How can you, TAL, if you for one minute think you live up to journalism standards, fail to talk to the translator? Or even try to find her? Especially a story about human rights, especially since Daisey doesn’t speak Chinese at all? Plus, the statement that a working class person in China cannot be reached is a joke. The working class mainland Chinese can ALWAYS be reached. Miss a call and you miss making money. They don’t have voicemail, they don’t change their phone numbers (unless a number with a lot of “8”s in it becomes available, but then they can’t afford it – yes different phone numbers cost different prices in China), and they always always always answer their phones.
OK then, was calling China too expensive? Too hard to figure out the time difference? According to TAL’s Retraction podcast, all Rob Schmitz had to do was to google “Cathy and translator and Shenzhen” and she’s the first number that comes up.
Shoot me now, but the reason I think TAL failed to do due diligence was because they believed the story too much. They wanted it to be true so badly they willed it into truth. Yes, Mike Daisey lied to them. Yes, Mike Daisey stood on a stage and said “this happened to me,” but deep down TAL knew the show was going to be a ringer, and the listener response would (and did) shower TAL and NPR with buckets of good old-fashioned self-righteousness. Westside liberalism at its finest.
Why does this matter?
It’s the Chinese who will get screwed by this. Their very real concerns of worker safety and factory conditions have now been reduced—by the very people who wanted to help them—to a stupid battle over theatre vs. journalism. Has TAL or Mike Daisey considered that while they lounge around hogging the airwaves discussing the risks and rewards of journalistic rigor, (or not), these people with real or not so real poisoning, and quivering and/or mangled arms have to go back to work?
The factory situation is complicated, but the workers deserve respect. But respect is not a simple thing to arrive at after six days tooting around Shenzhen, much less a night at the theatre or a cozy podcast.
The workers are fucked. They live in shitholes. They have a government of corrupt maniacs which views them like an army of expendable ants. They work their asses off at the factories and with their first month’s wages they get to buy a mattress for their cot. The next paycheck gets them a pair of shoes, all of which have to be purchased at the “factory” store and this wonderful store, as you can imagine, is filled with discounts (“Only one!” “For you, special price!” “Hello, lunch!”) They—and you’ll never hear this on TAL—prefer/pray to get jobs at factories owned by westerners. Their preference of nationality as far as bosses are concerned is (from worst to best): Taiwanese, Hong Kong, mainland, western. Yes, Foxconn is Taiwanese owned, and yes, despite my better judgement, if one considers deep down that the Taiwanese, Hong Kong and mainland people are the same, then this is just another way to show that the Chinese are profoundly capable of being extremely cruel to their own people.
And now, us westerners, by trying to save them, to help them, have drowned them in an absurdist drama called the Real Housewives of NPR. Thinking about what is true, and who’s telling the truth (and it really is “tell,” since many in the peasant class are illiterate) in China is like asking a starving person (before he gets to eat) to twist the stem of an apple while reciting the roman alphabet until the stem breaks, and the letter that he was on will reveal to them the first initial of a person who has a crush on them.
Plus, TAL and Daisey have in effect pooped all over the real journalists, the ones over in China doing the legwork. Because now, if those journalists do uncover a hexane poisoning, or an under-aged worker, it will be an uphill battle getting anyone to believe them. So please, Mike Daisey, stop hamming it up and remember who you’re trying to help, and TAL, please read up on your Martha Rosler.
Social causes have their purpose, but the idea is to help. If the idea is to make workers conditions better, then do it by demanding better working conditions for Chinese factory workers. Do this with purchasing power, and do this by understanding the situation better, and do this, knowing that it takes more effort than a lot of us are willing to put in in order to really bring about social change.
Now back to John D’Agata. Why does he get to decide which facts must remain as facts and which facts can be tweaked? Because, like many visual artists, he has a system, and it’s rigorous and clear in his own head. And most importantly, he’s not asking us to help the Rwandans, or save the harpy seals. He’s simply asking us to think. His beef is with representation, not social issues. His description of the many years the nuclear waste would sit inside the mountain is neither an anti-nuke statement or an ecological one. The scale of the facts are too enormous to simply toss from one side of a political argument to another. Nobody stands in front of a Jeff Wall photo and sounds the alarm that Photoshop was involved, and nobody should pick up a John D’Agata book and fret over facts that may or may not be true. Most importantly, and this is where he is different from Mike Daisey and TAL, he doesn’t claim to be something that he’s not. He doesn’t take the (often ugly and predominately male) position that he’s the wonderful person that’s going to bestow knowledge upon you, that he’s the amazing guy that is going to teach you something. John D’Agata expects his readers to come to the table already smart and curious. And that, deserves a little respect.
Above is the taxi driver we met in China, from Guizhou, the poorest province in China, who told us firsthand (no translator needed) about the factories and the lack of mattress and the wire cots. He told us he left home to go work in a factory in Guangzhou in 1999, and couldn’t even take it for a year. He said that the worst crime to humanity, the absolute worst evil about the factories, the thing that really made him cry and come home, was that in Guangzhou the food was not spicy enough. “Not even close.” Imagine.
He did make a lot of money, however, but after refueling on Guizhou hot pot he partied like it was 1999 and blew it all in a single weekend in Nanjing, and doesn’t regret a single minute. I will bet too, that I can call him up on his cellphone and he’ll pick up and ask me what I’m having for dinner.
* Christ let’s end this post already. But wait there’s more. Foxconn doesn’t just make crap for Apple, it makes stuff for the PeeCees too. And Steve Jobs is not Apple, he’s just the founder. And all you radio people: stop pronouncing the “zhou” in Guangzhou or the “jing” in Beijing with a vibrating “g” sound. It’s Beijing, as in “Bay” “Jing” (J as in Jingle).