Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Slums of Heaven

For generations, people have been searching for the answer to the ultimate spiritual question, “What is the Meaning of Life?” But it’s a stupid question, because it’s loaded, vague and subject to personal interpretation.

First of all, the question presumes that life has meaning. Life may be meaningless; get over it.

Secondly, the answer to the question, if there is one, is different for everyone, because what’s meaningful for one person may not be meaningful to another. Does the answer have anything to do with God? Love? Responsibility? Ethics? Brotherhood? Afterlife? Personal Growth? Victory? Humility? The list goes on and on. Pick one - that’s your category of “meaning.” Your neighbor will pick something different. Even if you manage to work out some sort of “meaning,” people with the same category will come up with different answers.

But the worst part of the ultimate question is that even if you find the answer, it’s useless, because you can’t trust it. How many people will actually accept the answer if it disagrees with their expectations? Most people will engage in “curve fitting,” adjusting the answer until it falls into their belief system. Those who triumphantly claim to have found the answer are lying to you, but worse, they’re lying to themselves.

For these reasons, it occurred to me that people have been asking the wrong question. There’s a much better question. One that isn’t loaded or vague. The answer will differ for everyone, but that’s OK, because it’s a personal question, and everyone already knows the answer.

Call me a cynic, but I think the answer can be found on page one in the playbook of every salesperson who ever walked the earth: “How much are you willing to pay?” Car salesmen who work on commission have been asking this sly question for a century, lulling the customer into a sense of control.

This question can be applied to every situation, every decision, and every moral quandary. It has nothing to do with money, although in the case of moral quandaries, money is often a factor. Payment can be measured in time, energy, consequences, etc.

For example, most people devote one day a week to spiritual maintenance. Is that enough? How many days a week are you willing to attend church services to ensure that your personal relationship with God isn’t leaking oil?

And for those worried about an afterlife, how much are you willing to pay to get an acceptable deal for eternity? If you believe in reincarnation, how much karma are you prepared to deposit to come back as a higher mammal instead of an intestinal parasite?

Some people are incapable of answering these questions for themselves, so they rely on others to give them an answer. That’s why we have a clergy who dictate the price (prayer, music, lectures, community service). But if they work on the same principal as salesmen, they’re getting a commission, which they cash in after death to live in a nicer part of heaven. Do you suppose that heaven has slums? That’s where I’m headed.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Most Unpopular Guy in the Room

I haven’t written anything about this particular topic, because I didn’t want the wrong people to see it. But it’s reached the point where I can talk about it.

About a month ago, I got a phone call from an internal recruiter for a very large bank headquartered in New York City. During the five months I was unemployed, I must have fired off two or three hundred resumes, and one of them had finally percolated down through the layers of bureaucracy at this particular institution. The wheels turn very slowly in banks, despite the efforts of bankers to stop them completely.

The recruiter told me that they’ve opened up an office near where I live, intended to house portions of their business that don’t need to be in New York. He described the position they had available, which would be a radical departure from the work I’ve been doing for over 30 years. Since the 1970’s, I’ve been a Technical Writer, producing thousands of pages of user’s manuals for software and electronics products. In other words, I write books that nobody reads.

In this new job, I would be documenting banking policies and procedures, not products. The purpose of this documentation is to satisfy government regulatory agencies, who are under fire from government lawmakers for failing to properly regulate banking activities in the past decade. Ironically, this is the primary reason that millions of people around the world, including me, were out of work in the first place.

The regulatory agencies will review the documents I write to verify that the bank practices are in accordance with federal laws and regulations. In the banking industry, this is known by the term “compliance,” and it’s a deadly serious business. The Compliance department at a bank is equivalent to the Internal Affairs department at police headquarters. As one of the managers who interviewed me said, “You’ll be the most unpopular guy in the room.” No problem, I’m used to that.

I interviewed with a total of four people over several weeks. This particular bank is what’s known as a “custodian bank.” That’s a bank that provides services to other banks. They’re profitable whether the economy is doing well or doing poorly, because they make their money on transactions, whether the money is coming in or going out.

They made me a verbal offer that was $15,000 a year more than I make now. I don't know what came over me, but in the middle of a terrible recession, I turned it down and demanded $20,000. Three days later, which is positively warp speed for a bank, they agreed - but with the condition that I interview with two additional senior managers, who apparently wanted to meet The Man With Brass Balls. Those interviews went well, and they sent me the formal offer.

So today I gave my notice at my current job, which I’ve only held for six months. I was hired as a Technical Writer, but the job is actually something I call “Software Paleontology.” This is where a software product has been around for a long time, undergone dozens of revisions, and nobody has kept track of anything.

There are features in the software that no one knows how to use, because the developer that wrote the code is long gone, and there are no specifications or documentation of any kind. Nobody is using these features, but management can’t spare software engineers to remove them from the product – they’re too busy working on new features for which there are no specifications. I spend most of my day digging for tidbits of information that will enable me to formulate plausible descriptions of product features that nobody uses. It’s unfulfilling, and people cringe when they see me coming. I’m the most unpopular guy in the room.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Betrayed by Aluminum

In the course of civilization, numerous social conventions have developed for the sake of efficiency, safety or courtesy. One example is the handshake. Another is driving on one side of the road. My favorite is the line (known as a “queue” in some cultures), in which people line up to take their turn receiving a service.

Over time, lines have been abstracted by “take a number” systems, so the line doesn’t have to physically exist. Express lines have been created to speed checkout in the supermarket so the guy who only has a six-pack of beer doesn’t have to wait for Octomom to buy her weekly groceries. But the concept of the line still exists: First come, first served.

Regardless of the form it takes, the most essential component of line formation is trust. Members of the line trust that other members of the line won’t attempt to change position, and that the service provider will respect the order of the line.

However, last night my trust was betrayed. I was waiting in line at Federal Express to pick up a package. The clerk called me forward and took the package claim slip from me. Normally, the clerk would leave to go into the back room, pick up the package and return to have me sign for it. But this time, another clerk happened to be walking by on his way to the back room, and offered to pick up the package. My clerk handed my claim slip to him, turned around, and said, “Can I help the next person in line?”

Some guy with a huge, heavy box that had been poorly taped together came forward and heaved the box on the counter. He was sending it to Africa. He wanted insurance. He hadn’t filled out a shipping label. He didn’t speak English very well. When she asked what was in the box to establish a value, all he would tell her was “Aluminum.”

I couldn’t believe it. I had been bumped from the line! While the clerk was dealing with Big Box Guy, the second clerk returned from the back room and dropped my package on the counter. It sat there for twenty minutes until the clerk finally wrapped up with Big Box Guy. During that time, every other customer in the office completed their business with the other clerk, who disappeared into the back room after the last one left.

I understand that the clerk was attempting to use what would otherwise be considered “down time” to improve service for the other customers. But she accepted a task that ruined the service for me. I’m not a violent man, but I wanted to hit her over the head with a big box of aluminum.