Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Matris in Gremio: Ben Wheatley's High Rise (movie, 2016) (R)

I have some experience with the ostensible subject matter of High Rise, the tower blocks of the mid-1970s. I lived in the London Docklands in the late 70s to 80s, a fair proportion of that on the 11th floor. Once, desperate to get a place of my own, I’d visited a friend who lived in Balfron Tower, in Bow, the Erno Goldfinger Brutalist tower block that has been named as Ballard’s inspiration for the block in his 1975 novel High Rise. I remember taking the lift to the relevant floor in the service tower and then, when faced with walking along the connection to the main residential tower block, ending up crawling on my hands and knees, unable to face the view from the (enclosed) walkway. Needless to say, I didn’t take up my friend’s offer of his council flat (apartment), but when I found myself living on the 11th floor of a more normal block on Westferry Road on the Isle of Dogs, a few years later, I had not a trace of acrophobia. It appears to have been Erno-related anxiety. I lived in that tower block as Docklands went from a dumping ground for otherwise un-housables to an expensive gentrified waterfront area, and well recall the building of new, non-council (i.e. non-projects) towers with their differential sale prices – top-earning yuppies in multi-million pound penthouses, normal bankers in fractional-million pound lower floors. I left around the time the derelict Canary Wharf was beginning to be built up. It was an odd time to live in Docklands.  Gentrification, however, was several years after the book was published and the movie is set. Ballard a prophet? Perhaps.

My tower block last year, from Google Maps Street View

View of City of London from my tower block, 1980s

View of what was actually at the foot of my tower block, 1980s

Balfron Tower, picture ganked from this article

Now, the film. It's an R. I'm not sure why - there's a lot of violence and a few rude words in it, along with a little sex. A few of the rude words may make it into the review. The block in the movie is not like the dissected Goldfinger towers of London. It’s described as “like the distal phalanx of an index finger of an open hand”, but it looks to me more like a phallus with a bad case of chordee. There are five of them in various degrees of construction in the movie, all with that crooked top. It may be that the falling tip is ‘overarching’ rather than drooping but it’s hard to tell from internal movie clues.

The movie ostensibly follows Laing, who moves into the new tower block, attracted by its claim to supply all one may need from life, from living space, to gym, to pool, to onsite supermarkets. The new building has some shakeout problems, “settling” as the home-owners are told to think of it. The garbage chute clogs up. The power occasionally goes out. Our protagonist is a middle-class psychiatrist who has just bought an apartment on a middling floor. It has the lovely Brutalist feature of sloping naked concrete beams intruding into the living space, giving Laing a sudden impulse to paint all his belongings the same shade of grey. A straightforward reading of the film is that it tells the tale of a rebellion against the upper floors by the inhabitants of the cheap (but full utilities-paying) lower floors during an extended power cut, mediated by and observed by the middle-floor-dwelling Laing. In the darkness the food-deprived inhabitants blockade their floors, restrict access to outsiders, raid for supplies and, after the supermarkets are emptied, begin to eat their pets. On the surface, this is a typical dystopian movie plot. Who will become the leader of the block? How will he protect his women? And why don't they escape/call the police/go live with their mum?

It’s a little challenging to keep track of all the characters in the film. Even with its extended running time, not everyone gets fleshed out (or their flesh taken off). In addition to Laing, there is a junior psychiatrist Munrow, the designer of the block who is often just called The Architect, his enforcer Simmons, his wife, his mistress, his wife's mistress, Laing's women, and the lower-floors leader, the impulsive and violent Wilder, who "in real life" makes TV documentaries. There is a man who is always on the telly, and several more. They have many affairs, many wives and many children.

You can’t say Wheatley and subtle in the same sentence but the stand-out vignettes include a supermarket check-out conveyor belt converted to a torture-treadmill like the one Snake Plissken is chained to in Escape from LA, and the They Live-esque fist-fight over Laing’s can of grey paint that gave me quite a laugh. It also features a soothing amount of Tom Hiddleston-flesh, ABBA’s SOS performed by a string quartet, Portishead and soundtrack-man Clint Mansell as the running theme, Surrealist treasures in the penthouse, blink-and-you-miss-it allusions to other films and some very pointed, quick fire dialogue. One that stands out is the documentary maker’s wife casually throwing away the line, “he’s lost his focus” and later there’s an extended riff on the whole movie, beginning with the architect saying of one character, “she has quite a tight c*nt” and segueing into a description of his apartment owners having “fitted themselves tightly into their slots” (in society), with Laing immediately referring this back to the structure of the building “slots designed by you”. “I conceived this building,” the architect says as in the background women talk about babies’ bottles. “I offered a means of escape to a new life,” he continues, just as a new baby is born.

I don’t see any reason why this movie was so widely panned when it has more in common with The Matrix than its usual comparator, Snowpiercer. The latter was a one-dimensional allegory with all High Rise’s problems and none of its solutions. If I had to think of a similar film, I’d point to Lindsay Anderson’s If…. and Britannia Hospital. I think High Rise has a wider range of deeper motifs than those, however. In other words, High Rise deserves cult status, but that’s not something one can predict.

I’ve seen the film reviewed as being in some way about a typical seventies fear of high rise living. Just no. Should we also assume that Ballard had a fright about the bits of grass that grow between interchange lanes in complex highways such as freeways (Concrete Island) or was worried that iguanas might colonize London (The Drowned World) or had been in a funk that the angle between two walls might not have a happy ending (the Ambit ad)? There’s obviously allegory going on somewhere. What might it be?

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way. The movie makes no secret that it’s ‘about’ the British class structure. If you take the phrase ‘social climber’ and dial the setting to ‘tower block’ you get the basic structure automatically. The film constantly refers to high life, lower orders, Marie Antoinette and power failures (i.e. failures of the powers that be). Laing buys an inexpensive Riesling from the supermarket and attempts to enter a party on the upper floors from whence he is summarily ejected, for wearing the wrong clothes and for being a cheap bastard. The people on the lower floors have lots of loud children, while the upper floors’ dwellers are famous and childless, and the uppermost of all, The Architect – whose name is Royal – has a formal rooftop garden, a horse, goats that his gauzily-dressed wife herds with a Louis XVI-era shepherd’s crook, and a dozen pampered dogs. The chief of the lower floors is called, natch, Wilder. He has a pregnant wife, several children and a poster of Che Guevara. He leads the rebellion against the upper floors.

Our man Laing belongs to neither caste, but is ideally placed as a go-between.

The social order allegory also explains one of people’s biggest moans about the movie: why none of the inhabitants try to leave the building as it breaks down. Wheatley bafflingly leaves the explanation to a voice-over at the very end, long after these people will have given up on the film as unrealistic. We hear Margaret Thatcher’s voice over the radio, “There is only one economic system in the world, and that is capitalism. The difference lies in whether the capital is in the hands of the State or whether the greater part of it is in the hands of people outside of State control. Where there is State capitalism there will never be political freedom.” You must choose one, because there is no other system – there is no ‘outside’ to which to go. And given that you can only choose one, you should choose free enterprise, because freedom. In this analogy, the inhabitants have chosen free enterprise, and Laing, who is chewing on the last roast dog leg and thinking about setting up a private practice, is clearly all for freedom.  (You might argue that the TV personality guy left the block every day for work, but of course as his final scene showed, a man on the telly who is at work is equally in the apartments, inside their TVs, and cannot be said to have left the tower block.)

There’s a second metaphor that overlays the political one. It’s signaled by an early shot of a young medical doctor reading “Psychopathology of Everyday Life” by Sigmund Freud. The building itself is described in the film as a diagram of a psychic event. (This sounded very Ballardian, almost out of place, so I wonder if it’s a phrase from the book that wandered into the script.) The main character is not only a psychiatrist, he’s called R Laing, calling rather obviously to mind RD Laing, the psychiatrist who promulgated the theory that a psychotic episode is a result of a mind being placed in a lose-lose situation, a double bind, and the symptoms of which are an attempt to communicate the untenable situation. The building itself, with its bony ramifications, is a skull. We’re shown several skulls for comparison purposes. At one point, during a medical school dissection, we see the skin literally peeled back from a skull and the doctor hammer-and-chisel his way inside. Wheatley is not a subtle visual director. Laing, us, is the ego. Royal, The Architect, is the superego and the aggressive, rebellious, rapacious Wilder is the Id. The inciting incident leading to Laing's psychotic break is his very unprofessional treatment of a patient that leads to harm, and the film is on this level detailing Laing’s subsequent psychoanalysis. He checks out his own internal state and decides whether he needs the recommended treatment or not.

On yet a third level, the Architect is simply a god. Above everyone’s heads, dressed in Morgan-Freeman-God-White clothes, he’s described as the first to arrive in the building and the last to leave, one of the characteristics of Almighty God. “Alpha es et O”, as the hymn In Dulce Jubilo puts it, the alpha and the omega, “I am the first and the last”. He pores over his architectural plans like The Ancient of Days, Urizen, the demiurge of reason, laws and caste-based conventional society in Blake's mythology. He’s a Gnostic God, trapped in this reality, and his creation is, as always, flawed. (But Laing is not our Christ.) He is a Royal who uses a walking stick, the crippled Fisher King. As such, his wound has made him sterile and rendered his land barren and unable to support its people. He is also an alchemist– he says he designed the building as a “crucible for change” but he either put one too many or one too few "elements" in it. (He later comes to terms with his resulting rather leaden “gold”, as Ballard characters tend to do.)

The fourth metaphor I’m not sure was in the novel. The building, it seems, is built along the lines of Ken Reid’s famous and hilarious Nervs from Smash! comic, as well as Malcolm Judge’s earlier Numskulls from Beezer comic. The Numskulls were a collection of idiots who manned the skull of an unfortunate person, “Our Man”, operating his ears, eyes and brain, a little like the small people inside the girl in Inside Out, but less PC. The Nervs, despite their name, were little internal people who operated the entire body and brain of an equally unfortunate person, “Fatty". For example, they control the stomach acid pipeline. If you put the Nervs and the Numskulls together, you get the inhabitants of High Rise. This is not exactly a lofty literary theory, but I for one grew up reading these comics and many people my age, or with children my age, did, and it’s a visualization of the self that is certainly easy to, well, internalize. And let's face it, for every one British person who's read Baudrillard or Houellebecq there must be a dozen who read The Numskulls (and another dozen who've seen Inside Out).

We see this metaphor early on, where the blocked garbage chute (and man do I remember the blocked garbage chutes in the tower block where I lived) symbolizes not only a block in the internal workings of the body politic but also a more earthy block of the type that your grandma worries about, insisting you eat more fiber and drink castor oil to make you regular again. Much later, Lang describes himself as a blood cell, able to travel the arteries of the body by walking through the corridors. The implication is the other inhabitants perform the other functions. Rather than a beckoning finger, or a crooked phallus, the building with its rows of balconies is a human body with a series of compartments, as in the famous Dali paintings.

And the stinger is, the body, the block, appears to me to be female, as Dali depicted her. There are chronological and textual juxtapositions between descriptions of the building and a woman giving birth, for example. (See above for some dialogue.) Wilder ultimately asks Royal why he stole his wife, why he hides behind women’s skirts. He tells the architect to “sit there and think about what you have done”, like a kindergarten teacher. The architect is described as a midwife. There are maenads, nurturers, nymphs at the pool. The whole incident is described as “a children’s party got out of hand”. Despite the ego, superego and id being male-presenting, the block is clearly female. I think of this as scriptwriter Amy Jump’s little joke.

This is going to reward multiple rewatchings.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Last Dance with Marjolaine

Like all* people of British extraction, my current fave is The Great British Bake Off, a TV program in which several ordinary people gather in a stove-equipped tent in a Stately Home’s garden and cook for four hours on Saturday and four hours on Sunday (edited down to an hour, or possibly ninety minutes – I’ve been so enthralled I’ve never actually wondered how much time is passing).  

There are two judges, a little old lady and Gen X man with Gen X Guy Fieri frosted tips and Gen X goatee, and for no reason two presenters who have little to do – maybe ten sentences each per program – but since they seem joined at the hip, I assume if you hire one of them you get the other for free.

The majority of the baking is usual fare – “I used me gran’s recipe” is a common refrain - and the bakers have evidently practiced the thing, even if it’s a completely bizarre thing with quinces and mangoes and gouache (or whatever it’s called).  However, one round is called the “technical” round and in it, all of the contestants are expected to follow a recipe they’ve never seen before, and produce an edible, attractive result. A couple of weeks ago, the recipe was a Marjolaine (which I’d certainly never heard of before) and so I purchased all the ingredients and we had a go ourselves.

I already owned a ‘food processor’ which I’d bought specifically because it said it would whip egg whites, but of course that was just an outright lie – blades don’t whip, they just chop.  I did try it out again to see if I’d just got the wrong eggs or something the first time, and no, it just doesn’t do it. So I bought a proper five-quart KitchenAid mixer and tried again. Successful meringue followed.



Then I bought all the ingredients, as set out on this BBC recipe page, watched the program, read all the tips (as on this page and this page) translated from the British oven temps (as on this page) and we cooked the heck out of a Marjolaine.  It’s four layers of a meringue-based thing called dacquoise (egg whites with roasted ground nuts folded in), with layers of buttercream (not American buttercream frosting, egg-yolk buttercream) also with nuts folded in, a layer of ganache (oh, right, that’s the word) then plastered with buttercream, pebble-dashed with nuts and decorated on top with piped ganache and rows of pistachios and slivered almonds.

It worked. The piping’s a bit wobbly,  but the assembly was flawless.  It tasted very nutty, expensive and fattening.  STB reports that it lasted approximately 3 minutes in the work break room.

Cost: $405. (Possibly a bit cheaper if you don’t have to buy a KitchenAid mixer and a piping set.)

*Well, I didn’t mean you.

Sunday, October 23, 2016


I feel I'm living in a cyberpunk book, but not a sexy, fashionable Japanese AI cat-actress one. More a dusty, cold, Junior Anti-Sex League, Ministry of Truth one.

Esquire article: How Russian pulled off the biggest Election hack in US history

Many Americans don't believe things that are true are actually really real, so the 'real' identity of these hackers, and whether the infodumps are 'real' or altered, and whether Wikileak's Assange has been poised by Pamela Anderson's vegan sandwich or whether your internet-connected garage door opener really did participate in bringing down Twitter last week and why Trump facilitates Putin's attempt to destabilize the US...are all moot, really. (Yes, really.)

As Karl Rove once said: 
"Guys like [the reporter documenting this conversation] were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

The article only mentions an old-fashioned mole once, but Arthur Rackham's
illustration of rat and mole is more fun than pictures of Putin. 

In the end leaks are unlikely to matter. Those who don't know there's such a thing as objective reality aren't necessarily going to begin believing in it just because it's in a Wikileaks dump. The overall effect may be for people to stop believing anything they're told, since it doesn't matter.  Unlike in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, where out of date news items are disappeared down the memory hole and corrected news items take their place, whether we've always been at war with Eastasia or not is of no consequence, and whether the chocolate ration is increased or decreased can not be determined by the average person, since the bar size is variable inside the same-size wrapper and price is a tag on the shelf, where it is replaced weekly, not on the package where you can compare it to the last one you bought.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Email prophylaxis for dummies: How not to end up trying to explain to a judge what your email really meant

“Give me six lines written by the most honest man, and I will find enough in there to hang him,” said Cardinal Richelieu, back in the 16th century. (Probably.)

We’ve all seen the revelations gleaned from the hacks of Hillary Clinton’s email, John Podesta’s email and General Colin Powell’s email, among others. What has come to light made my jaw drop – not because it reveals wrongdoing or illegality, but because people in those positions should have known email’s cardinal rule: Don’t write anything in email you don’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times.

This is what we were always taught in the insanely litigious business of healthcare. We were told: read your email through and picture it in the newspaper with your photograph right above it. We were given training on what could be said by email and what should be said in person or on the phone. Here is some of that advice, as well as lessons I learned the hard way. It’s mostly targeted at work emails, but your personal emails could probably do with a review. For example, have you heard of “divorce”? Sometimes computer contents and emails are discoverable during divorce proceedings. A lot of this advice goes for other written communication as well, be it texts, chats or messaging. (Please note this is not legal advice – I am not a lawyer.)

As you read through your emails prior to sending them, bear in mind that a nosy newspaper reader could the least of your worries. Imagine it is being read out loud by a hostile attorney in court. Emails can be, and often are, subject to subpoena, which means they are read (and interpreted without you present) by someone with an incentive to infer the worst possible meaning in something you thought was innocuous.

People often think of emails as completely informal, a sort of everyday talking that magically goes through office walls. This isn’t the case. Many companies have regulations or consent decrees that require them to keep emails for a number of years, and even ones that don’t have regulations tend to keep them around for months or longer. Deleting them from your inbox or sent mail does not delete them from the sender or recipient’s mailbox, and most likely the company, or your cable provider, will keep a copy on their server, so even if the sender and recipients all collude to delete the email, it’s still there, in cyberspace. And then you will be accused of attempting to destroy evidence on top of everything else.

Generally speaking, your company has the right to read any emails that pass through its server – so if you write your bestie in Warehouse about your pick in soon-to-be-mom Valentina’s due-date pool and you make an off-color remark about pregnant women, bear in mind you’re a) illegally betting *and* b) giving the impression you foster a hostile work environment - and your boss can legally read the email from the company server, if they so choose.

If you get your company emails on your own smartphone, check with your company lawyer and get advice on obtaining a work-only phone, as mixing emails may make your entire device – including your Tinder account among other things – subject to subpoena if the company does something untoward.

Since emails are written records, avoid slang and informal writing. Even if it's not company policy, it’s worth putting a “Dear recipient” up top and a “Best regards” at the bottom, if only to remind yourself that you’ve actually written a letter, not yelled something over the top of your cubicle to your golf buddy. Try to compose whole sentences and read them back to see if they still mean what you thought they meant. Occasionally a missing comma or a missing “not”, a double negative or overnegation will alter the meaning. (For example, “It’s impossible to underestimate the impact Larry has had on the company” means that it’s not possible to say how little Larry is worth. That may not be what you meant. Even a hostile lawyer may not be able to make this stick in court, but it will get you laughed at and Larry may feel you did it on purpose…)

Don’t write things that put you, or your company, in a bad light. “This is the third time Fred has screwed up and nobody ever does anything.” Read what you wrote and imagine it in the first paragraph of a Time Magazine expose. Did you really mean to open your company up to a negligence lawsuit? If not, but Fred really is screwing up, pick up the phone, or walk over, and talk to him instead. Or his boss. Or HR. Whatever. Unless you have exhausted other avenues and really believe you now have to put your frustration in writing, don’t email it. If you are a healthcare boss and you get this email, ask yourself if the writer is genuinely trying to help or if he’s setting himself up for a cool couple of mil in whistleblower awards down the line.

Don’t suggest anything illegal, even if you know, and the recipient knows, you’re just being sarcastic or having fun. “He won employee of the month again. Maybe we should just take Simon out…” What does that mean? Kill him, plot to get him fired? Hostile lawyers don’t know what jokes are. Don’t email jokes.

Bear in mind the structure of emails. They have a header, which you probably never see, but techy types can and they tell lawyers and investigators a lot about the sender, recipients, dates and contents. Emails have a subject line, then the body of the email and, quite often if they’re a reply, a quote of the original email at the bottom. A quote. In plain text. Not an attachment, but just the text of what was originally written.

When the sh1t hits the fan, an email will often start getting replied to, forwarded, and sent to new recipients very rapidly. If something terrible is happening – let’s say, someone has lost a newborn baby’s blood specimen – an email with a subject line like “Baby 19089132 sample missing” starts making the rounds. All the problem solvers receive the email, and they each reply. Some invariably hit “reply all” and everyone who received the first email will know what they found. Some will reply only to the initiator or to coordinators. The coordinators will receive some emails but not others, and reply to them. Each will use "reply all" or reply to their favored list of problem solvers, depending on their whim. This means that a few hours into a crisis there could be several hundred emails with the subject line “Baby 19089132 sample missing”, and some of them will contain an indented chain of the text of every email that was sent with that subject line, some will contain most of it, and some will contain a different selection of most of the emails with that subject line. Now imagine that someone about third way down the list in company importance gets a subpoena and whichever one of these email chains she received is the one that ends up in court. Will it tell the whole story? (No, obviously.)

Bear in mind that also, if Baby 19089132 was from Client 6308, it’s quite likely that the next time someone mislays a sample from Client 6308, in order to stress the importance of why we shouldn’t frak off this client yet again, the initiator/coordinator will simply find the original email - “Baby 19089132 sample missing” – write their new complaint at the top (of whichever version of the chain they received) and send it around again. Even if it’s a year later.

So “Baby 19089132 sample missing” may refer to JSH-20310269’s sample being missing a year later and not contain complete information about either. And to make it more complicated, most email programs allow you to change the subject line, delete included emails, add other emails you think are interesting into the middle of the mélange, and even, should you be so inclined, allow you to change any of the text without marking it as changed.

You may have to defend what it appears you wrote about a missing sample in court. Good luck. Hope you didn’t delete any emails from the chain you thought was too long and rambling, add any you thought were informative, or make any remarks about film stars’ asses or change Baltimore area coordinator Matt Hunt’s first name to Mike halfway down a five-page chain because it was très funny and he’d never see it… for the whole year it was careening between servers.

Also, try not to have a common name. My given first name is common enough that there were 23 of us in our company. I’ve had to sit with “our” attorneys working out whether I’m the person referred to in each one of the discovery emails or whether it was one of the other 22, and that was a lot of fun, too.

Companies often use a technique called “brainstorming” where you put every idea you think of on a whiteboard. The coordinator will say, “There’s no such thing as a bad idea!” That’s true on a whiteboard. In email, don’t write down all your bad ideas, unless they’re labeled “bad ideas”.

Bear in mind a lot of email apps have a "BCC" function. It means blind carbon copy for reasons lost in the mists of time, but what it does is send a copy of the email to a person not on the "to" line or on the "CC" line. When you receive an email you can see who it has been sent to besides yourself - except for any BCC recipients. Only the sender knows who else got it. You think your boss isn't in on the conversation? She might be - she might be being BCC'd.  And your return emails may be being forwarded to her without your knowledge. And even more likely, your emails are being sent to Saks Fifth Avenue credit card help desk, because your recipient just tried to forward it to the warehouse guy, whose name is Saxon, Andrew, from their email address list, got it nearly right and didn't read it before sending, due to not having read my helpful advice.

Your company may have a way of classifying private or secure emails. If they do, follow it. In may involve putting a (c) in the subject line and a long thing in the footer of an email (sometimes called the signature file) that states the email was confidential, intended only for the person named in the “to” line and if you are some random guy who got hold of it by accident, you should contact the company and delete the email. I refer you to your company attorney about what to use and whether it is actually binding. You should be aware, however, that if you and RivalCo have a sanctioned, legal email conversation back and forth, the footer of the email could fill up with two, four, six, eight iterations of your and their confidentiality notice as the thread progresses. What might this mean? Your attorney will be happy to discuss this question. And remember that no matter how many confidential notices may have stacked up at the bottom there, it won’t stop Jeff in Purchasing from forwarding the whole five-page long shebang to RivalCo’s entire hundred-strong accounts payable department by accident, while trying to find and attach a recipe for eel pie and send it to his wife.

Lastly, attorney-client privilege. Discussions between you and your attorney are private, and can’t be used in court. Your attorney, or your company attorney, can give you some wording to put in the subject line and in the body of your email that privileges the email in this way. It will be something like, “Attorney-Client Privileged Communication”.

Even so, if you and your attorney are working on a document and you attach the draft to the email, it isn’t covered by an email subject line privilege statement, and it should contain its own wording, along the lines of “Attorney-Client Privileged Work Product” as a header inside the document. Check with your attorney what wording you should use.

If you fail to privilege a communication properly, expect it to be read out in court. On the other hand, if you’re just spit-balling some stuff that might not pass legal muster and sending it to your boss, don’t think that putting your company attorney on the “cc” line and adding “Attorney-Client Privilege” to the subject line will protect you. For obvious reasons, the law requires you to be actually communicating with the lawyer before you claim attorney-client privilege. You should maybe ask them before you start with the cc’ing. 

Sometimes, emails and/or attachments sent to government agencies will be sent out to anyone requesting to see them through the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act.) If your emails and their attachments are confidential, discuss this with the agency over the phone and find out what confidentiality wording will prevent them doing this. You don't want to lose a patent because you emailed your invention at their request to the government, and RivalCo got hold of it.

Here’s some examples of problematic statements.

Jim says his team is behind schedule because Tanya is acting like a child again and not freeing up IT resources.

What you meant: The status report is being sent to Tanya’s ex and you wanted to curry favor with him by pointedly wording your status report. How this reads: Your company is dysfunctional and its processes are broken. If your customer sues you, this isn’t going to go well.

Nightbat, Inc. are developing the same sort of device Jim and Dave are working on.

What you meant: You read something on a Reddit Ask Me Anything and put two and two together. How this reads: You are performing industrial espionage and you’ll be lucky to find employment in future.

If Jack does that again, I’ll get mad. These things put patients at risk!

What you meant: You should tell Jack how important his role is in patient safety. How this reads: Jack has already put a patient at risk and looks like nobody did anything about it at the time. Please sue my company for negligence.

Remember: Would it look good on the front page of the New York Times with your picture above it?


Here is an article by Micah Lee on email security, passwords and that type of thing. Useful for personal emails, but may not be possible for work emails.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Searching for a perfect search function

Financial Times Magazine article: There’s magic in mess: why you should embrace a disorderly desk

This article on how to organize information-slugs (like emails or documents) reads like a nightmare dreamwalk through the past 25 years of my working for one company. After describing Borges' classification system in the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, the writer, Tim Harford, says:

Borges’s joke has a point: categories are difficult. Distinctions that seem practically useful — who owns what, who did what, what might make a tasty supper — are utterly unusable when taken as a whole. The problem is harder still when we must file many incoming emails an hour, building folder structures that need to make sense months or years down the line. Borgesian email folders might include: a) coming from the boss, b) tedious, c) containing appointments, d) sent to the entire company, e) urgent, f) sexually explicit, g) complaints, h) personal, i) pertaining to the year-end review, and j) about to exceed the memory allocation on the server.

For what it's worth, although I'd never previously heard of Noguchi or those who improved on his method, for paper documents I used a similar method I called Mulching. I put the document I last used on the top of my pile. Every quarter or so, I'd throw away the bottom of the pile, as it had mulched. This works perfectly, and I recommend it. It also has the advantage that if you are hacked, subpoena'ed, or merely cornered and questioned, you can honestly say you don't still have the document because it wasn't important. (For documents other people also used, I would file them using their own version of the Borgesian systems described in the article.)

I never found a good way to organize emails, and Outlook's search function was useless. I used to chew my minions out for leaving everything in their inbox and not sorting everything into folders with jolly useful titles like "Mikes project" or "Human Resources guff" but for the reasons given in the quoted article, that barely works and eventually I began to simply bung emails I'd already acted upon into a folder labeled with the month and the word 'read'. I couldn't find anything easily but neither could they, so I felt justified. Now I've retired, Outlook's search is much better, so simply leaving everything in the inbox would work very well, corporate server mailbox size limitations permitting. (And, obvs, subpoena-danger permitting.) I gather Gmail is just as good. (I hear heads around me exploding as they work through "Just as good! It's a bajillion times better. Why I oughta...")

My current problem is organizing links. There used to be a Google function that remembered every word you'd ever read on the web as well as every word on your computer, in order that you could search both at once in the Google query box - Google Desktop Search. That was phenomenally useful, but it went away for totally spurious reasons a few years ago. For a while I saved all the text on every page I thought would come in useful so I could search it, but that took forever, took up disk space and I often found that a page I thought I'd never need again became vitally important in a "someone is wrong on the internet!" episode shortly afterwards. So I've given up grabbing and saving every web page I like (which has led to problems after the links break, which they often do). I've programmed a Chrome extension to search history or bookmarks with a single keystroke, which helps, but like many people (or is it only people who were brought up on physical books?) my memory doesn't retain many keywords or titles, but rather the layout of information on the page, its spatial location, which is impossible to search for. (Get on it, Google!) Chrome also refuses to put bookmarks in two or more folders, even though, as the article mentions, many documents do not sort neatly into a single named bin.

The article doesn't really have any answers, but it'll save you the 25 year info-sorting journey I had at work.


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