The Quiet Car

I ride a commuter train to and from work everyday and occasionally I accidentally, regrettably, end up sitting in the quiet car.

If you’re not a commuter you might be unacquainted with the idea of a quiet car. It is what it says it is: a train car where you are supposed to be quiet. No talking. No phone ringing. No music leaking out of your headphones. I call it the train car of silent tension.

A few years ago NJ Transit declared the first and last cars of all morning and evening commuter trains to be quiet cars. They had little signs printed up that read “Quiet Commute” with the “mute” in “commute” highlighted.

I don’t think NJ Transit invented the idea of the quiet car. But their conductors and passengers, well some of them, love to enforce it. Violate the rules in the quiet car and several self-appointed quiet car monitors will put you in your place with a tone of voice that is so sternly condescending that your victorian great grandmother would be right at home.

My problem with the quiet car is that somebody always breaks the rules and gets scolded. And I’m just not the sort of guy who enjoys the sight of one human being being a righteous jerk to another human being. The quiet car is the only place I’ve ever been where it’s ok for adults to act like conceited little kindergarteners.

I can’t concentrate or relax in the quiet car because I’m just waiting for some poor oblivious victim to innocently answer a call, make a comment to a friend, or forget to turn the volume down on their phone.

I think people ride the quiet car not for the quiet but for the chance to rebuke the guilty who transgress the sacred decree of the car of silence. “Thou hast made a peep and thou shalt be most vigorously censored!”

I only ride the quiet car when I have no choice, when the rest of the train is full, when I find myself in not so quiet desperation for a seat.

I’d like to observe that quiet cars were probably a great idea in the 1950s or 60s. But now we have inexpensive headphones. Instead of making everyone uncomfortable you can just pop a pair of headphones on your cranky victorian-minded gray haired noggin and listen to soothing national anthems or the sounds of suburban lawns growing. With the marvelous invention of headphones you can allow the rest of us to catch up with a friend, take an important call, or just take a nap without having to fear a sudden outburst of “Sir! Sir! Miss! Miss! This is the QUIET CAR! You can’t talk here! No Talking!”

But the way, I just want to point out that the quiet car is not only elitist but kind of classist and racist as well. Almost always the rule breaker is Italian or from a non-Waspy culture where talking is what you do when you are sitting next to a friend or family member. But in the quiet car the uptight, my-ancestors-are-better-than-your-ancestors, people rule.

If we must have a quiet car, and it seems they are not going away, then I must insist that we have a shouting car. It’s only fair. In the shouting car people can let out all that tension built up from riding in the quiet car and even TYPE IN ALL CAPS while texting.


How Engineers Will Win

Before reading this, you should read Why Engineers Never Win and Why Engineers Should Win.

Ok, now we’re all caught up.

I’m optimistic. Yes, I know the world is hurting. I see how the people trying to do good often make things worse. I can’t claim to be insightful when I observe how we celebrate buffoonery and berate competency. (At least the Romans got bread with their circuses.)

I’m optimistic because engineers have become poets and code has become poetry.

Every age, every culture, every society is measured by the breath and depth of it’s poetry and the brilliance of it’s poets. This poetry can be visual or musical or sculptural or theatrical or even wordy. Sometimes it’s hard to identify the poetry, hidden behind fashion and fads but it’s there if you look long and hard and unblinking.

A month ago I had an opportunity to visit the Louvre for the first time, in person. I only had a couple of hours so I made beeline for the Ancient Greek sculptures. My mature interest in making art, oops, I mean visual poetry, was born from my experience of the Kourus and Kore gradually coming to life from stiff abstractions in the 7th century BCE to expressive examples of humanity in the 5th century BCE. Walking past these sculptures in the Louvre was like watching a culture awaken from myth to science.

And that same transformation is taking place today: The boxy utilitarian desktop computers of the last decade have become light and glassy iPhones and iPads; The awkward and inflexible HTML websites of yesterday have become elegant and animated HTML5 web apps; CDs and DVDs with hard data limits have become unlimited streams.

We are waking up. Engineers are not arguing for a better world, they are not waiting for the next election or for military action or for protesters to start marching; Engineers are writing new poems that express our better natures in code and chips.

Admittedly, things are a little messy right now. Tech isn’t always used for good. But a program or a device that gives an individual the research and communication power of a corporation or government is inherently good.

Already we have tech poetry that is starting to enable individuals to navigate and bypass complex legal and political boundaries. This is true equality: When you can talk to anyone, anywhere, without permission from anyone else. People are talking to people without adult supervision on Reddit, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Ventrillo, and more. And it’s not the end of the world–rather it’s the start of the world, a new kind of unfettered speech.

Poets know that language both enables communication and limits expression. That why they use novel formulations and metaphors: A great poet breaks free of the constraints imposed by his native tongue.

We can’t solve the problems hurting the world with the tools and languages that created these problems in the first place. But engineers will solve them with ideas that can only be etched in silicon and written in RAM.

Why Engineers Should Win

If you accept my argument that engineers generally don’t win arguments because they tend to rely on reason instead of rhetoric (even if you don’t accept my example that spam is preferable to junk mail) then you’ll be glad to know I have  a prescription for engineers that will help them win arguments.

But before I get to that prescription I’d like to point out two important premises. First, winning arguments is desirable; Second, winning arguments via rhetoric isn’t really winning.

I have some friends in the hacker/engineering community who are simply disgusted and ready to drop out of mainstream society. In many ways they already have. They have their own culture, their own activities, and their own vernacular.

Q: Why did the hacker surrender his spoon but not his fork?

A: Because spooning is privilege but forking is a right.

If you get this joke you’re an engineer (of the hacker persuasion). Don’t ask me to explain it to you 🙂

“Why bother with the muggles if they’re just going to abuse us with their outmoded ideas about sexuality, gender, religion, intellectual property, and what constitutes an worthwhile activity?”

But there are several good reasons for dealing with the main stream, and helping it become more efficient, effective, and generally more happy. The muggles are our parents, brothers, sisters, and children and we owe them something. They are suffering needlessly. If you can help someone but stay your hand that’s just as bad as doing direct harm. These are all excellent but tired arguments. The best reason for engineers to engage society-at-large and start winning arguments is that we don’t have our own private planet. A couple of more Chernobyls, a few more degrees of global warming, a few more years of developing world famine, and it’s game over for all of us.

“Kk” you say, “I grok it. Let’s all go learn rhetoric and NLP and beat the muggles at their own game!”

Unfortunately that happens all the time. I know lots of people who started out as engineers and ended up as salesmen, managers*, and investors. Once you change your thinking patterns to base arguments on rhetorical techniques (winning on style, winning at any cost, winning as an end in itself) you lose the the ability to figure out the reasonable thing to do. Like Stockholm Syndrome once you take up the sword of your enemy you become your enemy.

If we really want to win arguments, we can’t win on mainstream terms, because then we lose. We have to win arguments on our own terms. See if you can guess how before I write  my next post…

* Mea culpa.

Why Engineers Never Win

Our world is full of bad decisions based on convoluted logic in service of irrational preferences. A great example is people who drive into NYC every morning to get to work. Why people sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours polluting the air, wasting fossil fuel, and developing hypertension inducing road rage is beyond me. Another good example is junk mail. I just can’t phantom why the we tolerate a process where perfectly good trees are transformed into trash, and delivered to my mailbox in brightly colored envelops. Every day I simply throw this junk mail away. At least with spam no trees are sacrificed and I can automate filtering it out.

I like to think that if engineers ruled the world driving into NYC and junk mail would be optimized away like inefficient algorithms and duplicated code.

Apparently engineers don’t rule the world. They rule the internet and the desktop–all the virtual worlds–just not the real one.

So why is that? Why do lawyers and managers (like me) and lawmen get elected and listened too? Why do A students work for C students?

It’s a problem of tools. Engineers are taught logic. Lawyers, managers, and lawmen are taught rhetoric. Thus the engineer makes a well reasoned argument based on data and sound scientific principles and gets blown away by a non-engineer making an emotional appeal in the court of public opinion. If engineers used rhetoric to communicate their ideas instead of reason we would not have half as many problems. We would figure out where to store nuclear waste, how to feed more people, provide more health care, and jump start the economy. As a manager I don’t have the answers to these problem but I know several engineers who do.

If we let the engineers win life would not be perfect but it would actually get better via iterative processes, refactoring, and bug fixing. Instead our life degrades. This makes me sad and hopeful too because there is an obvious solution: Engineers of the world: Stop arguing so rationally.

My favorite Monty Python skit is the one about the Argument Clinic:

Python 1: Ah, is this the right room for an argument?

Python 2: I told you once

Python 1: No you haven’t.

Python 2: Yes I have.

Python 1: When?

Python 2: Just now.

This skit is brillant on so many levels. Every engineer should study it to help him or her learn rhetoric. Python 1 is obviously a typical rational engineer. He asks a perfectly good and honest question. Python 2 is obviously a manager. Python 2 answers Python 1’s question with a statement designed to inflame his passions and cloud his senses. By the end of the skit Python 1 has had his argument but feels cheated out of it at the same time. Like asking for technical debt to be addressed and leaving the meeting wondering how you got talked into creating more technical debt to remove the old technical debt.