(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘work

“Take this job and shove it”*…

Chauncey Hare, “Self Portrait at EPA” (1980)

Chauncey Hare hated his job, so he captured the drudgery of office life in order to protest it…

Photography started as a hobby for Chauncey Hare. For 27 years, he worked as a chemical engineer at the Standard Oil Company of California, using his camera to escape the tedium of the office. By 1977, he couldn’t take it anymore. But before he declared himself a “corporate dropout” and committed to art full-time, Hare trained his camera on the world he hoped to leave behind…

“Head of Female Worker Seen Over Office Cubicle, Standard Oil Company of California” (1976–77)
“Office worker seated at a desk, ‘Standard Oil Company of California refinery, Richmond, California’” (1976-77)

Paradoxically, the same medium that once served as a respite from the banality of Hare’s professional life soon came to feel oppressive in its own right. In Quitting Your Day Job, a forthcoming critical biography of Hare, the scholar Robert Slifkin connects Hare’s sly, arresting portraiture to the artist’s critiques of capitalist power structures, including the cultural institutions that embraced him. (Hare won three Guggenheim fellowships, an honor shared only by Ansel Adams and Walker Evans.) The photographer went on to disavow “official art” and accept a part-time job at the Environmental Protection Agency to support himself. A self-portrait from that time [the photo at the top]shows Hare back in an office environment, where a poster hanging on a cubicle wall poses a question that its surroundings implicitly answer: What’s bugging you? By 1985, Hare had given up photography altogether and become a therapist specializing in “work abuse.”…

More of Hare’s remarkable work, and of his equally-remarkable story, at “Under the Fluorescent Lights,” by Hannah Giorgis. See also “These Photographs Were Made in Protest.”

* songwriter David Allan Coe (made famous in a recording by Johnny Paycheck)

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As we gag at our gigs, we might recall that it was on this date in 1911 that the first motion picture “stunt man” was hired, when Lt. Henry “Hap” Arnold, a pioneer military pilot, was brought onto director William J. Humphrey‘s production of The Military Air-Scout to do stunt flying for the film; the two-reeler was released the following December.

Lt. Arnold went on to become an Army General (head of the Army Air Corps) and then the commanding general of the U.S. Air Force; he remains the only person every to hold a five-star rank in two different U.S. military services. On retirement, he helped found both Project RAND, which evolved into one of the world’s largest non-profit global policy think tanks, the RAND Corporation, and Pan American World Airways.

“Hap” Arnold, stunt pilot

Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 30, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Got a big dream, from a small town”*…

Aerial view of John Day, Oregon

Take one isolated, High Desert town (John Day, Oregon), add an abused river, a dying timber industry, and a hotter, drier climate. Then mix in a local leader’s grand, out-of-the-box ideas about rural sustainability. What do you get?

One day in October of 2021, a handful of city leaders in John Day, a small town in rural Oregon, gathered to watch a crane operator set a new bridge. Fashioned from a repurposed railroad car, the bridge spans the John Day River, just blocks from downtown.

Not much else was there that day, aside from some heavy equipment, a freshly poured sidewalk, and piles of concrete and crushed mining tailings. But to the small group that came to watch, the bridge forged connections both physical and symbolic. It was a small piece of a grand vision called the John Day Innovation Gateway—an uncommonly ambitious, multimillion dollar blueprint for a town of just 1,750 residents.

The plan, several years in the making, aimed to restore the river, revive the town’s riverfront, and rebuild the local economy. In doing so, town leaders hoped, the Innovation Gateway would propel John Day into the 21st century with a resilient infrastructure that anticipates the massive changes and challenges brought by climate disruption.

For John Day and many other communities in the western U.S., those challenges include hotter, dryer summers, more intense heatwaves, and dwindling snowpacks, so crucial for water supplies during dry months. These trends are already worsening. In fact, a recent study found that the West’s 22-year “megadrought” is making the region drier than it has been in the last 1,200 years.

To prepare itself for this future, the city of John Day has acquired $26 million (and counting) for its various projects—a staggering amount for a town so small it doesn’t even have a traffic signal. A local newspaper article from 2019 listed no less than 23 projects in various stages, from sidewalk and trail upgrades to plans for a new riverfront hotel and conference center.

All of this activity has excited hope among many John Day residents. Others, however, have been alarmed at the scale of the changes afoot, and the way they’ve been handled. And, as projects have moved from the drawing board to groundbreaking, the protests are growing louder…

Trying to reconcile process with action, the present wrestles with the future; in the middle it all, a determined small town City Manager: “The West’s Rural Visionary,” by Juliet Grable (@JulietGrable) in the always-illuminating @CraftsmanshipQ.

* Lil Wayne

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As we face the future, we might send foresightful birthday greetings to Vilhelm Bjerknes; he was born on this date in 1862. A physicist turned meteorolgist, he helped found the modern practice of weather forecasting. He formulated the primitive equations that are still in use in numerical weather prediction and climate modeling, and he developed the so-called Bergen School of Meteorology, which was successful in advancing weather prediction and meteorology in the early 20th century.

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“Pam, this is from corporate. How many times have I told you that there is a special filing cabinet for things from corporate? Called the waste paper basket!”*…

The subject of this essay emerged by chance. I was researching the history of the U.S. passport, and had spent weeks at the National Archives, struggling through thousands of reels of unindexed microfilm records of 19th-century diplomatic correspondence; then I arrived at the records for 1906. That year, the State Department adopted a numerical filing system. Suddenly, every American diplomatic office began using the same number for passport correspondence, with decimal numbers subdividing issues and cases. Rather than scrolling through microfilm images of bound pages organized chronologically, I could go straight to passport-relevant information that had been gathered in one place.

I soon discovered that I had Elihu Root to thank for making my research easier. A lawyer whose clients included Andrew Carnegie, Root became secretary of state in 1905. But not long after he arrived, the prominent corporate lawyer described himself as “a man trying to conduct the business of a large metropolitan law-firm in the office of a village squire.” The department’s record-keeping practices contributed to his frustration. As was then common in American offices, clerks used press books or copybooks to store incoming and outgoing correspondence in chronologically ordered bound volumes with limited indexing. For Root, the breaking point came when a request for a handful of letters resulted in several bulky volumes appearing on his desk. His response was swift: he demanded that a vertical filing system be adopted; soon the department was using a numerical subject-based filing system housed in filing cabinets.

The shift from bound volumes to filing systems is a milestone in the history of classification; the contemporaneous shift to vertical filing cabinets is a milestone in the history of storage…

It is easy to dismiss the object: a rectilinear stack of four drawers, usually made of metal. With suitable understatement, one design historian has noted that “manufacturers did not address the subject of style with regard to filing units.” The lack of style figures into the filing cabinet’s seeming banality. It is not considered inventive or original; it is simply there, especially in 20th-century office spaces; and this ubiquity, along with the absence of style, perhaps paradoxically contributes to the easy acceptance of its presence, which rarely causes comment…

But if it appears to be banal and pervasive, it cannot be so easily ignored. The filing cabinet does not just store paper; it stores information; and because the modern world depends upon and is indeed defined by information, the filing cabinet must be recognized as critical to the expansion of modernity. In recent years scholars and critics have paid increasing attention to the filing systems used to store and retrieve information critical to government and capitalism, particularly information about people — case dossiers, identification photographs, credit reports, et al. But the focus on filing systems ignores the places where files are stored. Could capitalism, surveillance, and governance have developed in the 20th century without filing cabinets? Of course, but only if there had been another way to store and circulate paper efficiently. The filing cabinet was critical to the infrastructure of 20th-century nation states and financial systems; and, like most infrastructure, it is often overlooked or forgotten, and the labor associated with it minimized or ignored.

The vertical filing cabinet was invented in the United States in the 1890s, and quickly became a fixture throughout North America and around the world. It spread globally because it provided a way to store large amounts of paper so that individual sheets could be retrieved easily. The technique of using drawers for storing a sheet of paper on its long edge was significant because loose papers cannot stand upright on their own. Put another way, the filing cabinet technology enabled loose paper to stand on edge so that more sheets could be stored in less space but still be accessed with minimal difficulty. It allowed loose papers to do the work of paperwork…

The filing cabinet had at least two inventors — and likely several others who remain lost to the historical record. The current accepted version attributes the invention to the Library Bureau, the Boston-based company founded in 1876 by Melvil Dewey, inventor of the eponymous decimal system of library classification. Although the Library Bureau would proudly claim the invention, critical developments happened elsewhere. It was the secretary of a charity organization based in Buffalo, New York, a man identified as Dr. Nathaniel Rosenau, who provided the initial impetus for construction of a vertical filing cabinet. Inspired by the use of cabinets to store index cards on their edges, Rosenau sought a bigger container for papers.

In 1892, he took his idea to the Library Bureau’s Chicago office, which built a prototype. But no matter the inventor, the turn of the 20th century saw the filing cabinet develop as a part of the rapid growth of an office equipment industry in which dozens of companies manufactured practically identical products with little respect for the hundreds of patents issued for products and parts. To underscore their uniqueness and modernity, this industry explicitly labeled its products “equipment,” “appliances,” and “machines” — not furniture. And it made these products indispensable to offices, and thus helped to constitute the office as a “modern” workspace. The office with a vertical filing cabinet was decidedly not a 19th-century office…

The filing cabinet was critical to the information infrastructure of the 20th-century; like most infrastructure, it was usually overlooked– an oversight that Craig Robertson (@craig2robertson) rectifies: “The Filing Cabinet.”

* “Michael Scott,” The Office (Pilot episode)

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As we savor storage, we might spare a thought for Malcolm Purcell McLean; he died on this date in 2001. A transportation entrepreneur, he parlayed his experience as a trucker into the development of the modern shipping container— which revolutionized transport and international trade in the second half of the twentieth century. Containerization led to a significant reduction in the cost of freight transportation by eliminating the need for repeated handling of individual pieces of cargo, and also improved reliability, reduced cargo theft, and cut inventory costs (thus, working capital needs) by shortening transit time.

When McLean died in 1987, then Secretary of Transportation Norm Minetta said:

Malcom revolutionized the maritime industry in the 20th century. His idea for modernizing the loading and unloading of ships, which was previously conducted in much the same way the ancient Phoenicians did 3,000 years ago, has resulted in much safer and less-expensive transport of goods, faster delivery, and better service. We owe so much to a man of vision, “the father of containerization,” Malcolm P. McLean.

In an editorial shortly after his death, the Baltimore Sun wrote that “he ranks next to Robert Fulton as the greatest revolutionary in the history of maritime trade,” and Forbes Magazine called McLean “one of the few men who changed the world.” On the morning of McLean’s funeral, container ships around the world blew their whistles in his honor.

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“An office is a place where dreams come true”*…

Working late at the W.R. Grace Building in NYC, 2019

If You Believe the Headlines, the Office Has Been Dying for Half a Century…

August 1969: “We can now provide each individual with a choice of … working at home, where he can carry out his duties for all his assignments through computer access.” (“You’ll Never Have to Go to Work Again,” Washington Post)

April 1974: “Homework. The word conjures up the overworked executive. But everybody’s doing it. Part time. Full time. Some time.” (“The Home Office: Nice Work If You Can Stand It,” New York Magazine)

May 1982: “One joy of the coming telecommuting age is that people will be able to choose to have virtually no government by congregating with like-minded neighbors.” (“Why Men Die,” The Economist)

April 1989: “We may be at the very end of the tremendous boom in office construction and office rents that was triggered when Napoleon III created the modern city’s prototype in 1860 Paris.” (“Information and the Future of the City,” Wall Street Journal)

July 1990: “Is it possible that the shining new skyscrapers towering proudly above American cities could become the next industrial wasteland, as outmoded as the rusty factories that were the symbols of American productivity a few decades ago?” (“Are Skyscrapers Becoming Obsolete in the Computer Age?” Oregonian)

November 1995: “A few companies have tried ‘hoteling,’ in which office workers are given a space temporarily, on an ‘as-needed’ basis.” (“A U.S. Irony: Demand for Tall Buildings Is in Short Supply,” Chicago Tribune)

February 1996: “Across the US, 500 million square feet of office space stand empty, much of it in skyscrapers built during the 1980s building boom. Some experts are now predicting that this oversupply might never be absorbed.” (“Death of the office?” Irish Times)

October 2001: “More people are asking to work from home, wanting to avoid high-rise offices and be closer to family.” (“Telecommuting From Terror,” San Francisco Chronicle)

September 2014: “On 30 June the business world changed forever. From that date the government gave employees across the UK the legal right to ask for flexible working. For business leaders, including the IT team, this may have been greeted with horror, with visions of desolate offices and a mass exodus of staff, with all kinds of weird-and-wonderful home-working tech requests flooding in.” (“Legal Right to Flexible Working Spells the End of the Office,” Legal Monitor Worldwide)

May 2020: “What will become of the office buildings themselves? There are already concerns that bacteria is building up in their plumbing systems, which were never designed to be left unused for this long, leading to risks like Legionnaires’ disease.” (“The End of the Office As We Know It,” New York Times)…

As we await the verdict on post-pandemic work, a look back at 150 years of cubicles, corner offices, all-nighters, and the holiday party: “Remember the Office?” (soft paywall)

* “Michael Scott,” The Office (Season 5 Episode 13: “Stress Relief”)

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As we contemplate recommencing commuting, we might recall that it was on this date in 1973 that The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd (recorded in Abbey Road Studios) hit number one on the Billboard chart, beginning a record-breaking 741-week chart run (957 weeks in total… so far).

Side Two opened with the band’s first top 10 hit in the U.S., “Money.”

You get a good job with good pay and you’re okay

Money

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 28, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Apparently I lack some particular perversion which today’s employer is seeking”*…

A century ago, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2030, our workweek would be only 15 hours long. What happened? We’ve crossed all the technological thresholds Keynes identified, so why aren’t we living in the economic promised land? Well, if Keynes were here today, he’d probably blame our unshakeable instinct to work. He believed that human beings are cursed, that we have infinite desires, but there aren’t enough resources to satisfy them. As a result, everything is, by definition, scarce. Today, economists refer to this paradox as the “fundamental economic problem,” and they believe it explains our constant will to work. We make and trade resources as a way to bridge the gap between our infinite desires and our limited means.

That may sound like a reasonable theory, but there’s a problem: It doesn’t square with what we now understand about our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Until the 1960s, anthropologists believed hunter-gatherers led short, difficult lives. Only through incremental advancements in technology, the thinking went, were our ancestors able to secure greater wealth, tranquility, and free time. But when anthropologists began studying the world’s remaining hunter-gatherer societies, they came to a striking conclusion: Hunter-gatherer life wasn’t nearly as bad as everybody thought. One anthropologist, for instance, found a tribe that only spent 30 hours a week hunting and doing chores. The rest of the time, they made music, socialized, gossiped, and relaxed. They didn’t spend all their time working to satisfy their infinite desires. In fact, their desires weren’t infinite at all; they were limited, and easy to satisfy. This revelation suggests that the “fundamental economic problem” is not, as Keynes believed, the eternal struggle of the human race. It’s just an unfortunate recent development…

One of five take-aways from Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots, by James Suzman (@anthrowittering), a social anthropologist based in Cambridge, England, where he directs a think tank called Anthropos that uses anthropological tools to solve economic problems. His first book, Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen, draws on the three decades he’s spent living with the Ju/’hoansi, one of the oldest hunter-gatherer societies in the world.

More at Next Big Idea Club (@NextBigIdeaClub): “Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots.”

* John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

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As we rethink the rat race, we might send exquisitely-constructed birthday greetings to a man whose work continues to inspire and amaze, Johann Sebastian Bach; he was born on this date in 1685. Known both for instrumental compositions such as the Brandenburg Concertos and the Goldberg Variations, and for vocal music such as the St Matthew Passion and the Mass in B minor, he sits at the apex of the Baroque period, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 21, 2021 at 1:01 am

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