Day 11: Spreading Racism

Mass protests in a time of the COVID-19 pandemic: are they foolish gatherings that will only result in spreading the disease?

In an editorial in today’s NY Daily News, the authors make the case that even though protests in response to the execution of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and far too many others, are important because “racism is a deadly virus, too”.

I agree with the sentiment: racism is deadly, and we cannot just sit back and ignore it. But it is the analogy to a virus that really bothers me.

Viruses spread without intent. They do not choose their hosts. They are opportunistic: if a virus lands on a cell that it can infect, it does so. If it doesn’t, it dies. It does not have the capacity to choose.

Racism, however, is not randomly spread. Instead, it is actively taught to each generation. Children listen to their parents, and largely follow the values that they are taught.

When my kids were young and in day care, one of the other kids there called another kid a derogatory racial name. The woman who ran the day care handled it calmly, explaining to the boy why he shouldn’t call people those names. I talked with her about it afterwards, and she said that her grandmother had a phrase she used when she heard kids say ignorant things: “Well, he didn’t just lick that up off the floor!”

In other words, it wasn’t an accident; it wasn’t randomly spread. Instead, someone spoon-fed that to the child.

The only way to combat racism is education. For years most white people thought that the reports of police misconduct and brutality towards blacks was probably just “a few bad apples”, but that most were fair and respectful. Since the advent of ubiquitous video recording, though, those same white people are getting educated about the reality that POC have known for far too long.

And I hope that children growing up today see these protests, with people of all colors coming together to demand that things improve, and take away from this at the very least the concept that Black Lives Matter. They will be better equipped to deal with a racist relative, and refuse to be spoon-fed that bigotry.

Day 10: Missed Opportunity

It’s been a little over 2 months since I became one of the 40 million people in the US who lost their job as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In that time I’ve been reaching out to people in my network, tracking LinkedIn regularly, and keeping an eye out for a new opportunity.

I’ve applied to over a dozen companies, and out of all of those, only one even bothered to write back that they didn’t think I was a good fit for them. For the rest, it was as if my application had been sucked into a black hole.

Until yesterday. I got an email from a well-know tech company saying that they were impressed by my experience, and so we arranged for a video interview with the hiring manager. Finally, it seemed, the world of employment wasn’t looking so bleak!

For the record, it is not my intention to embarrass this company, so I shall not name them. They seemed genuinely interested, and the people I dealt with were both professional and pleasant.

The interview yesterday went well. I was impressed with the hiring manager, who seemed very sharp. I got the impression he was likewise impressed with me, since he told me he would refer me forward to the next phase of the interview process.

A couple of hours later, though, I got a call from someone in HR at this company. The hiring manager had mentioned to him that I was looking for remote work, which I always state clearly up front. It turns out that even though their entire company is working remotely now due to the pandemic, once that’s over they expect everyone to work from one of their offices. In other words, though working remotely has kept the company running, they will not hire anyone who isn’t located where their offices are. As I am not in a position to relocate now (and besides, I love San Antonio!), I politely declined to continue the hiring process. The HR person mentioned that there is talk of opening up the company to hiring remote workers, so I told them that if that ever happens and I’m still available, I would be glad to help them transition to a remote-friendly culture, as I do have a bit of experience with it.

Before the pandemic, it had been very difficult for me to understand why so many tech companies resisted remote work. I suppose its the old “if I can’t see you, how do I know that you’re working?” attitude. But now that they have been forced to do it by circumstances, you’d think that they’d realize that there is no reason not to embrace it, and many reasons to do so:

  • You now have access to a much wider pool of talent
  • Relocation expenses are eliminated for most hires
  • The amount of office space you need to run your business is kept low
  • Processes are documented better
  • Workers are generally happier

One of the supposed advantages of working in an office is the spontaneous conversations that happen – the proverbial “water cooler” discussions. Sure, these can be helpful, but all too often the fruit of those discussions is never recorded. When you work with a distributed team, it forces you to document these things, usually in email or a Google doc. Such documentation is helpful for preventing misunderstandings down the road.

Unfortunately, it seems that many companies are cutting edge of tech, but very slow learners when it comes to hiring remote workers. So I’m back to looking for openings and filling out applications. And that company is back to looking for the talent they need to grow.

Day 9: What Matters

It really sucks to have to dig into this once again, but apparently the statement “Black Lives Matter” is somehow controversial. Why is it so hard for people to hear that phrase and just say “Yup!”? What makes them so resistant to it? Do they hear that and mentally add the word “only” at the beginning, as if the claim is that somehow only black people deserve life?

For those who have trouble with this, or who have friends/family/co-workers with this issue, here’s a simple way of understanding it: imagine that you are at a dinner party. Everyone is seated around the table, and the food starts being served. Plates of food are placed all around, but you notice that they forgot to serve your friend Peter. So you state “Peter needs food”. But instead of the hosts apologizing and getting Peter a plate, they respond with “Everyone needs food!!”.

That’s certainly a completely true statement, but what is the point? Of course everyone needs food; nobody claimed otherwise. You are simply pointing out that at the moment, Peter isn’t getting any food.

Yes, all lives matter. But at the moment, black people are being treated by many police as though their lives don’t. They are getting killed for the most minor of reasons, when there is a reason at all. And when justice is demanded for the police officers who commit these murders, it almost never happens. Time after time, those murderers are let go, simply because they are police, and different rules apply to them.

When we say “Black Lives Matter”, we are saying that we need to address this systemic issue, and address it urgently before any more black people are murdered by the police. Those officers who have been part of these murders shouldn’t be held to a lower standard than that of an average citizen who kills someone; instead, they should be held to a much higher standard.

Let me leave you today with a clip from someone making a very similar case about this topic:

Day 8: Provocation and Patience

Watch this video. This is what an occupying army during a war looks like:

This is a civil police force. I use civil in the sense of “not military”, as their behavior is anything but civil.

Instead of keeping the peace, they are actively provoking an angry response. It is as if their attitude is “ok, we got this cool paramilitary gear – let’s use it!”. This aggressive provocation is also not confined to a few bad groups; instead, we have seen over the past few days that this is representative of police around the country.

They don’t show the entire crowd, but from the bits you could see, they easily outnumber the police 10 to 1. Riot gear or no riot gear, if the crowd was ever angered enough to attack back, they would quickly overwhelm the much smaller police force. That hasn’t happened yet, but it doesn’t take a wild imagination to envision it happening soon.

And while a part of me really wants to see these bastards get what’s coming to them, in the long haul an event like that would be just what the Trump regime needs to declare martial law, suspend civil rights, and get rid of everyone in their way. Trump knows that if he loses the election he will be quickly indicted, and will no longer have presidential privilege to hide behind. I don’t doubt for a second that he would tear up the Constitution and embrace the strongman role if it means never having to give up power.

We just need to hang on for a few months longer, vote out Trump and the entire Republican party, and then we can begin restoring the country. There is a lot that is broken; electing the people who will do that work is the first step.

Day 7: Equipment

I’m deliberately taking a step back from my more political posts of the last few days in order to mentally process the events of the past weekend to get some perspective. Don’t worry, though, I’m sure I’ll be back to political commentary soon!

When people learn I’m a photographer, one of the first questions is invariably “So what kind of camera do you use?”. This is a perfectly understandable question, and also a completely irrelevant one.

When I first started out in photography, I had a friend who was a staff photographer for the city newspaper. He used a Canon F-1, a black-bodied professional camera. I noticed, though, that he used black electrical tape to cover the words ‘Canon’ and ‘F-1’ that were prominently written in white letters. I asked him about the tape, and he said that he got so sick of people seeing it and saying things like “Canon? Why don’t you use Nikon instead?” that he covered up the identifying marks.

A camera is a tool, nothing more. If you want to improve your photographs, buying an expensive new camera, or switching from Brand A to Brand B is not going to help.

I used to golf a lot, not that I was very good at it – I enjoyed being outside with a task to focus on, the company of other men, and, in retrospect, I enjoyed time away from my (now ex-) wife. Golf equipment companies are notorious for marketing expensive new clubs with the promise to hit the ball farther and straighter. But for everyone but the top professionals, it isn’t the club that’s holding you back; it’s your skill. You would be infinitely better off spending that money on lessons with a golf pro than on new clubs. Yet every year golfers spend their money on things that won’t help them improve.

This holds true in so many areas. New tools won’t make your woodworking better, and buying a vintage Stratocaster won’t help you play guitar better. So what will?

In almost all cases, the two things that will help is a good teacher, and lots of practice. The teacher can get you on the right path, and correct you when you stray off of it. You still have to put in the time, though, if you ever want to improve.

So when should you upgrade? When you’ve mastered that equipment, and its limitations are becoming an obvious hindrance to you. Or when different equipment offers functionality that your current equipment doesn’t (and you truly need those functions).

For photography, where you get the most bang for your buck is from better lenses, not camera bodies. Last year I dropped my camera and broke the mount for the zoom lens that was my main workhorse. When I looked for a replacement, I saw that there was a professional version of the lens that had better optics, a wider aperture, and tougher construction. I really considered it, but couldn’t justify spending an extra $1300 on it. So I ended up getting the same model as the one I broke, because as nice as the pro model lens was, I couldn’t see it improving my images enough to justify the cost. Maybe someday when money isn’t a concern…

The best camera in the world is the one you have with you.

Chase Jarvis

The quote above is from a book about iPhone photography. I found out about this book after I had made a similar statement about my realization that I could create some wonderful images with my iPhone, and one of the people I was speaking with mentioned the book. I don’t own the book, but I certainly agree with the sentiment. You can have all the fancy equipment in the world, but if it’s home in your closet when an opportunity presents itself, it doesn’t do you much good.

Which brings me to the answer to my choice of camera: the Olympus OM-D E-M5 II. I was in the market for a DSLR, and looked around at the different options. I read about a new style of mirrorless camera called the Micro 4/3 system, which was significantly smaller and lighter than the full-sized DSLRs. Since my primary mode of work is walking around looking for images, smaller and lighter were big selling points. I read the reviews, and chose Olympus because of its stabilization system, and the M5 as it was the middle choice that balanced features and price. I’ve been very happy with it, and the images I create with it.