In 2011 right here at The Nervous Breakdown, Duke Haney commented the following about an essay of mine on, among other things, the pop group ABBA:

“I always thought of Agnetha and Frida [the female members of ABBA] as affectless, to the point where I made a joke about them in [Haney’s novel] Banned for Life, something about a German girl having a fixed expression that reminds the narrator of Raggedy Ann or ‘one of those girls in ABBA.’ I remember seeing them on TV when I was a kid, barely moving while lip-syncing their latest chart-buster, as if they were battery-operated mannequins; yet they don’t come across that way to me now. On the contrary, I see emotion flickering in their faces, Agnetha in particular.”

The other day I attempted to write an essay about the human brain and its extraordinary knack for pattern recognition. Brains are capable of identifying complex and subtle relationships between external stimuli that would confuse even the world’s most powerful computer. Our brains are also capable of accessing ancient memories almost instantly, though not with anything like the precision of a computer and its digitally-stored data.

Fudged Resume in a Difficult Economy

Why My Phone Is Probably More Interesting Than You

Skynet was supposed to attain self-awareness last week.

Yep, that Skynet, the fictional global grid of linked computers featured in the Terminator films that started as an automated global defense network intended to reduce human error and swiftly evolved into a renegade global power that fired nukes against Russia, launched a protracted war against human threats and sparked the only cinematic franchise which featured a governor naked. Three times.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (from galaxies that are far, far away), I worked in IT.

I supported a massive financial software system at a billion dollar company that spanned several continents and nearly thirty countries.  I was part of a large international team that was constantly fixing, configuring, and testing the accounting system and then training employees on how to use it.*

From time to time, the software manufacturer would release a bigger and better version of the software package and when that happened, the company would ask us to upgrade the financial system to the latest and greatest version.

The accounting systems of billion dollar companies are monitored and maintained with mind-melting precision.  Whenever you change the tiniest configuration in the most insignificant area of an application, you need to present incontrovertible proof that you have tested the change exhaustively and that having done so, you would wager your children’s eyeballs that in making this teensy little change, you have not fucked up everything all to hell.

To change the whole blessed system is NASA-esque in its complexity.  Such an upgrade is a multi-million dollar project that requires roughly a year of planning, testing, re-configuring, data conversions, etc.

It’s a big fucking deal.

***

The upgrade of our company’s system was an international project coordinated from our corporate headquarters on the east coast, where I worked at the time.

After a year of preparation, we were ready to “go live.”  This meant that we would turn off the company’s financial and manufacturing systems at the end of business on a Friday, and then all hands in the IT department would work around the clock and through the weekend to install the new software, configure it, move all the old data into the new system, and then test the bejesus out of it to  ensure that when our European colleagues showed up for work on Monday morning, all systems were error-free and fully-functional.

The database guys would do their thing all night Friday and all day Saturday.  When the new software was installed, it was time for my team and me to do our thing.

On Sunday morning, my two co-workers and I would march into HQ with bucket-sized coffees and boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts and we would run through a series of test scripts over the course of a few hours.  We would have a TV on somewhere so we could watch football, as the test script process was fairly mindless by this point:  “Click this button,” <check>, “Open this window,” <check>, “Enter a transaction,” <check>, etc.

But as anyone who has ever owned a computer knows, shit will always crash at the worst possible time.

***

Brian, Hammer**, and I all performed similar roles within our team, each specializing in a different area of finance.  We had worked together for a couple of years and we were sarcastic, disrespectful, profane, and apathetic.  And that was just towards the employees we were hired to support.

We arrived on Sunday morning at around nine a.m., ready to go.

The project manager greeted us with, “there’s been a little problem guys.”

He advised that late on Saturday evening, a rather significant step in the upgrade had gone quite disastrously.  He further advised that the delay in troubleshooting this issue had pushed the entire project plan back several hours.

He suggested that we go get some breakfast and be back at noon.

***

Upon arrival at the Irish pub down the street, we noticed that the Sunday brunch menu included drink specials.

“What time do you guys start serving,” asked Brian.

“Eleven,” said our waiter.

At approximately 11:00:15 a.m., the pints hit our table, and two subsequent rounds arrived in quick succession.

We were pretty comfortable in the pub, and with the beers going down like water, we decided to check in with the upgrade team and make sure they still wanted us back at noon.  Hammer called in to the office.

“What?  You’re kidding?  That’s horrible,” Hammer said into his phone while smiling and giving us a thumbs up.  “Two o’clock?  Yeah, OK, we’ll see you then.”  He hung up.

“Yeah, they’re fucked.  Let’s get another round.”

***

We finished a few more rounds and then I opted to run home to check in on my dogs.  Hammer and Brian relocated to another pub near our office, and I agreed to meet them there for one last round before we’d all go to work at two o’clock.

As I drove home from breakfast, it occurred to me that I had no business driving.

It was about 12:30 p.m.

***

When I arrived back at the pub an hour later, Hammer and Brian were steaming drunk.  The empty glasses in front of them told a story that their glassy eyes and slurs confirmed.

I had quite a bit of catching up to do.

“Hey, can we get some Jameson’s chilled over here?” I called out to the bartender before even removing my jacket and sitting down.

By the time I had satisfied myself that I was sufficiently caught up with my colleagues, we learned that while some progress on the upgrade had been made, delays persisted.  Nonetheless, we should report back to the office for a team meeting.

This would have been an appropriate time for us to order a couple baskets of fries and Cokes to sober up before returning to work.

Instead, we agreed, “yeah, we have time for one more.”

***

When we arrived back at the office, the rest of the team was gathered in a semi-circle of swivel chairs in a large, open area of the floor.  The project manager’s horrified expression indicated that he understood how we had spent our day.  Certainly the odor of booze was a strong indicator but if anyone harbored any lingering doubts, it was likely removed when Brian kicked Hammer’s ankle from behind as he walked towards a chair, sending all of Hammer’s two hundred plus pounds crashing to the floor in front of the whole team.

Our total inability to stop laughing at this seemed to somewhat irritate our sober colleagues.

We were advised that the issue would likely soon be resolved and that our testing should begin shortly.  However, the risk of failure was sufficiently high that the vice president of our department was driving in from the suburbs to receive a full briefing.  Should the upgrade fail, he would be required to face the CEO in the morning, hat in hand, to explain why millions of dollars had just been urinated out the window.  In such dire circumstances, terminations would almost certainly ensue.

Therefore our inebriation was met with some concern by both our supervisor and the project manager.

It was suggested that we get some food, in the somewhat likely event that we find ourselves in a team meeting with the vice president.

“Hey, what about the pub at the Marriott next door?” I asked.

***

Our boss was a good-natured, quiet type who generally gave us wide leeway to do our jobs, so long as we eventually got our work done.  However, in the throes of a disaster-plagued upgrade, his patience was thinner than the ice on which we were skating.

He enthusiastically discouraged us from visiting the pub at the Marriott for dinner and suggested we repair to our cubicles to come up with a better choice for dinner- preferably a place without a liquor license.

It was on the way to our cubicles that our vice president arrived on the floor, almost bumping into us.

He took one look at us, shook his head, and said, “You guys should go get some food,” before storming down the hall in search of our boss.

***

While we sat in our cubicles, trying to resolve the food dilemma, Hammer and I indulged in a name-calling contest that ended when he abruptly leapt out of his chair and dove into my cubicle, pile driving me out of my chair, onto the floor, and practically folding me in half.

It felt like my spine was going to snap and so I unleashed a torrent of screams and profanity that generally accompany particularly graphic murders.

Our boss soon careened around the corner to see what had happened.  Unbeknown to the three of us, he, the vice president, and the project manager were in the room across the hall from us, with the door open.  They had been listening to the entire incident.

He glared at us, suggesting that we find something to do that didn’t involve wrestling, and retreated back into his meeting, probably five years older.

***

As we sat in our cubicles, twiddling our thumbs waiting for our blood alcohol contents to decrease, we still had no plan for food.  Brian had been asking where we wanted to eat, but we were ignoring him.  Just because.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the huge un-potted plant fly over the wall from Brian’s cubicle into Hammer’s.  It was a volleyball-sized mass of leaves, vines, and a large clump of roots caked by about five pounds of dry soil that seemed to fly in slow motion.

When Brian inherited his cubicle, there were four potted plants hanging along the side.  These plants were likely never watered, and I doubt if anyone had ever paid attention to them.  Until then.

The plant hit Hammer’s bald head with a dusty thud, sending dirt and leaves everywhere- all over his keyboard, his desk, his clothing, and his floor.

Before I could fully process what had just happened, Hammer calmly stood up, walked over to Brian’s cubicle, removed the rack containing the remaining three plants, and hurled them at Brian, point blank.

Dried soil and profanity flew, and Brian looked like someone had just dumped a wheelbarrow full of dirt on him.  He sprung up and advanced on Hammer.

I had just jumped up and ran over to assess the disaster, when our boss again came storming out of the conference room.

“What the fuck are you guys doing?” he demanded as his final nerves unraveled.  We stood there weaving, slurring, and blaming each other.

Then, releasing his hands from Hammer’s neck, Brian, drunk as a hobo and covered in dirt, looked around and replied without a shred of irony, “You know, Chief- I can’t help but feel partially responsible for this.”

We were asked to leave the building until the executives completed their meeting.

We decided that our only viable option was the bar at the Marriott next door.

***

At ten p.m., we had yet to begin our testing, and the three of us were drinking at the hotel bar, waiting for them to call us back to work.

Suddenly our boss stormed in, pointed at the village of empty beer bottles in front of us and inquired why we were not answering our phone.  He had apparently been calling us for the better part of an hour before finally put two and two together and walking over to the nearest bar to find us.

He directed us to put our beers down and get back to the office, toute de suite.

Brian gamely offered that we’d meet him over there as soon as we finished our beers.

To say that this comment did not go over well would be a spectacular understatement.

We weaved back to the office and began working.

***

Somehow the testing was completed without further incident and the system was turned on just in time for our European colleagues to log in on Monday morning.  Despite all of the excitement, the upgrade was ultimately a success and our group was commended for our diligence and perseverance through the challenges we had endured during the weekend.

Our team even threw a party to celebrate going live.

Our boss eventually forgave us, although on his final day with the company, he admitted that the one time that he ever got really mad at us was when he had to go pull us out of the bar to do our jobs and we said we’d be over as soon as we finished our beers.

I think back on that comment from time to time and feel shitty and embarrassed about how selfish and immature we were that day.  We were disrespectful to our boss, to our colleagues, and to ourselves.  I would have to guess that most people in our shoes would have made very different choices that day- ones that didn’t involve 12 hour drinking binges, wrestling during meetings, and office vandalism.   In fact, when I look back on all the problems that occurred that day and take an honest look at my part in everything, I too can’t help but feel partially responsible.





*To this day I have very little understanding of computers, networks, servers, and the like.  Back then, I didn’t know a UNIX script from a movie script.  I could not install printers, and when people would call my desk looking for help mapping to a network drive, I would change my voice, adopt a vague foreign accent, and replied “Joe’s not here.  You call someone else,” before hanging up and going to lunch.

**Names have been changed

I remember quite clearly, when I was 10 or so, a television commercial for Tylenol. The message went something like this:

“Extra Strength Tylenol has more pain-relieving medicine than Regular Strength Bayer Aspirin.”

I was only 10 years old. I shouldn’t have even been paying attention to the commercials. I should have been playing with my Rubik’s cube while I waited for Magnum, P.I. to come back on. But that commercial pissed me off.

How can they think people would be that stupid? I wondered. Any human being with half a brain isn’t going to be fooled by a statement so clearly misleading.

It turns out people are not only susceptible to misleading marketing, they seem to be drawn to it. Unsubstantiated superlatives appeal to our inner nature. But what nature is that, exactly?

Or consider a study done recently on human adaptive behavior, where groups of people were placed in a room and given a special thermostat to regulate the temperature of the room. The thermostat was set up in such a way that it was not immediately obvious how to regulate the temperature. Most groups did not set up a test to try different methods and use logic to arrive at the correct method. Instead they began to develop almost superstitious beliefs about the thermostat, like if they held it in a certain hand it worked better than another hand. Or if they tapped it three times it would set off a special chip inside that would correctly regulate the temperature.

There are people in this world who want to know how things really work, and they have developed logical ways to arrive at good answers. Many more people, however, just want to feel their way through life. Why is that?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by people that I think too much, analyze too much, that I am too literal. I’ve always been this way. In school I was excellent at math because the methods to arrive at the correct answer were clear. I also took advanced English and composition classes, and I was good at that, too, but when it came to interpreting literature I was not as good, because the answers weren’t discrete. The answer was smeared across a range. The truth could change depending on your position, and this did not come naturally to me.

So, of course, instead of becoming an engineer I decided to be a writer. What? What sense does that make? Well, I always loved to read and was naturally good at composition, and doing math all day sounded really boring to me. But even though I’ve had a little success, I’ve struggled to create great characters because I seem to be missing some understanding of how to render the “feel” part of life.

It’s not that I don’t have emotions. I do have them. I feel them. I often have to look away from people
during sad movies because they make me get all, you know, teary and whatever. But that looking away doesn’t just happen in the movies. I control my emotions in real life as well. I don’t know why. They just seem to add unnecessary complexity to a situation. You ever had a moody boss? An angry parent? Wouldn’t you rather have had rationality in those situations?

When I was single I used to go to bars with a friend of mine who had moved here from Austria. This guy was really literal…I’m talking Vulcan literal. We would have these long conversations about the inherent absurdity of picking up a girl in a bar. Either one of us could chat up a girl in a normal life situation, where there was some inherent subject to discuss. But in a bar there is no context other than “Hi, I’m going to try to pick you up.” We knew the idea was to make small talk, but that was the problem. Neither one of us cared to make small talk. If you didn’t have a concrete reason to talk to someone, why would you? Eventually, of course, I would have enough drinks that I finally would talk to a girl, about whatever, nothing, anything. And it was fine. But why did I have to wait for alcohol to kick in before I could disregard my need to be literal?

To me, information is the most valuable commodity there is. It’s the currency we use to interact with
each other, with the world at large. Without information you can’t do anything. All the stimuli that are
processed by your senses are comprised of information. Without information you don’t even know if you exist.

But when is it good idea to have less information?

I play my best golf when I stop thinking about the mechanics of the swing and just feel it.

We can probably all agree that you can’t have good sex when you think too much.

You can’t enjoy a slice of pizza if you’re worried about how many calories are in it.

There isn’t a math equation to describe love.

Does that mean there are situations in life where we willfully suspend our disbelief?

Love exists in our brains, after all, and while a lot of people may not believe it, there will come a time when that electrochemical process can be mapped. Unless you think God is yanking the strings of the universe and routinely breaking the laws of physics, everything we know can be described by a physical process. Which means everything could eventually be known.

I can hear you right now: Well, I don’t want everything to be known. I don’t want love to be understood discretely even if it’s possible. I want there to be room for magic.

But you must agree we want some things to be known. Before we had knowledge of pathogens, people routinely died for reasons that today would seem absurd. So that sort of information is good, right?

We used to believe the sun was drawn across the sky by a guy in a chariot. We used to believe the Earth was at the center of the universe. But when scientists suggested we weren’t at the center of the universe, they were tried for heresy. Heresy!

Even today there are people who reject mature fields of science like evolution and geology because it doesn’t jibe with their religious beliefs.

I suppose this need to occasionally blot out rational thought emerges from the way our brains are wired. In some ways we are like computers, passing and parsing bits of information, but we also incorporate emotions, which current computers do not. Those emotions can completely override normal information processing, like when you have an orgasm, or when your favorite team wins the Super Bowl. In the most literal sense it may seem absurd to rub your private parts against someone else’s, it may seem ridiculous to watch a bunch of strangers on television throw a ball to each other, but no one can deny the euphoria that can be produced by these activities.

Which is one of the most interesting conundrums of being human. You can try to reduce the world to a
discrete, measurable system, but your brain will always rebel against you, because it cannot divorce itself from emotion.

And what would life be like if it could?

Yesterday I bought some Nike golf balls, and the girl at the cash register asked, “Why are these golf balls so expensive?”

Normally, I would have answered her literally, something about the attributes of the golf balls, or just
smiled and said I didn’t know. But instead I said, with a gleam in my eye, “Because I’m so good.”

She got a kick out of that.

Which I suppose is a small but fitting example of what it means to be human.