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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Backstory 

MLWN and I met because I had a job writing software for an Anthropology professor at UCSB and she was an Anthro grad student. But, you, the internets, ask, why were you working for said Anthro professor, Hank? Well there's a story in that.

I was, at the time, working on my Master's in Computer Engineering. I was interested in having a bit of spending money, but at the same time preserving my study time as well. At the beginning of the school year I applied for a job in the undergrad computer lab. This job involved sitting in the lab for a few hours a week and helping undergrads with the computers. Now these were, mostly, not Comp Sci students. They were random people using the computers to write papers, do their stats homework, etc. Lets just say it wasn't the hardest job in the world and after the beginning of the quarter familiarization, it didn't require a lot of actual work. Can you say, "getting paid to study"? I thought you could.

For reasons that I never really figured out, the guy that ran the computer lab just hated the idea that the lab attendants were doing homework in between bouts of undergrad-assisting. So he came up with a plan. The plan, in all its glory, was that all the lab attendants should write either a review of a software package or tutorial on how to use a software package. Each lab attendant was assigned a package and told to write a review or tutorial. Furthermore, we were to work on our project while at work when we were not helping the Users.

Here's the thing, though, the reviews were of software packages that had already been purchased and all the software in the labs already had tutorials available. It was busy work. I was assigned a review of some stats package that was installed on every PC in the lab. I would have actually done the work if it was for an evaluation copy of a package that the lab honchos were considering for purchase; as it was I did my homework and ignored the assignment.

The end of the quarter was fast approaching. One day I was chatting with another lab attendant about the assignment. He was whinging about what a pain it had been to write his. I revealed that I hadn't actually done more than start the stats package one day to see what the interface looked like. He was shocked, shocked I say, to hear this. It turned out that one's employment over Winter Quarter was at least partially contingent on completing the assignment. That put a different complexion on things.

Having about half an hour left in my shift I decided I should write my review. I started off stating what it was I was supposed to do, and then being in a fiesty mood, I launched into 2 page screed about how it was the dumbest thing I had ever been asked to do at any job I had ever had. I further stated that whomever had come up with the idea should be fired forthwith. Then I printed it out and handed it in.

A day or two later I had another shift in the lab. I had been there for a few minutes when the big boss wandered in and asked me to come into his office for a chat. When I got to his office he had my 'review' in his hands. He asked if I had really written it. "Oh my yes," I said. Did I really believe the things I had written in it. "Yes, absolutely," I responded. He was sorry to hear it and fired me on the spot.

Now having a bit of break before my next class I went off campus to get a coffee at the local coffee bar. There I ran into a friend of mine. We chatted. I mentioned that I was currently unemployed. He mentioned that the Anthro professor he worked for was looking for someone to write software for him. Did I want the job? Sure I did. So we finished our coffees and went to the Anthro Department. My interview consisted of my buddy saying, "This is Hank. He writes good software, you should hire him." Chag (for his name was Napoleon Chagnon) said, "OK. Does $8/hour sound good?" It sounded just fine. I started a couple days later.

So I was unemployed for about half an hour and was making more money at the end of the half hour than I was at the beginning. And I was properly positioned to meet MLWN a couple weeks after that. Woo!

The funniest part happened in the Spring. I was at a party and chatting with someone who revealed he worked in the computer lab. I asked if they still had to write those stupid reviews. Yes they did. I said that I had worked there the previous Fall but didn't write an acceptable review and got fired. He was intrigued and asked if I had written something about how it was a stupid assignment and that Big Boss should be fired. I admitted as much. He very nearly did a Wayne's World style "I'm not worthy. I'm not worthy" at me. Somehow copies of my thoughts had been made and were handed around, to much appreciation, to all the lab attendants. I was famous.

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