Coping With Dysgraphia

For Gregory


When I was a senior in high school I had a friend who would borrow one of the novels I carried everywhere with me and casually doodle the most amazing cartoons on the flyleaf. His cartoons were better than the things published in MAD or Cracked. My memory of that time may be a bit hazy now, but they were better to me then. Funnier. I marveled at the effortless way the pictures just came out of his hands, at his ability to draw, to write. It struck me as such a wonderful gift, to be able to take a pen and have it just make the lines you wanted to make and to make only those lines in the ways you saw them in your head.  Freehand artwork, freehand writing, is almost magic in my eyes.

They didn’t have a word for my disability when I was in school. I was never quite like the other children. Teased frequently, I hid in books and stared at my desk, afraid of catching anyone’s eye lest I be subjected to more derision. I didn’t know what made me different, but I knew that I was different all the same. The teasing I was subjected to originated with my second grade teacher who thought it would be a good idea to have the other kids torment me to make me write faster.

In my mind the first and second years of elementary school seem to blur together. It’s hard to separate one form of abuse from another. One of my teachers thought that teasing me was the ticket to getting me to perform. The other one thought that daily corporal punishment was it. Both were dissuaded from their delusions by my parents. The corporal punishment stopped, but the teasing continued until I moved away from that town. I wasn’t to be free of the hangups that this teacher’s cruel methods of instruction inflicted on me until well into adulthood. To this day I remain a public school skeptic largely because of my experiences in school at the hands of the children and this particular teacher, evidence of just how much damage one wrong idea can inflict.

My problems in school were bad enough that the school insisted my parents take me to see a specialist. We went to see the same diagnosticians in Denver two times; once in second grade and again in 5th grade. The school insisted that there was something wrong with me; it wasn’t the teacher, it wasn’t the other children. There was something wrong with me. So my parents paid for the doctors and paid for the travel, and off we went on what was a grand adventure from the perspective of my seven year old self.

I remember the experience because it was such a rare occurrence to be in another place. The Rocky Mountains around Denver were about as different from the grassy plains of Kansas as you can get. It was the first airplane flight I could remember, and it made me love flying. I have a great love of Colorado largely because of the experiences I went through in Denver on those two visits.

The doctors were nice. They gave me various tests. Handwriting tests, drawing tests. Clearly they were looking at motor control in the manner after the time (late 60’s early 70’s) trying to figure out why I couldn’t write well. Writing really hurt. It still hurts. The stupid pencils never went where I wanted them to go. Lines were never straight. Letters were never legible. Cursive? Cursive was a practice in slow torture. Every assignment in school made me suffer in silence; unable to write and yet required to write. Homework went undone. Not because I didn’t want to do it, but because I literally would grow tired from the constant pain of writing and simply pass out on my homework.

My mother doesn’t remember the word dysgraphia being used at the time, but what I was suffering through was distinctly dysgraphic in nature.

I loved to read. Reading and writing are two completely different exercises in the mind. The words would sometimes get tangled up in my head, but the places I could go while reading were so much better than the reality I was facing that I just soldiered on through the occasional confusion. But writing? I flunked a semester of english my sophomore year in high school because half of my grade would be based on a term paper I would be required to write long-hand. The subject of the paper that was selected for me was of no interest to me. I asked the instructor for a different subject more than once, only to be told I would write the paper and to stop arguing about it. In one of my first acts of rebellion I flunked the class rather than spend a week or more in agony only to have the paper rejected because it couldn’t be read.

I have never taken notes in class. When told to take notes I would write a few lines and stop (a trick I learned early. If the page is blank the teacher will notice and scold you) Notes were pointless. By the time I had written down the first sentence I’d have missed the next three sentences. What I learned to do was listen and absorb so that I could repeat what was said almost verbatim, at least briefly. Eventually I learned to synthesize the information internally and was able to rapidly apply it to new problems without ever having to write anything on paper.

I only recently learned that the ability to synthesize data internally is itself a special skill. Most people cannot remember things, cannot apply knowledge, without writing these things down.

Few of my teachers believed that I could do this, that I could absorb and apply knowledge without first committing it to paper. They especially didn’t believe it because I failed so frequently to do anything demonstrative in front of the class. I was afraid to write poorly and so would take far too long at the blackboard to be able to demonstrate anything to anybody.

Even though the specialists who tested me in fifth grade issued written instructions, specific to each teacher about the challenges I was facing learning in a classroom environment, the instructions were discarded as lending favoritism to a child that the school teachers and administration frankly thought was the problem in the first place. My mother was livid at the time and still gets angry talking about the subject. Did they know how much all of this testing cost? Paid for twice over out of my parent’s own pockets? At the insistence of the school? Testing and findings to be discarded as too much trouble to institute, too much trouble to turn into a different teaching model?

What they did instead was slap a label on me. They called me slow.

I carried that label with me from second grade through seventh grade. The label and the torment only stopped at that point because I moved away from my hometown in Western Kansas for a few years; and when I came back to Kansas for my sophomore year of high school it was to a different town, Garden City, and to a different school. I never did spend any significant time in Leoti from that point forward. My nostalgia for the place I long considered home is leavened with ambivalence and rebellion. Rebellion against the label slow.

My sophomore and junior years of rebellion in Kansas under the custody of my father got me sent back to Texas and my mother. The all too familiar plight of children caught up in divorce. Shuttle diplomacy and holidays with the other parent. Custody battles and missed child support payments. From Leoti, Kansas and slow to Stinnett, Texas and rebellion. Garden City, Kansas and missed opportunities to Sweetwater, Texas and make the best of what you have left.

My senior year of high school in the late, hot Texas summer of 1980. My friend and his artwork were also transplants to the town and the school. Since we were both new, we decided to navigate the terrain together. Watch each other’s backs. The counselor lined out the required classes we would need to finish the year and graduate. He and I would be in organic chemistry together. A class we both found so boring that I would read and he would doodle on my books. We also had a few other classes together.

This is small town rural Texas, education isn’t something they spend a lot of money on. In the Kansas high school I had attended the previous year I had automotive mechanics and welding and a virtual smorgasbord of other classes I could have picked through if I had wanted to test my abilities in other areas. In small town Texas I essentially had two elective choices; metal shop and woodshop. Home economics would not be offered to boys. There was an FFA group, but animal husbandry was not my thing even if we had a farm to raise animals on, which we didn’t. When we were unimpressed with the first two options, the counselor did admit that they also had a typing class and technical drafting. These were clearly choices she didn’t think anyone should be interested in. When we went around to talk to the various instructors to see what we might be interested in, I had an epiphany.

An epiphany in the example drawings from the drafting class. Drawings that illustrated how to build things. I had been a model builder for years by that point, but it had never occurred to me that someone had to draw those assembly instructions. It was the drafting equipment. The drafting machines, boards, lead holders, straight-edges and triangles. The realization dawned on me. I didn’t need fine motor control as long as I had an edge to guide the pencil. I could focus on pressure and distance and not worry about direction. Writing? Slow, painful, tedious work; but block lettering gave me the ability to finally be able to communicate what I wanted to say clearly. Leroy lettering guides kept the hands moving, forming the correct shapes.

My mother could not believe I wanted to draw when I came home from school that first day. After everything I had been through, the problems I had writing and communicating all my life. Writing, she told me, was something I always wanted to do. I wanted to tell stories. She would write things down that I asked her to, and then I would meticulously copy each character onto another page. But drawing? She couldn’t figure out what the attraction was. If that was what I wanted to do, she wouldn’t stop me from doing it.

It was another senior class that finally showed me how to write painlessly. Typing. I knew touch typing would be a useful skill because I had already seen my first computer keyboard.

My uncle, Kenneth Zonge, was a genius. No two ways about it, the guy was hands down the smartest man I’d ever met by several orders of magnitude. Smarter than I am by about the same distance. He did early research into electronic mapping of rock strata, using computers to analyze the data and produce results that would tell miners where to dig for various minerals. His company Zonge Engineering and Research still does work in various fields in countries all over the globe. Back in the mid-seventies we went to visit him on a family trip, and he wanted to show off his portable computer.

Still looking for an image of the “Red Baron”

The computer was built into a suburban; as in, it filled the entire inside of the vehicle aside from the driver and passenger seats. You had to open the side doors to get access to the input and output terminals, sitting outside the vehicle in the Arizona heat. As kids, the science went right over our heads, but I do remember that he could type on a keyboard and the computer would print the clearest, most precise letters I had ever seen. It talked back to him. He played a text game for us and we were completely blown away by it.

Presented with the chance to learn how to touch-type as a senior, I took advantage of it. IBM Selectric III’s seem clunky and slow now, and error correction was a pain in the ass. But in the 80’s, for me, it was like being given access to electric light for the first time. I could type whatever I wanted on the keyboard and it would produce exactly what I wanted it to say almost as fast as I could think it. I had never had access to anything like it before. I asked to be able to do my homework in the typing lab, it was so much easier to just type it than it was to write it. I knew I’d never be able to afford a machine of my own, but if I could just be able to work in an office, there would be machines in the office I could use.

The pieces of my future were falling into place before me, whether I knew it or not. My intense interest in architecture could be accessed through drafting for architecture. My inability to write could be bypassed by access to a typewriter. After a year of drafting in high school, and a twelve month technical course at the local campus of TSTI, a twelve-month course that I spent eighteen months completing.

Eighteen months where I was badgered by my advisers. They told me I was a slacker. Told me that I was never going to be able to work in the drafting industry. they tried every way they could think of to get me to quit the course, because all of them knew that I couldn’t draw well enough to make it in the business world. Couldn’t apply myself with enough diligence to produce the work required of a draftsman.

But the instructors at the TSTI campus had taken delivery of a CAD system during my time at the school. And I knew, even if they didn’t, that the computer revolution was on its way. The world that they thought I would have to conform to, to exist in, wasn’t going to be a permanent fixture in my life.

I finally graduated and got my certificate and I went out in the world with my label of slow and my newfound tools, went out to discover the land of design and construction for myself. I went out into the business world and was almost immediately flummoxed by the fact you have to sit still in an office. 

Sitting still drives me absolutely nuts. Give me some decent shoes and rugged clothes, and I’ll spend all day for weeks exploring every inch of ground around me for whatever can be found. I never really thought about it; but I imagine being cooped up inside revisited the torment of school, being asked to engage in rituals I found painful and to gauge facial expressions I found confusing at best, incomprehensible at worst. Maybe I need the physical stimulation to make the mind work.

In any case, the first barrier to office work wasn’t actually the writing and drawing. No, the first barrier was getting over my own internal loathing of sitting still. That took years, longer than it took me to learn to type or to draw with precision. Eventually I learned to tap into what is commonly termed as flow now; and I could draw essentially effortlessly for hours at a time, longer and better than my peers. I had to be more dogged, more persistent. I had to be because I was slower than they were. That is an unpleasant, unavoidable fact.

My hand drawing production rate was much slower. However, because I had to take time to make sure the lines were exactly right, my drawings were also generally of better quality. This is not bragging, this is me relating the feedback that I got from dozens of years of work in the field. Yes, Anthony. Your drawings are beautiful. Can you turn them out faster? The same old label of slow coming back to haunt me.

“You are slow, Anthony.” Sounds like stupid in my ears, and it is meant to sound that way. Yes, I take longer to get there, but it will be worth the trip unlike some draftsmen I won’t mention. That is the line that ran in my head in response. I had to bite that retort back more times than I can count.

I learned to crib graphics as a method of timesaving. I would type or have someone else type notes and affix those transparencies to my drawings. I would draw details in such a way that I could duplicate them easily using a Xerox machine, or wholesale duplication of sheets of work. The whole industry of architecture was undergoing a change as I underwent these changes, but it was the echos  of “you’re slow, Anthony” in my own head that made it imperative that I cut every corner I could in order to turn drawings out as quickly as possible.

In the end, I did it.

Not because I got faster at hand drawing than anybody else. No, all of my peers can sketch rings around me. They always have been and probably always will be able to draw rings around me. The few times I’ve ever had to draw anything by hand in the field I was embarrassed to do so. My contractor friends, men who trusted my drawings implicitly, were always careful to assure me it would be fine, but I know just how childish my scribbles looked.

They were bad, and it was a barrier that kept me from advancing in the field of architecture. More than once I was offered promotion to supervisor or manager and I always balked at it. Why? Because supervisors and managers draw freehand right on the paper, and the draftsman just takes what they draw and cleans it up. I was really good at the clean up part of the process after years of practice. I was never going to be good at the freehand part. That was not something I would be able to do, and deep down in my heart I knew it was a barrier that I could not cross.

What changed things for me was the early exposure to computing at the shoulder of my beloved uncle. The exposure that made me understand the power of computers.

When you draw something in the computer, it can be duplicated endlessly without degrading the copy. The digital world allows you to be able to replicate whatever work you’d done previously by simply copying and pasting. Drawing guides are built in, so shaky handwork is irrelevant. The initial precision was the determining factor of replicability, and I had honed precision to a fine art already. It was just a matter of mastering the new tools.

Since I couldn’t get my employers to see the vision of my uncle’s suburban filled with computer gear, I took it upon myself to enroll in courses at Austin Community College so that I could gain access to the contemporary PC’s of the time (probably 386) while the motor control problem makes me a klutz with hardware, software is just a matter of understanding the logic of the system in a way that allows you to utilize shortcuts built into it. Classes in programming were more than I wanted to deal with and programming itself means little to me still, but breaking the security barriers on the simple GUI’s the school used at the time was child’s play, and I spent a year learning how not to get caught doing things with the computer that weren’t allowed, while learning the reasonably simple (for an experienced draftsman like myself) drawing exercises that I had to produce in order to pass the class.

When the classes were done and I felt prepared for what I saw as the inevitable future, my employers threw me a curveball and bought into a CAD program other than the one I had trained for. While I had spent a year learning AutoCAD, other CAD programs had made inroads in the architecture field and my employers purchased a program called CADvance and hired an operator from outside the firm to run the system.

Side note. It’s nice to know I was actually behind the times when I started my evangelizing for CAD and computers in the architecture sphere. I found this article over at Reanimation Library on Boyd Auger’s 1972 book, The Architect and the Computer quite interesting.  Quite interesting that in 1972 the trend towards digitization was this apparent to anyone, even if they were really only promoting the products they had created to digitize documents.  I really do hate to think that something that I thought was apparent was invisible to everyone else. Clearly, not everyone. /sidenote

Undaunted, I simply learned the far more straightforward command parameters for CADvance. The process took all of three days and I was already (unbeknownst to me) as fast or faster than the outside help my employers had hired. I mastered his system and improved on it before realizing I wasn’t going to be going anywhere in that firm and made the move to another firm. A larger firm that used both systems I already knew.

It was about the time that my new employers adopted a third system Microstation and I mastered that program (with the help of the Wife’s student software discounts, her then ongoing pursuit of an MLIS and her still invaluable proofreading skills. Love you too, dear) and then started helping my co-workers become proficient with this new third system that I began to realize that I wasn’t the slowest person on the floor. In the middle of a monologue of self-criticism about streamlining some process or other, the coworker I was talking to stopped me cold to inform me that you know you are the fastest draftsman on the floor, right? No, I hadn’t known it until he pointed it out.

Liberation from false constraints, from labels you never wanted, never accepted, is a feeling that is hard to describe. Hard to fathom. I will be eternally grateful to my friend and coworker who pointed this fact out to me. It was years of additional work understanding just what it meant to not be seen as slow and stupid. To not have to push back against a negative view, a constraint you internalized and never let go of until long after everyone around you had stopped holding the view and instead were puzzled by what continues to drive you to be faster.

A recurring argument that I had with a few of my supervisors and fellow architects (back when I had a license, back when I was one of them) was the common belief that people aren’t in nature when they aren’t working on a 2D paper surface. The misguided notion that the synthesis of ideas requires a fixed medium (paper) and a writing implement (pencil) to engage the creative brain.

Future architects are explicitly told by some college professors that they “cannot design in a computer environment.” This false limitation being taught to so many students appals me to my core. It invalidates everything about me, my experiences, my pain and trials and eventual triumph. Is it a good thing that I never went to college to learn architecture? Had I followed the traditional route, embarked on a master’s degree in Architecture, I might have had this additional bad information to wrestle with and put behind me. Computer design is wholly artificial and so it can’t be a place to design in.

Hogwash. 

If I accepted this falsehood as truth I would never have embarked on my journey in the first place. I’d be just as disabled and just as hopeless, but with no belief that I could ever be more than that. Paper and pencil are natural to the people who find them natural. If the characters will not flow from you hands using them, find some other medium to express yourself in. All of them are natural. Do what you can do and never apologize for having to take a different road than everybody else. None of them know what experiences you have, what disabilities you will have to cope with. What gifts you might have hiding inside.

This is the end of the story of Coping With Dysgraphia. It only gets me to the middle of my architecture story, a story I still haven’t told fully; beginning, middle or end. That story will have to wait for another muse, another time. My parting thought on the subject of dysgraphia is, I wish I could remember what the subject of that term paper was that I refused to write way back when. When I was a sophomore in Garden City in 1978 flunking out of english class. I could write a whole book on the subject now with the tools we have today. I wonder what kind of story that would have been then if I could have simply been able to do what I do now?

Listening to The Hero’s Journey on the TED radio hour inspired me to put this story into words. Specifically it was the story of Ismael Nazario who was convicted of a crime and sent to Rikers as a teen. There but for grace go I. The difference that the color of your skin can make.

Tumescent Architecture

When you point to a glass cylinder and say proudly, hey my office designed that, I giggle and say it looks like a bong. You turn your head in disgust and shame. You think, obviously she does not understand. What does she know? She is just a writer. She is no architect. She respects vowels, not glass cocks. And then you say now I am designing a lifestyle center, and I ask what is that, and you say it is a place that offers goods and services and retail opportunities and I say you mean like a mall and you say no. It is a lifestyle center. I say it sounds like a mall. I am from the Valley, bitch. I know malls.

Architects, I will not lie, you confuse me. You work sixty, eighty hours a week and yet you are always poor. Why aren’t you buying me a drink? Where is your bounty of riches? Maybe you spent it on merlot. Maybe you spent it on hookers and blow. I cannot be sure. It is a mystery. I will leave that to the scientists to figure out.

Annie Choi – Dear Architects, I am sick of your shit Sept. 3, 2010

I have a few thoughts on this article. One of them is that architects are special people. They are devoted to the constructed environment to unhealthy levels. They obsess over the most minute details that you can imagine (If they don’t, they really aren’t architects) As for the why we never sleep thing, it is a product of automation and the notion that building things can be done without thinking about those things. This is a story I know well as I outline in An Architecture Story.

I once proposed a satirical look at architecture that I thought I might write. I was thinking I would title it Tumescent Architecture. The only feedback that I got on the proposal was from one of the architects that I’m pretty sure liked glass cocks cluttering the landscape. He thought it was a stupid idea. Way, way too obvious. In hindsight, I am quite happy to read that glass cocks are more widely recognized than I thought. This fact saves me the time it would take to write about this problem for myself. Thank you.

The F*heads seem to believe that the only relevant measure of their work is whether they like it, because the opinions of the rest of us don’t matter.

Archdaily

Windows 10

Twitter

I had no problem upgrading to Windows 10, that is the shocking news in this article. I didn’t  loose any data in the change because I haven’t relied on Windows software to do anything aside from run my computer in well over a decade now. I use Chrome or Firefox to surf.  Irfanview to view photos. Google Docs to write documents.

There is malware protection native in Windows 10 as there has been since Windows 7, they just don’t tell you where it is and that it is running anymore unless you go looking for it in notifications; notifications which are now on the taskbar at the bottom of the screen.  In the series of buttons on the notifications bar that comes up when you click on it, you will see one called settings. This can also be found from the Start menu which Microsoft wisely put back after taking it out of Windows 8.

Settings is where all the functions which used to be found in Control Panel are now located. Rather than have some arcane vernacular unique to Windows, Microsoft has elected to make their OS more like the other OS’ on the market making the learning of multiple platforms less tedious.  A wise decision on their part since most people now use an Android variant as their OS.

No one likes change.  The Wife complains every time her software is updated and she is my go to tech for hardware.  I don’t do hardware, but software I have few problems with.  Windows is now more like the other three OS’ that I use.  I find that 10 is a major improvement from 8 or 8.1.  It has been the least painful upgrade I’ve done in a lifetime of using Windows (starting with 2) DOS, Linux and when I’ve been forced to, Apple products.  It found all the drivers necessary to run my hardware before attempting to install new software.  For the FIRST TIME EVER I did not have to go out on another system and track down drivers that would have been available had the OS simply checked in advance before replacing the previous software.  I didn’t have to do anything other than restart the system and everything worked perfectly. I was as shocked as you are right now.

This is my basic rule of thumb when modifying anything on a computer; backup the data! Always backup your data because it will inevitably be lost.  Every single time I’ve upgraded in the past, this has been a true statement.  This is the first time that I felt no pain at all in changing to a new OS. I’m seriously waiting for the other shoe to drop.  It couldn’t possibly be this easy.

I hear your fingernails being dragged through the dirt as you try to desperately cling to the version of Windows you have now. Don’t deny it, you are terrified. Here is a newsflash for you, you will eventually have to upgrade. There is no avoiding it. On the other hand, there is no need to upgrade now. At some point your hardware will fail and you will be stuck using the latest version of whatever, and you’ll wish you had familiarized yourself with the software previously so as to ease the transition.

Here’s a bit of wisdom from my days as an architectural CAD guru. When AutoCAD transitioned to a Windows-based format the pushback from users who liked the DOS-based version was deafening. Professionals in the design business were swearing up and down that they would never switch to the new version; and yet within a year, all of them had changed programs. Some of them changed to non-AutoCAD drawing systems and had to learn a whole new program anyway, but none of them still used AutoCAD 10. There was no point in continuing to use it because the nature of collaborative design dictated that they had to move with the times. They had to do what everyone else was doing or be left behind. Be driven out of business.

Embrace change. That is my advice. Upgrade or switch to using Linux. You’ll thank me for it. 

An Architecture Story

One of the things I always wanted to do from the time I was a small child was write an autobiography. I’m not sure why this was, maybe it was my fascination with reading and my exposure to the autobiographies of Winston Churchill & Bertrand Russell at a young age, but it was something I always wanted to do myself and never managed to do.

Writing an autobiography in longhand was never even a consideration. Dysgraphia saw to that long before I even knew I had it. Writing in a computer interface is magnatudes easier for me, something I utilized to increase my production on the job in earlier years. But being able to work more at architectural design was the other reason that writing an autobiography never materialized until recently.

I was many things before I was afflicted with Meniere’s.  A father.  A husband.  One of a number of siblings; the oldest after our brother was killed in a motorcycle crash at the age of 21. Four of us grew up together, with a fifth who was raised almost as an only child because of the complexities of modern marriage.

I was also an architect for a brief time.

It’s what I knew I wanted to do from when I was a child. I would explore construction sites every time I stumbled across them (still do if I have someone with me to watch my back) built structures with wooden blocks to test them, then carefully disassemble the failed structures to see what caused the failure. Dreamed of being an archaeologist long before the name Indiana Jones was a thing.  All things constructed by humans fascinated me. I would disassemble broken electronics just so I could see what secrets were inside them.  I wanted to know how everything worked.

It was a drafting class I took in high school as a senior that gave me an avenue into my chosen profession. It had never occurred to me that everything man built had to be documented first. This is true even today, especially today, with the ease of design using computer assisted drafting. Even simple projects benefit from time spent designing in advance of construction or fabrication. Every piece of furniture purchased at IKEA has a set of documents to illustrate it’s assemblage; and every page of those documents has to be created by somebody.  The illustrations have to be crafted by somebody with an eye for what perspective will best show how the assembly occurs.

Motorola MOS13

I was one of those people.  I took great pride in my documents. While my name isn’t on any assembly documents for furniture, I did do a stint in a cabinet shop. I worked for a civil engineer for a brief period.  I learned how to pace out yards with reasonable accuracy while carrying a large load of sensitive equipment. But my love was for buildings first and foremost, so the majority of the work I took on was for home designers, builders and architects.  I had a hand in the renovation of the main building for Zilker Gardens here in Austin (my favorite project) I worked on several school buildings. I designed several parking garages. I researched and documented every door in the Motorola MOS 13 building project.  Fifty-four(ish) details in all, just for the doors, including a faraday cage isolation room and an explosion-proof door for hazardous storage.

It takes a college degree to become an architect these days.  If you want to be a structural engineer it takes a degree and 10 years of apprenticeship.  I couldn’t afford college without work, so I took classes for drafting from a local trade school, and eventually ended up moving my family to Austin to be near a university with an architecture program.

When the Wife got pregnant, I gave up the idea of college and taught myself enough architecture to pass the exam, then worked for architecture firms long enough to qualify to take the exam. This was the apprenticeship approach to earning a professional license, a common practice in years gone by.  For centuries apprenticeship was the only way to earn the right to call yourself an engineer or an architect, and  Texas was one of the last states to allow this form of professional training.

I just made it in under the wire, having to retake the only portion of the exam I failed after the new rules went into effect.  Funny thing was, I figured out that I had failed that portion of the exam while reviewing my work walking to the car after the exam ended.  It took 6 months for the state to inform me of this fact, and by the time I went back in to retake the exam the next year it was given on computers instead of requiring applicants to draw everything by hand.

That was how fast computer assisted drawing (CAD) took over the architecture field. I was being told “we’ll never have computers drawing for us” by architects in the field one year, and knowing not one but three different CAD programs within the next 3 to 5 years, and the test to become an architect only offered on the computer shortly after that.

Architecture is a high-pressure field. Lots of time stress. Computers being introduced to the design process increased the time pressure by an order of magnitude, at least.  I always worked long days (10 hours at the shortest) but with CAD the effort to produce drawings became something that could not be easily substantiated until the end of the process and all of the drawings were printed for approval.

Before CAD every drawing was physical and took up space in a drawer somewhere. Every floor plan comprised of multiple sheets of Mylar or vellum, vacuum compressed and reproduced before being sent on for printing.  Drawing production was an expensive process that you didn’t embark on before getting the design of the building pretty thoroughly mapped out.  You wanted as few changes as possible to show up after you started the production documents phase of process.

After CAD, the design phase began to merge with the production phase.  With CAD, construction-like documents could be produced (given setup time to produce templates) in a matter of minutes, not months. You want to increase the size of the building?  No problem. Redesign the entire exterior while the building is under construction? Can do (did do) design began to be something that was almost an afterthought, not a deliberative phase that could take longer than construction itself.

There was an insiders joke about scope-creep that was almost meaningless by the time I left the business; scope-creep being the tendency to keep piling new things into a project, without ever admitting that you are increasing the work performed by the design professional and the construction firm.  With CAD, scope-creep becomes almost impossible to document, since no record of a change exists beyond the date-stamp on the drawing files or taking the time to compare documents line by line to catch changes. With thousands of pages to look over in larger document sets, this is a process that almost never catches all the changes.

WYSIWYG in the flesh

A consequence of this increased workload is that the days for production staff, people like me, got longer.  I went from working 50 hours a week to routinely working in the neighborhood of 80 hours a week.  Sometimes much more in one week (114 I think is my record) if that week contained a deadline near the end of it. Pulling an all-nighter became a thing outside of college, as some of my college educated co-workers noted.  The stress becomes more intense, as the pressure to produce mounts.

That’s when the symptoms started. The loss of hearing came first, long before the other symptoms. Every Spring and every Fall since 1987, I’d suffer migraines and feel pressure in my ears that I couldn’t get rid of. In the late 90’s I started getting feelings of dizziness and disorientation to go with the ear pressure. The tinnitus started to be an everyday thing, not just a Spring/Fall thing.  In 2001 the vertigo and the resultant days of brain fogginess started to be a regular occurance.  I was so blindsided by this betrayal by my own body that I probably even started hallucinating external causes for my problems. The menieres was so bad at my last job that there was not a single week where I wasn’t out for at least a day with vertigo. Sometimes two or three days.  I was able to be commended for producing an entire project’s documents in a single day and get fired for being sick too much all within the same eight month period.  That was the functional end of my architectural working life.

Because my internal balance mechanisms were misfiring so often my body re-circuited my brain, bypassing those faulty balance indicators. There is no other way to describe what has happened to me. I trained myself consciously and subconsciously to ignore certain sensory inputs. I no longer suffer from motion sickness while traveling in a car; when, before, I could not read or even close my eyes in a vehicle without getting queasy. Now I don’t even notice I’m moving if I’m not looking out the window to see it.

I lost a key portion of my architectural talent in that process. I lost my ability to map space internally. This was a skill I developed from coping with dysgraphia, an ability to retain and synthesize data without having to write it down first. Most people cannot do this but I could and I demonstrated it repeatedly. This skill was how I managed to design things entirely in my head and on the computer. I could picture all of a construction project in my head just by studying design sketches and assembling the pieces that would go into creating each and every detail of the project. I could even tell you exactly what tool in which CAD package that you would need to use to achieve the drawing you wanted to create.

Gone now. All gone now. I can’t find my way across town without a map these days, much less be able to effortlessly visualize a construction project. I doubt that the talent I need to create construction drawings will ever come back. I’m starting to accept this, although I don’t know what I will do now that I’m not a CAD guru any longer.

Being out of work, my daily routine since 2005, has been a mixed bag of experiences. I’ve been able to watch my son grow up, something I missed when my daughter was a child.  I was almost never at home when she was awake and spent most of my time with her rocking her back to sleep in the middle of the night.  The major reduction in stress levels means I can go an entire month without a vertigo attack, which is a huge blessing from where I’m sitting.  Treating the remaining symptoms is more about establishing healthy behavioral patterns than it is about anything else.  Eating, sleeping and exercising all in their appropriate quantities.

Having time to fill and not much ability to do more than type on a keyboard has afforded me a chance to at least approximate one of the other lifelong goals of mine.  You are reading a portion of it. I hope it was enjoyable.

Game Distribution Systems; Steamrolled

Ran across an interesting article today Saving Progress: Impulse Buyer in which the author offers praise for Valve and their Steam game delivery system; and it’s ability to effortlessly deliver games to your desktop.

I’ll give the author points for identifying the reason that Valve promotes Steam, to the exclusion of all other methods of game installation. But he fails to unambiguously state what that reason is.

Profit Margin.

I’m a capitalist, I have no problem with profit. What I have a problem with is the continuing saga of limiting the usefulness of a product, even crippling same, for the explicit purposes of increasing profit margins; even when these actions limit the value of the product to the customer. DRM can come in many forms, and relying on Valve and Steam to continue to authorize a program’s use every time you start it will eventually end in your paying for the same game over and over again as their profit margin demands it.

Make no mistake about it, Steam is DRM. If you do not have an active online presence when installing the game from disc (those of us who continue the arcane practice of actually going to brick and mortar stores for our software) you will not be allowed to install, at all. No where on the packaging for The Orange Box or Half Life is this fact revealed, and good luck returning already opened software for a refund. That doesn’t happen, either.

Luckily (or maybe unluckily) we have high speed internet service, and so The Son was able to install his favorite programs and play them ad nauseum. Or he would be able to if Steam didn’t present me with a regular series of challenges based on arcane hardware limitations and failed upgrade problems.

After a few months of being Steamrolled, I’m declaring a moritorium on Steam controlled games in this household. I’ve had enough of re-installing and re-configuring, and then re-re-installing and re-re-configuring Valve games to last me for the rest of my life. The children keep asking me when I’m going to play Half-Life 2 (because, like Doom 3, they watched me play Half Life from the safety of the couch, where the monsters can’t get them. They want to continue the entertainment of watching dad scream in terror when the monsters start eating the back of his head) and my answer is a solid “never”. Never going to play it, because the frustation of making Steam work with Half-Life and the other Valve programs leaves little room for the entertainment that you are supposed to get from gaming. Never mind that I don’t want to get attached to a program that Valve could de-authorise whenever they please, for whatever reason they see fit.

I have a dream. I just want to be able to install a game, and then never have to worry about licensing again. If I were pirating…

[Copying without paying for software. Not really pirating. Pirating involves theft of value by force. Like taking your money and not giving you software that works, for example. Theft of my money is just as much piracy as continued use of a program you have not licensed properly]

…software, it would be that simple. I wouldn’t have to answer to the authors of the program when it came to methods of installation, numbers of installs, or online status when installing. That is what these games developers have to compete with when it comes to rolling out new software. The software may or may not work on my system, I may not get the bug patches, but the price (free) is right for that kind of risk. And I won’t have to listen to children beg me for the advertised games they don’t own, conveniently available through Steam.

No, Valve has found their version of an MMO (and World Of Warcraft, Blizzard’s premiere MMO, is experiencing astronomical profits) and they are milking it for all it’s worth. I just don’t have any need to be treated as a revenue source for game companies that really aren’t doing too bad after all.

The interesting part of the article was the information on other game companies intentions to compete with Steam for customers. Well, they might have one sitting right here.

Impulse claims to be much more open, in keeping with Stardock’s continuing policy of being DRM-free and rewarding the legitimate customer. Recent furores over invasive and overly protective piracy prevention tools has divided the industry, with some favoring the maximum effort possible to stop piracy, while the rest advocating a free system which does not punish the consumer. Stardock, being at the forefront of this movement, consistently promise to never restrict their customers in the name of reducing piracy. By distributing their games online via the same methods as those who steal games, Stardock is banking on the loyalty of their customers and the attractiveness of their product to survive. So far, it is working.

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It sounds good. But it only runs in Windows, a platform that I’ve vowed to abandon, for pretty much the same reasons I don’t approve of Steam. Too many hoops to jump through, too many limitations on what I can do, too much money for what I’m actually getting.

How about a cutting edge gaming system that is platform neutral, like Mozilla? No, I’m not happy about the state of gaming these days, and I don’t see much hope on the horizon. Still, it’s good that there are companies out there that realize treating customers like criminals is not the way to ingender loyalty amongst the endusers. Now lets see if they go the distance.