Monday, June 21, 2004

ARTICLE: Working Hard, Hardly Working

Working Hard, Hardly Working || kuro5hin.org

By kitten
Tue Jun 15th, 2004 at 09:28:36 AM EST

Three years ago, I was working at a small company as the unofficial IT director / all-purpose computer bitch. I was laid off in early 2003, but to this day, the job presents me with difficulties; namely, that of telling prospective employers what I did, and for that matter, what the company itself did. I have virtually no idea what this company's function was, despite working there for over a year and a half, although I did learn how to spew an amazing amount of marketing jargon without thinking. As for my role there, it was essentially vast tracts of doing absolutely nothing, punctuated erratically by moments of panicking and crisis-defusion, usually involving something truly earth-shattering like the CEO not being able to print her email. When asked by interviewers "What did your company do?" I am forced to mumble vaguaries about consulting and hope they leave the issue alone.

I learned something else at this job -- something besides the ability to keep a straight face while discussing proactive prioritization of mission-critical objectives that will leverage end-to-end supply chains to maximize profit potential in the e-marketplace. I learned that trying to look busy and productive is much more difficult than actually doing work.

The reasoning here is this: If you're actually doing work, you can focus on it, even if you don't like it. When your boss comes round demanding to know what you're up to, you can tell him, show him on the monitor, provide actual progress reports, discuss problems and solutions, and so forth. It may be tedious, depending on what you're doing, but it usually isn't very stressful.

On the other hand, if you have nothing to do, and can't find anything to do, you have to have a prepared list of action items (translation: "things") to talk about when he saunters by your desk and wants to see what you're doing, because for some reason, "nothing" just isn't an appropriate response to the question "What are you working on?" in the corporate world. "Fuck all" and "jack shit" are even less favorable, accurate as they might be.

To compile this list you have to invent plausible-sounding things that don't actually need to be done, which nobody will be able to determine their level of completion, and that nobody really cares about anyway. You have to invent explanations as to why these things need to be done. It's also best if the things you're pretending to do are things your manager won't understand, or that sound so technical or mind-numbingly boring that he won't ask for details. And you have to have have enough of these fake workloads that you can answer the question several times a day without repeating yourself too often over the course of a week. Conjuring up phantom work that fits all of this criteria is a full-time job in and of itself.

But being able to covertly read from your list of falsified action items isn't enough. Sometimes your boss will just wander by on his way somewhere and idly glance at your desk or computer screen, so you have to look like you're doing something as well; evidently, managers don't like to see how much your railgun accuracy has increased in Quake III. You need to find important-looking papers to spread out on your desk, with pen in hand as though you're making corrections in the margins. Ideally you'll also have things that simulate work on your computer screen at any given time: memorandums, spreadsheets, network diagrams. Anything that has a progress bar that increases slowly but visibly is invaluable; I think I must have defragged the drives on every machine in the office in command-line mode at least every other day.

As if all this wasn't enough, you still have to find something to actually do to occupy your time when you aren't fielding questions about what you're not doing.

Most games are out of the question, for obvious reasons. It can be done, but it requires half your attention on the game and half devoted to keeping your eyes and ears open for approaching footsteps so you can alt-tab back to your spreadsheet; it is also too easy to get so far drawn into the environment of rocket launchers, hidden treasures, and enemy defenses that you don't realize your boss is standing behind you until it's too late. IRC is a good choice for some who are able to use the excuse "It's a technical support forum" and be believed, but there are many managers who wouldn't accept this -- and how long can you really stare at an IRC channel and nothing else? Surfing the web is only acceptable if you could plausibly get away with the line, "I'm checking the code on this site to get an idea of how they solved this problem I'm having," but this only really works if you're realistically involved in web development in your company.

In my position, I could get away with both IRC and clomping through the interworldwebnet on a limited basis -- but I couldn't be "asking technical questions to this support group" or "checking javascript code" all the time. I had to find something that would entertain me and not draw undue attention to the fact that all I was really doing was holding the chair to the floor with my ass.

It was about that time that I discovered the joy of screenplays.

I had a lot of movies I just hadn't ever gotten round to seeing. I couldn't watch them at work, but I could do the next best thing and read the scripts for them. They gave me something to do, excercised my mental abilities to some degree, and looked nice and boring (and therefore work-related) on the computer screen. I found that reading screenplays was an incredibly efficient way of devouring a two-hour story, and it gave me a great deal of insight into the actual process of writing scripts for screen and television formats, which is something I was already interested in.

Screenplays are usually easy to find on the net. There are several sites devoted to hosting them or at least giving you links to other places you can find them.

I've been reading a stupid amount of them lately, my interest recently reasserting itself with my acquisition of a Palm IIIe. Screenplays online usually come in one of three formats: pdf, which is obnoxious; plain text, which is the most common; and HTML, which is usually just the plaintext wrapped in pre tags for some reason. With the latter two, I can strip out any HTML code, convert the file into Palm format, and load the entire document onto the Palm, allowing me to read the screenplays anywhere, and with the soothing green backlight I can read in bed without having a 40 watt light shining in my face.

In the past two weeks or so, I've read Gattaca, The Abyss, Lost World, The Matrix, Back To The Future, Men In Black, Total Recall, Alien (all four of them, plus about a dozen unproduced submissions for Alien 3), Neuromancer, Dave, Predator, Blade Runner, Castaway, As Good As It Gets, Ghostbusters, American Beauty, Suburbia, Carnivore, Equilibrium, Independance Day, and a handful of others, with a few dozen more in the queue.

Action movies are difficult to read in screenplay format -- long unbroken narratives about who is shooting at whom and what blows up when. Movies that rely heavily on visual presentation and editing (such as Eternal Sunshine) usually aren't even worth reading, because the effect obviously doesn't translate very well, although you can get a sense of exactly how much directional control the screenwriter has over the final product. I have found that, in general, comedies and light dramas are the easiest to read -- and by easy, I mean that one can get an excellent sense of what the film would be even without having seen it.

The screenplays fall into fairly straightforward but often overlapping categories: Those that are for movies you've seen, those that are for movies you haven't, those that were never produced. There are scripts based on books you've read, scripts based on books you haven't read, scripts based on movies you've seen based on books you haven't read and vice versa -- and then there are the various drafts of scripts in various states of revision.

Sometimes those can be the most illuminating, as you get to watch the progress and evolution of the story, from treatment, to the first few drafts, to the final shooting copy. Delving into this area is not for the weak of heart -- some of the most beloved movies started out as utter abominations.

Take Star Wars, for instance. The first draft was entitled "Adventures of the Starkiller" and was about a boy named Luke Starkiller. Most of the intended film had him mucking about on a planet -- not Tatooine -- and whining to his buddy Biggs. Darth Vader wasn't Luke's father and wasn't what we've come to know as the Sith -- he was just some vaguely mean-spirited guy who could do magic tricks. Leia wasn't a princess -- she was just eye candy that still lived at Uncle Owen's house (Owen is a Jedi, by the way). Jedis were called "Bendus", their power comes from some kind of stupid crystal, and all the stormtroopers had lightsabres. My friends and I have a running joke about Lucas' inability to write, and the early drafts seem to vindicate our theories. A sample of this garbage:

I am Lord Darth Vader, first Knight of the Sith, and right hand to His Eminence Prince Espaa Valorum, the Master of the Bogan. You will not mock me, or my Master; for the Ashla is weak, and the FORCE OF OTHERS cannot save you now...

Truly, it makes me want to cringe.

Back To The Future was just as bad. Marty and Doc aren't friends -- Doc is just some crazy old guy Marty uses to make bootleg videos for sale. Doc invents a time machine out of a refrigerator, powered by Coca Cola, and gets shot by the FBI instead of Libyans. Instead of a dog named Einstein he has a monkey named Shemp. There is no 88 miles per hour, and the line "One point twenty one gigawatts! Great Scott!" was originally "4200 rads? Good god!" which doesn't quite have the same impact. Marty eventually returns to 1982 by driving the fridge to a nuclear bomb test site and waiting for the bomb to blow up. As we know, when he returns in the film, everything is more or less the same, except that Marty's father is more confident and thus more successful in life. But in the script, Marty's return sees a sort of 1940s alt-future, with servant robots, 62 states of America, flying cars, time-travel wars, and everyone is still listening to Perry Como and dancing the mambo. As for his experience in 1955, it bears only the most passing resemblance to the film version, thank the gods.

In fact, this script is so mind-bogglingly terrible that I'm amazed it got produced at all. I'm afraid that if I were in charge of the studio at the time, and this screenplay came across my desk, I would have had the writer dragged into my office and executed on the spot.

But as I said, this is all part of the experience of script-reading -- watching the changes made, the revisions and alterations, and the overall evolution of the idea from original treatment to final film. If you have even a passing interest in looking behind the scenes at the driving mechanisms of this type of storytelling, do yourself a favor and download some screenplays.

And if you have no interest at all in the art of filmmaking, it'll at least give you something to do at work when you aren't shifting your paradigm.

Hundreds of scripts to peruse, from popular to obscure to unproduced.
Plenty of others in various formats.
Dozens more, mostly science fiction and fantasy.
Look here if you can't find the one you want anywhere else.


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