enough parsable content
Thursday, January 28 2010
Today I carpooled with Gretchen down to Eastern Correctional Facility again to attempt the upgrade of a web application for the student computer lab. It's the same job I'd attempted the last time I tried to do work there, only this time I'd done my homework. And, just this once, I managed to pull it off with total success. I made my working environment as pleasant as possible by installing my favorite text editor on the server and then putting together a makeshift desk using a chair and a wooden boxlike object (the server is in a cage, all the tables are bolted to the floor, and there is no table near the cage). This is typical of work inside a prison; you can't think of everything before you go in and in any case bureaucratic hurdles are high, so you find yourself having to whittle screwdrivers from ballpoint pens and making coffee mugs from toilet paper, just like the inmates.
Despite my attempts to make my temporary workstation comfortable, it fell far short of the utterly non-distracting environment of my laboratory, where, if I need to focus, I can crank up some familiar music and tune out the world. The problem was mainly that there were some prisoner-inmates in there with me, and, because we're between semesters, they weren't particularly focused on work. So they were gossiping about this and that, often breaking into gales of laughter. None of what they were saying was especially interesting and much of it was lost in the room's terrible echoing acoustics, but there was enough parsable content to be distracting. These inmates are never anything but courteous, helpful, and nice to me, but I was in their world and have a lot of advantages back in my own, so it didn't seem like my place to tell them that I needed the silence necessary to focus on the task at hand (even though they would have complied with any request I made). So I struggled through despite the distractions. This meant that I kept finding myself staring blankly at the screen wondering what the fuck I was planning to do next. Installing a web server and then configuring a web application to run on it is a process that varies with every platform and application and has its own unique set of steps, some of which must be inserted based on the outcome of others. It's easy to swamp short-term memory under even the best circumstances. But these circumstances were far from the best. I felt like the intelligent character in Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron," who lives in a pro-equality dystopia and so is rendered "normal" by a piercing sound that goes off in his ears at regular intervals. At one point during a period of mental blankness, I actually wondered if I was up to the task at hand. But, as I said, I did manage to complete the job. I moved the application (a database-driven system for delivering course materials) from the "Web Server," a machine that seems to be falling apart at the basic level of its hardware, to the "File Server," a machine that hosts the students' work. I also updated it with materials from the latest academic year.
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