Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 3, 2012

After programming computers for 44 years, I am finally retiring

Filed under: computers — louisproyect @ 6:38 pm

I should add that of those 44 years about half have been spent at Columbia University. While the university is most certainly a capitalist institution, it was a much better place than some of the truly scumbag institutions that have employed me over the years including Metropolitan Life, the First National Bank of Boston, Texas Commerce Bank, Salomon Brothers, and Goldman-Sachs.

A recent article in the NY Times by Ben Ratliff captured my feelings about working here:

The heat comes quickly in the summer. By early June, working at home with no air-conditioning, I have no concentration. Everything feels close and impolite and loud.

So I go to Butler Library, on the southern end of Columbia’s campus in Morningside Heights. What began as a diversion has become a self-preserving summer thing: not just Butler, but the Butler stacks, the stillness capital of my imagination…

Butler is a 1930s neo-Classical hulk. At the front, above 14 columns, runs a list of writers and thinkers; the last is Vergil, and I like that someone long ago took a stand and chose to spell it in the Anglicization closer to his real name, not the more common “Virgil.” It announces: nonsense not spoken here.

In the late ’80s, I’d been there a lot, studying and working as a summer employee. When I turned up at the Library Information office last year, there was much clucking about how I’d graduated so very long ago that they needed a whole other database to find my information. But that’s cool: I am from another time. Pre-air-conditioning.

I had come to work but also to tune myself up. So I split the day. Some for my bosses, some for me. After I met my deadline, writing in the reference room, I walked behind the main desk into the stacks. The Columbia library system owns over 10 million volumes; 1.5 million, humanities and history, live here. I moved around for a few hours in the stillness, looking things up, standing up or crouching the whole time, purely and almost dopily happy.

I’d forgotten. The Butler stacks are in a different sensory category, starting from the threshold: If you’re tall, you bow your head as you pass through the low door frame. They form an enclosed rectangular prism at the center of Butler — no windows, a bit cooler than the rest of the building. Two or three levels of the inner stacks can correspond to one floor of the outer library. All this reinforces the feeling that the stacks are something special: a separate province or a vital inner organ.

Inside there is the deep quiet of protection and near-abandonment. You hear the hum of the lights, turned on as needed; that’s it. There’s a phone to make outgoing calls on the fifth floor. To me the stacks are the most sacred space in the library, yet here nobody’s telling you not to talk. You’re on your own. It’s a situation for adults.

It is hard to explain what having access to Butler meant to someone like me. (As a retiree, I will continue to have access.) At one point, when I was researching the Marxist analysis of Reconstruction, I went over to Butler with the call letter for an Eric Foner book. Once I got to the shelf it resided on, I found another 5 or 6 books that were closely related. In some ways, it is a lot like following hyperlinks through Google except the connections in this case are “brick and mortar”. Being able to pick up the books in your own hands and browse through them is a mind-expanding experience.

The same thing with the library’s online resources like JSTOR, a database of scholarly journal articles that I have relied on over the years. Or Lexis-Nexis, a database of newspaper articles as well as television and radio transcripts. As I told the manager of applications development in Information Technology in a brief informal exit interview, access to such material has been more important to me than medical benefits.

Working at Columbia has also been different from other places on a human level as well. The average age on my project is over 50. Some people came here as a kind of escape from the Wall Street grind while for others it was the only employment opportunity available for the older job hunter. I interviewed here in the summer of 1991 when I was 46 years old and unemployed. I had solid skills but a downsizing financial industry was aggressively pursuing age discrimination policies that made it practically impossible to get a new job.

I got through the interviews with flying colors but was dismayed to discover in the final interview with the IT director that the salary would be about $20,000 less than I was making at Goldman-Sachs. I decided to take the job anyhow because my professional goals had changed. I simply wanted shelter from the storm. At the time there was a term to describe what motivated me: “downshifting”. From Wikipedia:

Downshifting is a social behavior or trend in which individuals live simpler lives to escape from the rat race of obsessive materialism and to reduce the “stress, overtime, and psychological expense that may accompany it.” It emphasizes finding an improved balance between leisure and work and focusing life goals on personal fulfillment and relationship building instead of the all-consuming pursuit of economic success.

Downshifting, as a concept, shares many characteristics with Simple living, but is distinguished, as an alternative form, by its focus on moderate change and concentration on an individual comfort level, a “dip your toes in gently” approach. In the 1990s this new form of Simple living began appearing in the mainstream media and has continually grown in popularity among populations living in industrial societies especially the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia.

Just about everybody on my project team that I have had the good fortune to work with over the years are here for reasons like mine, although none of them spends much time in Butler Library or reading JSTOR articles. They are all over 40 and quite “mellow” in their attitudes. Over the past 10 years at least there has not been a single defection to the financial industry. They all put a premium on a work environment where you are not surrounded by ambitious young fucks wearing pinstripe suits, male or female. Since it is almost impossible to get a promotion here, people are content to do their job and go home in the evening without obsessing over whether they will become a manager or how big their year-end bonus will be.

Although Karl Marx never worked in an office, he obviously had a handle on my world when he wrote the following in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844: “…the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working.”

One guy is fairly typical. He is Bill Thompson who has never worked anywhere except Columbia. He is responsible for the financial systems that reside on the IBM mainframe and I interact with him on a daily basis since files from that system are downloaded to a client-server application that I have supported for most of my time here. But Bill is also a passionate Japan scholar with a particular interest in film. Years ago he was the Asian film curator at Bleecker Street Cinema, one of the city’s outstanding art houses in the 60s and 70s. (Bill was acknowledged in the introduction to Michael Hoover’s “City on Fire: Hong Kong Cinema”, a Marxist film study from Verso.)

This morning Bill approached me to discuss a problem we had with a reconciliation process between the mainframe and the Unix server I support but I told him that I needed to talk to him about something far more important before we troubleshot the reconciliation problem. That was John Woo’s “Red Cliff”, an outstanding costume drama that I will be writing about in a few days. That’s what makes my job interesting. There are people who care about other things than Mammon, not that you are likely to find altars to it at the university outside the Business School.

But the best thing people-wise has been my boss Joan who is a no-nonsense Jamaican-American who came to Columbia around the same time as me and also out of the financial industry. Joan has cut me a lot of slack over the years, never saying a word about my obvious forays into JSTOR or Lexis-Nexis during working hours, let alone blogging as the Unrepentant Marxist. She learned early on that when I have something to do, I do it promptly and without errors. That was the implicit deal I cut with Columbia. They got someone with tons of experience who was being paid a lot less than his market value in the financial industry but who was not trying to set the world on fire. At least she was assured that I was not after her job! I managed to spend 44 years as a programmer without ever becoming a manager, thank god.

As it turned out, the work experience at Columbia was also far more interesting than I had any reason to expect. I was hired as a development methodology coordinator in 1991, a job that reflected the school’s determination to explore new technologies. I had worked with leading-edge systems on Wall Street and they expected me to provide insights into how to use databases, etc.

My responsibilities for most of my time here have been to support the Sybase database underlying the school’s financial system, as well as the Unix environment that the application runs in. There are more specialized groups to support Sybase and Unix but within my application team, I am the first line of support and liaison to the specialists. I also have written hundreds of perl scripts, a language that I have a great affection for unlike Java, an object-oriented language that I spent about three years using and hating every minute of.

If you read the trade press, Java is depicted at the greatest thing since sliced bread (an apt metaphor since sliced bread is actually pretty shitty) but I have always found it perplexing. For example, here’s a description of polymorphism from http://www.artima.com:

There are two good reasons to learn the meaning of polymorphism. First, using such a fancy word in casual conversation makes you sound intelligent. Second, polymorphism provides one of the most useful programming techniques of the object-oriented paradigm. Polymorphism, which etymologically means “many forms,” is the ability to treat an object of any subclass of a base class as if it were an object of the base class. A base class has, therefore, many forms: the base class itself, and any of its subclasses.

If you need to write code that deals with a family of types, the code can ignore type-specific details and just interact with the base type of the family. Even though the code thinks it is sending messages to an object of the base class, the object’s class could actually be the base class or any one of its subclasses. This makes your code easier for you to write and easier for others to understand. It also makes your code extensible, because other subclasses could be added later to the family of types, and objects of those new subclasses would also work with the existing code.


The only word that hits home whenever I read something like this is polymorphism but not in the sense intended by the author.

Polymorphous perversity is a psychoanalytic term for human ability to gain sexual gratification outside socially normative sexual behaviors. Sigmund Freud used this term to describe the normal sexual disposition of humans from infancy to about age five.

Yeah! That’s the kind of polymorphism I’m for, what happens in bed not in IT.

I blame Java for my eye troubles in fact. Around 8 years ago when I was in a training class for Java and feeling all sorts of stress over my inability to grasp polymorphism, overloading, etc., I noticed spots in front of my left eye. It turned out to be a floater, the first episode in a continuing battle with eye diseases. It was the fucking Java, I tell you.

Perl, Sybase and Unix are much more my métier. Perl has adopted object-orientation in the past decade or so but I have been lucky enough to avoid it. I have been blessed by being able to work in a profession that is as much fun most of the time as playing chess.

Computer programming is essentially a game. You write instructions in order to get something to work, even if it as mundane as preparing budgets for Columbia’s financial officers. Like chess, you have to operate within the logic of the game. Getting your program to work gives you the same kind of satisfaction as checkmating your opponent, a pleasure I suppose that is only open to those of us a bit on the anal retentive side.

The other nice thing is that you are constantly learning things. Since technologies are always changing, your mind gets challenged. Most of the time when there’s something I am having trouble figuring out, I go to Google and search for an answer. 99 percent of the time, I come up with the answer. In the old days, before the Internet and when I was working with Cobol mainframe applications, I would ask a co-worker for some advice—an admission that I was not omniscient and not something useful for career advancement at a place like Goldman. Fortunately, by the time I got to Goldman I was a seasoned pro and usually being asked by more junior people how to solve a problem.

The other day I was stymied trying to get a handle on identifying larger files on a given file system on the AIX server I work on. No matter how much digging I did in Google, nothing came up. So I turned to Eric, the Unix specialist who I have relied on over the years, for an answer. I wanted to know what the ten largest files were for a given file system and this was his answer:

find . -xdev -type f -ls | sort -k7nr,7 | head -n 10

You can try this on your Mac when you get home!

I should add that over the next month or so I will be blogging about jobs I have had over the years, starting with my first one at Met Life in 1968. Lots of yucks and valuable insights about my day job as a combination of Dilbert and Bartleby the Scrivener.


  1. Congratulations, Louis. Hopefully there will now be some time for serious writing and publication.

    Comment by Matt — July 3, 2012 @ 6:56 pm

  2. Well, as you know, I don’t share your politics, but I was an undergrad at Columbia, and I share your affection for the Butler stacks. The internet is a great resource, but serendipitous discoveries in the stacks evoke nostalgia for me.

    Enjoy the next phase of your life.

    Comment by Grumpy Old Man — July 3, 2012 @ 7:23 pm

  3. Let’s see: 44 years takes us back to ’68. I gotcha beat. I was programming at Columbia in ’63. There was, I believe, an IBM 7094 in some cave somewhere towards the north end of the campus. But much more fun was programming the IBM 1620, which was the smallest computer available back then. Small is a relative term: with all it accoutrements, it was about the size of a car.

    Here’s a picture of one, but it doesn’t include the separate card printer and keypuncher.

    Programming (in Fortran, a precursor of Basic) was a lot of fun back then. There were very few prepared programs in the “library.” So, at least for the 1620, you had to write a new program for everything. Also, you could catch all-nighters in the Mudd building, where the mini-monster was located. You didn’t just hand in your cards (we programmed on holerith cards) and wait for your program to crash the mainframe. You could run the whole thing yourself. To process a program, which was necessary even to change one character on one card, took about 50 minutes for an average-sized deck.

    Comment by RED DAVE — July 3, 2012 @ 7:37 pm

  4. Congratulations on your impending retirement.

    My first exposure to computer programming was back in high school in the early 1970s. My high school was part of a consortium of schools that time-shared on a DEC PDP-8 machine. That machine supported Basic, Fortran, Focal, Algol, and assembly language. It had a rudimentary operating system called the Monitor. We used teletype machines to interface with it over a telephone connection. Those teletypes were very noisy. You use the teletypes to output your code on to paper tapes, which were pretty greasy. But at least there were no punch cards involved.

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — July 3, 2012 @ 8:07 pm

  5. Mac OS is just NetBSD with lipstick and a wig, so your find . -xdev -type f -ls | sort -k7nr,7 | head -n 10 will work as is. 😉

    Comment by Billy O'Connor — July 3, 2012 @ 10:13 pm

  6. Congratulations!

    Your description of working at Columbia is not that much different than working in the California civil service, as I do, except for the fact that it is a more working class. Here, too, there is a collegiality that is lacking in the private sector. Except for the political appointees, everyone recognizes that they are going to be around each other for awhile, and act accordingly.

    Enjoyed the background and personal perspective of this post.

    Comment by Richard Estes — July 3, 2012 @ 10:44 pm

  7. I can tell you from experience that not working means you will be working more…your time will be s t r e c h e d to the breaking point with people wanting, indeed, demanding your time.People know you are retired “can you come to this meeting…” No more excuses expect “shit, sorry, I got that OTHER meeting…”. Forget about the family and the kids and all that. Not gonna happen.

    Comment by David Walters — July 3, 2012 @ 10:45 pm

  8. Louis, now you join the ranks of those who don’t have to work for a wage. You will enjoy your new occupation!

    Comment by michael yates — July 4, 2012 @ 12:13 am

  9. Now you like most retirees can think about the trains coming down the track: Obamacare taking a chunk out of Medicare, Social Security reductions more likely than ever before, and — if you have had to build up a financial nest egg — a real chance of runaway inflation and dollar/Euro/renminbi collapse.

    But I second M.Y.: Enjoy your new occupation!

    Comment by Charles — July 4, 2012 @ 12:43 am

  10. Congratulations Lou. Live long and prosper!

    Comment by Gary MacLennan — July 4, 2012 @ 3:05 am

  11. Above and beyond some very serious differences of opinion, my sincere wishes for
    a fruitful retirement and my admiration for your fight to rebuild Marxist-centered thinking

    Comment by Reuven Kaminer — July 4, 2012 @ 6:39 am

  12. Congratulations, Louis, and best wishes for a long and productive retirement.

    Comment by Ken MacLeod — July 4, 2012 @ 7:40 am

  13. Congratulations!!
    I look forward to your insightful articles, film reviews, and blogs in the coming years.

    Comment by "Abu Spinoza" — July 4, 2012 @ 8:45 am

  14. Hey… good for you. Take it from me, retirement beats the hell out of working for a living. When I worked, I wanted to live forever so I could enjoy my retirement. When retired, I want to live forever so I can just enjoy living.

    But don’t let this mellow you. Warm and cuddly Proyect? Some contradictions the human mind cannot embrace.

    Comment by sartesian — July 4, 2012 @ 3:25 pm

  15. Congratulations Louis, retirement is a very interesting time for us old lefties. But especially glad to hear that you’ll still have access to resources – especially Nexus-Lexis: so we’ll still be able to get your periodic debunking of inflated nonsense.

    Comment by Brian. S — July 8, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

  16. […] some of you may know, I was a computer programmer for 44 years until my retirement in July 2012. I can’t say that I was any kind of genius but I managed mostly from being fired. […]

    Pingback by WordPressure | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — March 7, 2015 @ 4:46 pm

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