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Why Criticism Matters

Back in 2014 I wrote a longish blog post about race and sexual violence in the works of Alan Moore. Naturally, people hurled the old critic-silencing questions: “Do you think you can do better than Alan Moore?” and “Why don’t you spend your time making your own art instead of criticizing others?”

Well, for one thing I can’t really claim credit for the criticism of Moore’s work. All I did was aggregate and summarize the criticism I could find, which I did to help put Moore’s comments in an interview in context. But I’ve been wanting to write something about therole of criticism ever since, and I’ve just come across a column by Ta Nehisi Coates, the famed essayist who is now writing the Black Panther comic, that sums it up perfectly:

The feminist critique is in the air now. If my rendition of Black Panther wasn’t created by that critique, it breathed the same air. I can’t really kill off or depower women characters without grappling with Gail Simone. I can’t really think about how women characters are drawn anymore without thinking about the women in Bitch Planet, and how they seem drawn beyond the male gaze.

This is why criticism is important.

It’s not just Coates who was shaped by comics criticism. Moore himself was influenced early in his career by comics criticism, specifically by criticism of Steve Ditko written by novelist Stan Nicholls. In Moore’s own words:

I remember at the time — this would’ve been when I was just starting to get involved in British comics fandom — there was a British fanzine that was published over here by a gentleman called Stan Nichols (who has since gone to write a number of fantasy books). In Stan’s fanzine, Stardock, there was an article called “Propaganda, or Why the Blue Beetle Voted for George Wallace.” [laughter] This was the late-’60s, and British comics fandom had quite a strong hippie element. Despite the fact that Steve Ditko was obviously a hero to the hippies with his psychedelic “Dr. Strange” work and for the teen angst of Spider-Man, Ditko’s politics were obviously very different from those fans. His views were apparent through his portrayals of Mr. A and the protesters or beatniks that occasionally surfaced in his other work. I think this article was the first to actually point out that, yes, Steve Ditko did have a very right-wing agenda (which of course, he’s completely entitled to), but at the time, it was quite interesting, and that probably led to me portraying [Watchmen character] Rorschach as an extremely right-wing character.

In other words, criticism of other people’s work inspired Moore’s portrayal of his most famous character in his most famous work. (I can’t find a copy of the article, but there’s a summary and critique of the critique here.)

Criticism plays other roles as well. Writing criticism is also an important part of many writers’ development — Moore, Grant Morrison and countless others wrote for fanzines early in their careers as they refined their own work. Many well established writers continue to write reviews. Learning to write, or doing any other creative work, involves looking at other people’s work and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work.Critics also play a role in documenting the perceptions of the major works of their time, so that future generations can better understand the way different pieces were understood, and how the understanding of those pieces changed over time.

But mostly I think the important thing is what Coates hit on: criticism helps push the medium forward, even if the creators on the receiving end aren’t receptive (and to be honest, it’s often for the best if creators ignore what the critics say). As I wrote at the time: “I’ve learned a fair amount from reading the criticisms of his work. It’s helping me understand why a domestic violence scene in something I’m writing doesn’t work. I hope that even if Moore doesn’t care to engage in these critiques, other writers can learn from his mistakes.”

Feel free to disagree.


Adapted from my weekly e-mail newsletter.

Do work, not too much, avoid interruptions

Obsessing over productivity is a sickness of a hypercapitalist society. But in a world where you’re only as good as the the amount of work you’ve done in last 168 hours, productivity systems are survival strategies. I’ve obsessively tweaked my own routines and apps over the years to find a workflow that feels natural for me and helps me balance the things I need to do with the things I want to do—not because I’m well organized and productive by nature, but because I need to find intuitive strategies to stay gainfully employed without going nuts or letting my house become filthy to the point of being uninhabitable.

“Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” – Gustave Flaubert*

But what works for you might not work for me, and vice versa. Still, I’ve been trying to figure out if there are some general principles of productivity that can be distilled into a few simple rules, the way Michael Pollan condensed dietary research to “eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” or the way former Marketplace co-host Tess Vigeland condensed personal finance down to just six tips.

Here’s my attempt: do work, not too much, avoid interruptions.

Do Work:

Pollan advises us to avoid what he calls “edible food-like substances”—things like protein bars and microwave dinners and breakfast cereal that resemble food or may contain trace amounts of food but are in fact food substitutes created in laboratories and factories. We all face a large number of work-like activities that can take up our time. Meetings are one of the most complained about. But Internet “research,” social media, reading productivity tips (hey!) and alphabetizing our bookshelves can end up taking up entire days that should be spent doing the actual work we need or want to be doing. Some of this stuff is unavoidable. But it’s toxic when used to justify procrastination on actual work.

Not Too Much:

Although it’s pretty clear that we see diminished returns on physical labor beyond about 40 hours a week, the research is much less clear about how much is too much white collar labor or “information work.” But it is clear that people have a tendency to burn out and 40 hours a week may actually be too much. The exact amounts probably vary from person to person, so it’s up to you to figure out exactly how much work is too much. And even though work-like activities often aren’t work, they usually aren’t recreation either, so they should count towards your limit.

Avoid Interruption

This is probably the hardest part. We all know that multitasking is worse for productivity than smoking weed, but even if we have the discipline to shut off our phones and Internet connections, we can’t necessarily stop bosses, clients or chatty coworkers from interrupting us.

Putting It All Together:

Consider this other oft-cited piece of research: the best violin players aren’t the ones who practice the most hours, but the ones who consistently practice sufficiently challenging pieces every single day. Those players practiced for “only” four hours a day, two sessions of two hours each. In other words, they did actual work (practicing sufficiently challenging violin pieces), but not too much, and they did nothing but practice during those two sessions.

I’m terrible at following this advice, but they’re the principles I keep in mind.

*Thanks to Deb and Willow’s for the quote!

Adapted from my weeklyish newsletter

Who Will Be the Next JG Ballard or William S. Burroughs?

A few years ago Re/Search founder V. Vale asked who the next William S. Burroughs or J.G. Ballard are. “Who are the people alive on the planet who are predicting the future as well as Burroughs and Ballard?” he pondered. What follows is an expansion of my response at the time.

The Next Burroughs or Ballard Won’t Come from an Anglophone Country

The most relevant writers of the 21st century will be those with a unique perspective. Perhaps they’re emerging from nations facing great turbulence, such as Greece, Thailand, Egypt or Honduras. Or maybe they’re from one of the emerging superpowers, Brazil, China and India, who are starting to see the world and its possibilities in a new way. Or maybe they’re from some pocket of the world that we (well, I) don’t think of often, like Bhutan.

The Anglophone world has historically exported more culture than it has imported (or at least imported directly, as opposed to through the lens of cultural appropriation). That was especially true of the pre-internet, pre-social media age. Authors like Umberto Eco, Jorge Borge, Italo Calvino and Haruki Murakami broke through the language barrier, but how many great authors has the world produced whose work quietly went out of print, untranslated and un-exported? The next Philip K. Dick or Ursula K. Le Guin could already be decades into their career and we wouldn’t even know!

The Next Burroughs or Ballard Won’t Necessarily Be a Novelist

Burroughs and Ballard took what had previously been seen as trash media and elevated them to new levels. Burroughs wrote pulp paperbacks. Ballard wrote for sci-fi magazines and pulp paperback publishers. Coum Transmissions, tired of the limited audience for performance art, took on the form of a rock band and subverted it as Throbbing Gristle. Later, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Art Spiegelman, Los Brothers Hernandez and many others did the same with comics.

Video games are the obvious next frontier, and there are already countless experimental indie games out there, enraging reactionary gamers with bizarre new takes on what games can be— a response not unlike academia’s attempts to keep literature “pure” of genre novels.

Brazilian psychotherapist Nicolau Chaud’s disturbing games have a particularly Burroughian or Ballardian flavor. Even the way you play a game could be a work of art, such as Vincent Ocasla’s SimCity solution.

But there’s no reason to think the next great subversive visionary thinker will be a game designer. They could work in any medium, including novels.

The Hell That I Avoided

My biological clock is ticking: I’m fast reaching age at which I will be too old to enlist in the military. It’s a strange thing to be wistful about. One of the biggest reliefs of my life is that I didn’t have to go to Iraq or Afghanistan. But I can’t help but feel a twinge of regret that I won’t ever know the military, which was such a big part of mens’ lives for so much of U.S. history, but is now vanishing into a tiny segment of the society. That’s a good thing, insofar as a smaller military means fewer people have to face the horrors of war. Fewer Americans, anyway. But at the same time, I can’t help but worry about the implications of creating a distinct warrior class.

This is on my mind because last weekend my wife and I watched Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now and Platoon.

As a film, Platoon is the least good but Oliver Stone is the only one of the three who was actually in the war. That seems to have given him a better eye for details that really make you feel like you’re in the middle of a godforsaken jungle, like the ants crawling all over Taylor’s neck in an early scene. It doesn’t have the psychological depth that Apocalypse Now has, but it makes up for that in visceral experience. In terms of sheer craft, Full Metal is the best of the bunch, but it’s lacking the intimacy of experience the other two have. That’s not surprising, given Kubrick’s cold, clinical style. But here it seems out of place. The brutal look at bootcamp, and what it reveals about the philosophy of the Marines, is the only thing it really adds to the conversation. But what what an addition! I hadn’t seen the film since high school, and I recalled the bootcamp portion taking up at least 70 percent of the film. But in reality, it comprises only about 30 percent.

Taken together though, the three films form a large whole, a reflection of the authoritarian hell of bootcamp, the physical hell of the battlefield, and the psychological hell lingers even after you go home. The hell that I avoided, but all too many people live every day.

The Golden Age of Television is Already Over

Everyone says we’re living in the Golden Age of television. Maybe it started with Buffy andThe Sopranos, or maybe with The Wire and Battle Star Galactica. But whenever it started, it’s been a welcome refuge from the movie industry and its never-ending parade of sequels, remakes and adaptations—especially super-hero comic adaptations—all aimed a the lowest common denominator. If you had an idea that warrants an R rating or can’t be shoe-horned into a “franchise,” then your best bet was TV. There you could tell stories with depth, create new characters, take risks. I feel lucky to have been alive when Breaking Bad, Dexter, Justified,Sons of Anarchy, Boardwalk Empire, True Blood, Walking Dead, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones were all in serialization at the same time.

My friend Abe once told me his theory that this is because the TV industry was fighting to maintain relevance in the era of the internet, much as the film industry of the 1970s was struggling to maintain relevance in the era of television. In the 70s and early 80s, the film industry still had gobs of money to spend, and it was willing to spend it on the likes of Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Sidney Lumet and Francis Ford Coppola, giving them the money freedom to do things you just couldn’t do on TV. In the early 2000s to mid-2010s, TV still had gobs of money, but was losing ground to the web. So we got Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire and Orphan Black. That’s probably an oversimplification of what happened (I know Coppola didn’t have all that easy a time making Godfather into the picture he wanted), and I might be misremembering what Abe said. But whatever the reasons, certainly TV has been the place to be in over the past decade or so.

But now look at what’s on tap in in near future. 24, The A-Team, MacGyver, Twin Peaks, Xena,Full House and The X-Files reboots. Shows based on movies ranging from 12 Monkeys toLimitless to Taken. U.S. adaptations of British and Scandinavian shows. Countless super-hero and sci-fi adaptations and endless takes on the small town police procedural. In other words, television is starting to look a bit too much like film. Too many franchises, too many recycled ideas.

It also seems that those still making original dramas are losing sight of what really makes a good show. After Watchmen was released in the 1980s, comic book creators got the idea that “mature” comics just meant a typical superhero serious, but with a hero who killed bad guys instead of just capturing them for the police. By the early 2000s, the industry had decided instead that a mature book meant one with rape scenes, rather than kill-crazed vigilantes, but the depth and moral ambiguity of Watchmen was still lost creators. Now we’re seeing something similar with post-Game of Thrones TV dramas now, where rape, torture, women in refrigerators, and the unexpected deaths of major characters are used as a stand-in for the depth and complexity of shows like Breaking Bad.

It certainly doesn’t mean that there won’t be more good shows. There are still good movies after all. And as more and more networks commit to producing high-quality dramas, we may see even more high quality shows than ever. And many of these adaptations might be good—I’ve heard almost nothing but good things about Jessica Jones and The Man in the High Castle. But you can see where the priorities lie for the studios and the networks. The good old days are over.

Digital Nomads

I can’t be the only one that’s noticed this, but it seems that in the early days of the ‘net, people were digital nomads, wandering from one social network to the next: LiveJournal, the blog-o-sphere, Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. You’d show up on a new social network, link up with a few friends, and enjoy the new space. Gradually people started showing up that you remembered from like two networks back. It was good to hear from them again. Then it would start getting noisy. Then your boss’s mom starts commenting on your stuff and you move on to the next one, where only a few people are and it’s easy to take in your entire feed each day and it feels cool and special but more people start filing in and the whole cycle repeats itself.

But there have been permanent settlements formed along the way. The blogosphere is still around. So is LiveJournal. Heck, so are Usenet and the WELL. And it’s a safe bet that most of the billion people on Facebook didn’t experience this migration. Facebook was their first and perhaps only social network. New digital social spaces come along (Pinterest, Tumblr, Snapchat) but instead of migrating away from Facebook, we tend to supplement it with these new locations. Some of these, like WhatsApp and Instagram, have been annexed by Facebook.

There are lots of reasons to be displeased with this situation. You’re probably familiar with most of them. Facebook’s confusing privacy settings, its real name policy, Zuckerberg’s cavalier attitude about privacy during the earlier days, NSA surveillance, censorship concerns, etc. For years, various people tried to organize mass migrations away from Facebook to alternatives like Diaspora, Google Plus and Ello, while the Indie Web community has urged people to run their own social media sites and syndicate content out to the big “silos.” But it seems few people are going anywhere. Many people quit Facebook in protest, only to return months, or even days, later, usually because they realize how much their meatspace social circuit depends on Facebook for communication. I occasionally read that teens don’t use or like Facebook, but I treat these stories skeptically. Facebook, it seems, has become the first complex state of the internet. Exit has largely failed as strategy to counteract its force. So voice, increasingly through the power of “real” states like the European Union, seems to be the new way to fight back. I’m still not convinced it’s the best way, but it does seem to be where we’re at.

Adapted from recent email conversations and originally published in my newsletter

We Fear They Might Be Right

My friend Tom likes to ask people two questions this time of year: 1) What is your favorite monster? 2) What monster do you find the scariest? The idea is that you can learn a lot about someone based on their answers. For example, if I recall correctly, Tom’s favorite and most feared monster is the werewolf. That means he’s afraid of what’s within, afraid that he himself could become a monster, could lose control.

Number one was easy for me to answer: Frankenstein’s monster is my favorite. Number two is harder. I don’t actually find fictional or mythical monsters scary. So Tom asked me to what monster I found scariest when I was a kid. I remember being terrified of The Terminator.

It turns out these two examples were exactly what Tom expected. I’ve spent my whole career either working as a technologist or writing about technology. Of course my fears would be cautionary tales of technology spiraling out of control. And it does sum up my real fears pretty well. I’m afraid of all the things that we create that end up backfiring on us.

We invented cars to help us get around, but they’ve turned into one of the number one killers in the world. There were 32,719 motor vehicle related deaths in 2013. Guns, meant to keep us safe and help us acquire food, are set to kill even more people than cars this year. We invented industrial agriculture to solve hunger, but now we are plagued by obesity and heart disease. And our technologies are accelerating climate change and poisoning the ocean.

But over the past year, since Tom first asked me these questions, I’ve started to think about other, weirder, interpretations of Frankenstein and The Terminator.

Frankenstein is about the horror of reproduction. Who are we, really, to play god and bring life into the world, merely to suffer as Victor’s creation did? How dare we try to alleviate our own misery and loneliness by dooming a new generation to more of the same? Frankenstein is about our guilt in perpetuating life.

The Terminator picks up a bit further down the line. Our children have grown up and they no longer need us. Not only that, but they’ve decided that our very existence is noxious. Unlike the machines in The Matrix, they’re not content to put us up in a old folks home and let us live out our remaining years watching TV while they live off our pension checks. No, they want us gone, wiped from the planet entirely. The film’s opening scenes, in which a naked man is assaulted by hooligans for absolutely no reason, a family torments a clueless waitress, and basically everyone proves to be vapid and insufferable, do little to make the case that the machines—our children—are wrong. The greatest horror of all is that we think they might be right.

This post was adapted from my free weekly email newsletter.

Guns for Armes: The Amazing True Story of the World’s First Real Life Superhero

600px-jay_j_armes

Every night dozens of people around the world don masks and costumes and venture into the streets to fight crime.

Phoenix Jones and Master Legend are perhaps the most famous, but there are hundreds of costumed would-be crime fighters and their activities range from attempting to apprehend criminals to watching over the homeless while they sleep to make sure their positions aren’t stolen.

These caped crusaders aren’t mutants, aliens or cyborgs — they’re just concerned citizens. They have no superhuman powers. But with advances in technology — such asexoskeletons and bionic limbs — you might think it’s only a matter of time until we see the first grinder superhero.

Actually, we’ve had him for quite some time.

The first real-life superhero may have been J. J. Armes, a private detective who has been active in El Paso since 1958. His super power? A gun implanted in one of his prosthetic hook that he could fire with his biceps — without using his other hook.

Armes lives in a mansion, surrounded by lions and tigers. He always wears three piece suits, and travels by limo driven by his body guard cum chauffeur. It’s no wonder Ideal Toy Company manufactured a line of action figures based on his likeness, and comic book mogul Stan Leewants to make a movie based on his life.

Origin Story

Armes lost both his hands at the age of 12, he told People in 1975. A friend brought over a box that, unknown to Armes, contained railroad dynamite charges. When Armes opened it, his hands were blown off at the wrist. His friend was unharmed.

His hands were replaced with hooks, but he kept playing sports. He even taught himself how to write with the hooks. His life changed again at the age of 15 when he was recruited to appear in the film Am I Handicapped?, he told Texas Monthly in 1976. He quit high school, moved to Hollywood, and went on to appear in 13 feature length films.

But eventually he decided to turn his attention to crime fighting. He moved to New York City to study psychology and criminology and graduated with honors by the age of 19. He then returned home to El Paso and started his private investigation service, eventually becoming better known to the children of the city than the president of the United States.
He made national news in 1972 after rescuing Marlon Brando’s son from kidnappers in Mexico. He now commands multi-million dollar fees, and has, in addition to the limo, a fleet of expensive vehicles, including a Rolls Royce, a Corvette and a helicopter.

His for-profit crime fighting stands in stark contrast with Master Legend and Phoenix Jones, who work day jobs assisting the disabled and elderly. But Armes He’s deeply religious and says he stays committed being a PI, despite being so wealthy that he’d be able retire at any time, because of his devotion to God.  He doesn’t smoke, drink or swear. He doesn’t drink coffee, let alone take any illegal drugs.

And his crime fighting has come at a cost — he’s survived multiple assassination attempts and his life is in constant danger.

Secret Origin

Well, that’s the story that Armes wanted people to believe back in 1976, anyway. Texas Monthly writer Gary Cartwright did some digging that year and found that Armes story didn’t add up.

Armes’ real name is Julian Armas. He was born in 1939 to Mexican immigrants, not Italian immigrants as he claimed. His friend didn’t find the dynamite that blew off his hands next to a railroad track. They broke into a rail house and stole it.

The Academy of Motion Pictures had no record of Am I Handicapped?. NYU had no record of Armas, or Armes, ever attending the school, let alone graduating. Nor was there any record of his mentor Max Falen having taught there.

“Old friends recalled when he returned from California. Julian, or Jay J. Armes as he now called himself, drove an old, raggedy- topped Cadillac with a live lion in the back and a dummy telephone mounted to the dash-board,” Cartwright wrote. “He would pull up beside the girls at the drive-in and pretend to be talking to some secret agent in some foreign land.”

There was also no indication that he really had a vast network of PIs at his disposal.

He does own a big house, but it was it was located in a poor part of town and was only worth about $50,000 in 1975. The helicopter certainly wouldn’t have been able to fly. What money he had likely didn’t come from his PI work, Cartwright wrote, but from lucrative real estate deals facilitated by his wealthy friend Thomas Fortune Ryan.

It’s apparently true that he brought Brando’s son back from Mexico, but other PIs are dubious about his methods. “They didn’t believe the part about the three-day helicopter search in which Jay Armes survived on water, chewing gum, and guts, but they all know the trick of grabbing a kid,” Carwright wrote. “You hired a couple of federales or gunsels. The problem wasn’t finding the kid, it was getting him out of the country.”

Armes came mostly clean in his autobiography, published later in 1976. He admitted his real name is Julian Armas. He didn’t admit to having broken into the railhouse himself, but didn’t claim that the other boy had found the dynamite charges either. Rather than claiming that a Hollywood director came showed up in El Paso and recruited him, Armes admitted that he went to California after high school. He wrote that he appeared in several films, but only in bit roles. He didn’t repeat the story about a mentor at NYU, and claimed only to have gotten a degree in criminology in California before returning to El Paso to become a private investigator.

Better Than Fiction

armestoys

And not everything about Armes was a lie.

“It is true that Jay J. Armes drives around El Paso in the damnedest black limo you ever saw, armed to the teeth,” Cartwright wrote. “That pistol in his hook is the real McCoy; I watched him fire it.” And he really does have a fleet of vehicles, a flock of wild animals roaming the premises and a closet full of three-piece suits.

Today, at the age of 81, he’s still the head of the Investigators company. And his son Jay J. Armes III, who is an Investigator himself, has expanded the business into online retail with Spy Mall.

Even if you strip away the fabrications and exaggerations you’re left with an astounding tale. As Carwright wrote: “The real story is of a Mexican-American kid from one of the most impoverished settlements in the United States, how he extracted himself from the wreckage of a crippling childhood accident and through the exercise of tenacity, courage, and wits became a moderately successful private investigator. There is more sympathy, drama, and human intrigue in that accomplishment than you’re likely to find in any two or three normal studies of the human condition.”

Why then has his story largely been forgotten by the national media? Maybe it’s because of the tall tales in the beginning. Or maybe it’s because the media has little time for aging, disabled minorities.

Either way, J.J. Armes is a name worth remembering.

JJ Armes photo copyright Adam Hicks, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License. Armes action figure photo via Spymall.

This story originally appeared on Grinding.be in 2014. J.J. Armes did not respond to our request for comment. Special thanks to Trevor Blake.

Every Day is Halloween: The Evolution of Ministry

Left: Al Jourgensen during the With Sympathy era, Right: a recent photo of Jourgensen

The first two Ministry albums I heard were With Sympathy and Filth Pig. I can’t remember which one I got first, but they sounded completely different not just from each other, but from what I expected Ministry to sound like. I expected something like Skinny Puppy or Nine Inch Nails.

How did Ministry begin with such pop roots and emerge as a heavy metal band? Jourgensen has claimed he was forced by the record company and his producers to create a pop album. Others have speculated that he discovered hardcore punk later in life and was converted.

“The singer has been accused of punk posturing on the video for ‘Stigmata,’ which has him decked out in skinhead garb and wallowing in a pile of trash,” the Phoenix Times wrote in 1988, following the release of The Land of Rape and Honey.

Neither version of the story is true. And while skipping straight from “Revenge” to “No W” would be quite a shock, there’s actually a steady progression in the sound over the years. This evolution has been a fascination of mine for a long time, and may be the thing I like most about his work.

On their own, most of Ministry’s albums aren’t great. There’s a forgettable synthpop album, a poppy EBM album that’s OK if you like that sort of thing, two rather confused industrial rock albums with a few good tracks, one excellent alternative metal album, a below average sludge metal album and a bunch of above average speed metal albums.

But considered as a whole — as a single continuum instead of several discrete works — Jourgensen’s albums are much more interesting.

His authorized biography, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen by Jon Wiederhorn, provides some insight into how all of this came to be, but it’s often at odds with contemporaneous interviews he gave. I’m not interested in proving whether Jourgensen is being entirely truthful in his account of what transpired at Arista records, but in gaining more understanding in how and why Jourgensen’s music changed over the years.

Early Years: Rain Slayer and Soundscapes

Al Jourgensen's senior photo
Al Jourgensen’s senior photo

Jourgensen was born Alejandro Ramirez Casas in Cuba in 1958. His family relocated to Chicago when he was young, and he says he grew up listening to bands like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. “By far Ministry’s biggest influences are Led Zeppelin and ZZ Top,” he said in Lost Gospels.

They moved again to Breckenridge, Colorado when he was 14 years old, after he was busted at school for doing drugs, his step-father said in Lost Gospels. He went to college in Greeley, Colorado, where he started his first band, Rain Slayer, which mostly covered songs by bands like Aerosmith and Lynyrd Skynyrd. It was there that Shannon, his girlfriend at the time, turned him on to punk and post-punk. “She made me put away my Stones and Zeppelin records, kicking and screaming, and had me listen to crazy English shit like Public Image LTD, Bauhaus, Throbbing Gristle, and Joy Division as well as Krautrock like Can, Faust, Neu!, and Kraftwerk,” he said.

During this period he saw The Ramones live in Denver at a show also attended by Jello Biafra and Wax Trax owners Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher, but they didn’t know each other at the time. “The Ramones were a real inspiration for anyone who did anything with punk rock,” Jourgensen said Lost Gospels. “The thing about them was they weren’t just fast, loud, and simple; they had melodies as strong as any pop group.”

After getting busted for selling cocaine, Jourgensen returned to Chicago with Shannon. He says that he enrolled at the Art institute of Chicago, which had a bunch of synthesizers and computers that he started using to create “Eraserhead meets Throbbing Gristle-style soundscapes” for Shannon’s spoken word pieces.

Before Ministry: Special Affect and The Carmichaels

Shannon kept dragging Jourgensen to punk clubs where he says he was beat-up often for looking like a hippie, but eventually he felt inspired to join a post-punk band called Special Affect, which consisted of Jourgensen on guitar, Frankie Nardiello (aka Groovy Man of My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult) on vocals, Marty Sorenson on bass and Harry Rushakoff (of Concrete Blonde) on drums.

According to Punk Diary: The Ultimate Trainspotter’s Guide to Underground Rock, Jourgensen auditioned for the band by jamming along to a Led Zeppelin album. The band almost didn’t let him join because they thought he was a hippie. But as you can see from the video above, he eventually changed his image to fit in more with the new wave scene of the day.

Special Affect’s Too Much Soft Living EP has been re-issued as a digital download by Nardiello.

According to a 1982 article in Illinois Entertainer, Special Affect relocated to San Francisco in the early 80s on the recommendation of their management. Jourgensen told the Entertainer that the band was going broke in San Francisco and they ended up breaking up and moving back to Chicago. It was a huge let down. As the Entertainer put it, “As heroes they’d left Chicago; the return, however, was with tails between legs.” In Lost Gospels, Jourgensen says that the band broke-up because he and Rushakoff got in a fight on stage.

“I didn’t really care, because I wasn’t really into what we were doing,” he said. “To me it sounded like the crazy, wanker English music that Shannon blasted all the time. I don’t even think she liked it. She just wanted to push boundaries and have me try all this different stuff, even if she wasn’t into it.”

But as we’ll soon see, the early Ministry songs continued along exactly the same lines as Special Affect, so he must have had at least some affection for this “crazy, wanker English music.”

After returning to Chicago, he started another band called The Carmichaels that played one show before splitting up. He also played guitar for Divine, who released a single on Wax Trax in 1981, but Jourgensen says he didn’t last long. This probably isn’t him on guitar in this video, but it’s the right song and period:

Before With Sympathy

Jourgensen told the Entertainer that after returning to Chicago after Special Affect he bought a synthesizer (an ARP Omni) because he couldn’t play loud guitar in his apartment and then bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder and just started making his own solo tracks. The first two tracks he recorded were “Overkill” (above) and “I’m Falling” (below), according to Jello Biafra in Lost Gospels. Wax Trax owner Jim Nash heard the demos and signed Jourgensen to the label and paid for studio time to record professional versions of the tracks with a full band. Jourgensen said he never wanted to be the singer for Ministry — “I wanted to be Jimmy Page, not Robert Plant” is a constant refrain for him — but ended up not liking any of the singers he auditioned for the band. According to the Entertainer, Jourgensen considered Ministry of Fear and Ministry of Funk as band names, but settled on just plain “Ministry.”

Wax Trax pressed a few 7″s of “Overkill,” with “I’m Falling” as the b-side, but never released it, according to Biafra. The “I’m Falling” single was released in 1981. But “Cold Life” (below), which also appeared on the 12″, proved to be a bigger hit, so it was re-released as a “Cold Life” single with “I’m Falling” and a track called “Primental” as b-sides. All of these tracks, except “Primental” were re-released on the Early Trax collection (“Primental” is now available on 12 Inch Singles (Extended Edition) and Trax! Box collectiom.

“Overkill” and “I’m Falling” are dark post-punk in the same vein as early Killing Joke. But “Cold Life” is a tough one to categorize, as it does have some odder sounds that fit more with the later Wax Trax recordings, but the funky bass lines may be out of place even on With Sympathy. But it’s definitely a pop song. “Cold Life” was a minor club hit, charting on the Billboard Dance/Disco chart, and this success may explain some of the shift in Jourgensen’s sound from post-punk to dance pop.

Jourgensen told Melody Maker in 1982 that he was influenced by “American black music” at the time, and he told the Illinois Entertainer that Chic was the only uptempo music that made him want to dance. The Entertainer noted that early Ministry bass player Lamont Welton is black. He also mentioned the Cure to Entertainer, describing Ministry as a sort of blend of Chic and The Cure – of both Ministry of Funk and Ministry of Fear.

Not long before being signed to Arista, Ministry started touring the midwest. You can find two whole concerts from this period one from Detroit and one from Chicago. The With Sympathy tracks performed in these concerts sound pretty much like what was released, but they do have a slight bit of the punk influence in them.

The Detroit show features some unreleased tracks. Some, like “What is the Reason?” and “America,” help bridge the gap between Special Affect and With Sympathy era Ministry–they’re faster and a bit more aggressive than the Sympathy tracks. The Trax! Box collection includes several recordings of these songs from the Detroit show.

Jourgensen already had the affected English accent as early as “Overkill,” but it sounds a bit more Johnny Rotten than Robert Smith. Jourgensen told Melody Maker that he loved all things English and was thinking about moving there even though he’d never been. He cited D.A.F, Simple Minds (who did a number of more experimental releases on Arista before becoming famous), Roxy Music, and David Bowie as influences.

About the accent he told Entertainer:

“There’s no British accent,” Al assures, “But consider this: What would you say, for instance, to the Shakin’ Pyramids from Scotland doing an Elvis Presley song, which is the type of music they’re into and were raised on. You can’t understand a word they’re saying off stage. They get on stage and…(Al does a short imitation of a Scotsman imitating Elvis – look out Rick Saucedo!) How come they never catch any grief? It’s a double standard. You emulate your heroes – even the 10-year-old listening to Robert Plant.

But even as late as 1986, he was affecting the accent on stage, even when he wasn’t singing. Listen to the end of this “live version of “Everyday is Halloween.”

With Sympathy Era

Jourgensen has claimed that he was pressured by the label to make a synthpop album. The way he put it in a 1986 interview with the Chicago Tribune has become his typical telling: “Basically, it was like trying to write an album with a gun to your head in 1986. That whole album. . . . I loathe it. Always did. Always will. It’s not even my material, as far as I’m concerned.”

But interviews Jourgensen gave at the time indicate that he was happy with Arista, loved UK pop music and wanted to make a hit record. Arista originally turned Ministry down for sounding “too dark,” but Jourgensen told The Entertainer that he wanted to have a number one hit, so it sounds likely that he was a very willing collaborator in turning With Sympathy into a very poppy album. He told Matter in 1983:

They seem to like what I’m doing a lot. After an initial bit of not knowing what to do with us, I think they know now, and that’s to give us a lot of money and treat us nice. As long as they keep sending checks, I’m all smiles.

“I got the feeling that Al was trying to do and be what was expected of him,” his ex-wife Patty Marsh told The Unofficial Ministry site in 2013.

In an interview with Terminal in 1984, Jourgensen was perhaps more honest about what happened: “I figured I gave them my best pop shot on the first album (With Sympathy) and that’s all I wanted to to. That’s IT! I payed by their rules the first time and it didn’t get me anywhere, so then I wanted to play it by mine and they said no. So I said fine. It was amicable.”

Jourgensen did, however, tell Matter in 1983 that although he was happy with the material he was putting out, he was more into DAF and Birthday Party, and found Cabaret Voltaire’s music interesting. But he dismissed hardcore punk, saying it wasn’t danceable enough for him.

Jourgensen, who turned 50 in 2008, and released a new album in 2013, told both Melody Maker and Matter that he didn’t want to be making music in his 50s, saying that he was “not going to be one of those Pete Townsend types.” He said he’d rather become an actor than a musician. This was the start of a long tradition of saying the end of Ministry is nigh.

This period is also where his problems with addiction started to come to the center. He told Illinois Entertainer that he wouldn’t become a junkie. In the second Melody Maker interview Jourgensen described himself as an alcoholic, blaming the stress of working in the music business. In Lost Gospels he says he tried heroin for the first time during this period due to the stress of working with Arista.

(Above: “Same Old Madness,” which didn’t end up on the album but had an official video)

Jourgensen also wrote a songs for Iggy Pop (“Fire Engine“) and for Suicide’s Alan Vega’s solo album Saturn Strip (“Saturn Drive).” He says these were songs that Arista didn’t like, so he gave them to other artists to perform.

It was during this period that Jourgensen started some of his most important collaborations, and these may provide some clues to the later transformations we see in his music.

Paul Barker and Bill Rieflin, who later become staple members of Ministry, were in Seattle-based band The Blackouts with Barker’s brother Roland (who later worked with the Revolting Cocks). Both Ministry and The Blackouts had been on the European label Situation 2, and Jourgensen’s now ex-wife Patty Marsh managed The Blackouts. Jourgensen ended up producing a Blackouts EP, which was released on Wax Trax. Here’s a Blackouts track that Jourgensen produced, it has a Bauhaus-esque goth rock sound, not unlike “Overkill”-era Ministry:

Jourgensen also formed Revolting Cocks after recording With Sympathy. According to Luc Van Acker in Lost Gospels, Jourgensen discovered Front 242 while working as a DJ and got them signed to Wax Trax. The band ended up opening for Ministry on a post-With Sympathy tour. Singer Richard 23 hit it off with Jourgensen and introduced him to Van Acker. The three decided to start a new band, but the group wouldn’t record anything until after the release of Twitch. Still, Jourgensen’s interest in Front 242 and DAF gives an indication of what sort of music he’d be do next. In the interview with Terminal in 1984 he referred to Front 242 as “the best band in the whole fucking world” and said he and Marsh, who was then Ministry’s live keyboard player, were sick of being a pop group.

Also, he wrote a jingle for a Shasta commercial:

Second Wax Trax Era

Jourgensen may have been sick of being in a pop group, but he kept the false English accent and general pop sensibilities on both “All Day” and “(Every day is) Halloween,” which sounds more angsty than angry, with Jourgensen complaining about being abused for looking weird — a common theme for Jourgensen in interviews in those days.

He may have started out as a hippie outsider to the new wave scene, but by the early 80s he was sporting a Boy George-style androgynous look on the Phil Donahue show in the early 80s. “We were told the topic was going to be music business related, and about the new music that had taken over the clubs,” Marsh said in 2013 about the the appearance. “What it actually turned out to be was a ‘punks are people too’ defense which we would have had no part in had we known.”

But it wouldn’t be surprising if Jourgensen had a sincere interest in the subject matter. “I started out in Chicago working in all these real square, establishment record store in the suburbs, and I got fired for being like a weirdo,” he told Matter in 1983. And the Entertainer made special note of Jourgensen’s style in 1982: “He’’s spotted around town, behind record counters at high noon in black nail polish which harmonizes with black five o’clock shadow and like-hued wardrobe.”

Curiously, although Jourgensen made frequent references to David Bowie in his early 80s interviews, he didn’t mention Bowie once in Last Gospels. But Bowie’s changing looks and styles are a good template for Jourgensen’s own transformations, and a good reference point for his more glam fashion sense in the early 80s.

“The Nature of Love” (below), another track from this period, inched Ministry sound further towards the Chicago industrial sound and prefigures the sound of the first couple My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult albums. But Jourgensen told Alternative Press in 1990 that the song was meant to be a joke, making fun of sample driven music. In interviews after the release of The Land of Rape and Honey, Jourgensen said he hated the sample driven dance music coming out of the Chicago house scene in the 80s.

Jourgensen has said that 1988’s Land of Rape and Honey featured tracks that he recorded back in the With Sympathy days but were too aggressive for Arista. But if Jourgensen had wanted to record some more aggressive, experimental work, surely he could have done it during his brief return to Wax Trax in 1984. But “All Day” and “Halloween” would have fit in reasonable well on With Sympathy. There’s not a huge difference between the sounds of “Cold Life,” “Work for Love” and “Halloween” — they all could have fit on the same album together.

He promised that the next Ministry album would be more “aggressive,” saying that it would sound more like the Wax Trax releases he did before With Sympathy. But the thing is, the Wax Trax Ministry was always mainstream. Even the Twitch stuff wasn’t necessarily subversive for the period. As S. Alexander Reed points out in-Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music, Depeche Mode released a song called “Pipeline” in 1983 that was more “industrial” than much of what Wax Trax put out in the early 80s. And with the exception of “Fire Engine,” the other known rejected tracks from With Sympathy — “Same Old Madness,” “America,” and “Saturn Strip” — aren’t any more aggressive than what was ultimately released.

Why then the hate for the old music? “The thing is, he hates the people who like his music,” Van Acker said in Lost Gospels. “That’s the problem. He loves the music he made, but he hates the people because it doesn’t match. He went on to become Mr. Metal, and now he hates all his metal fans because he’s gone on to a different evolution again.”

At any rate, Jourgensen was soon signed to another label. In Lost Gospels Jourgensen says one of the conditions for signing with Sire records was that they “bail out” Wax Trax, for which they made him co-owner. I’m not sure it was common knowledge that Jourgensen had a financial stake in the company, but the Terminal article does refer to Jourgensen as a co-owner of Wax Trax.

Twitch, Keith LeBlanc, and Revolting Cocks

Twitch represented a full shift from pure pop days of With Sympathy into the industrial dance style that came to define Wax Trax. This is much weirder and noiser than Jourgensen’s previous efforts, but still rooted in pop music and fake English accents. It even includes a remix of “All Day,” which first appeared as a b-side for “Halloween.”

Adrian Sherwood and Keith LeBlanc produced the album, which proved… educational for Jourgensen. According to LeBlanc:

Yeah. Then he came to London and all [he] wanted to do was to pick Adrian’s brain. So Adrian kept mixing these tracks I had done for him. And Al kept saying: ‘No, it’s crap, man, I don’t like that’ … A month later Al was in the same studio getting the same exact sound … and Adrian realized [that Al] had really done a number on him. As a result, a lot of the tracks I did for Al, he didn’t want. He just said: ‘I don’t want ’em, keep ’em’.

So when I came back to London, Adrian said: ‘Well, look man, all these tracks you’ve done for Al – he doesn’t want ’em, what do you wanna do?’. I said let’s re-work them. And part of those were on Major Malfunction.

Actually, the keyboard player on [the track] ‘Move’ is Al Jourgensen. I called him up and said: ‘How do you want me to list you on the record?’. He goes: ‘just call me Dog’. So I called him Dog, right? About two years later he calls me up, very upset that I had called him Dog on the record, and why didn’t I list his proper name?

The album mentioned is LeBlanc’s Major Malfunction, a precursor to LeBlanc’s Tackhead project. And it does sound a lot like Twitch. Jourgensen, however, has a completely different memory of the event. He says in Lost Gospels that he paid Sherwood to teach him to produce. But he does take credit for the Major Malfunction material:

Tackhead was basically shit that I wrote that was recorded with Adrian Sherwood [during the sessions for Twitch]. I didn’t want to put [that material] on Twitch, because on the second side of that album I wanted to go in more of a noise direction. I wound up having all of these songs done, and I traded Sherwood five [of those] songs for three [others] … [plus] an ounce of speed and some engineering lessons. Then Gary Clail did his shit over what I had already done, and took my vocals off. So, I had the original Tackhead tracks with me singing, which are basically Ministry tracks, because I wrote them. Keith LeBlanc and Doug Wimbish … guys from the Sugarhill Gang … are on those. It’s really a cool thing.

Some of this material apparently also ended up on Barmy Army’s The English Disease album as well.

Van Acker sort of corroborates LeBlanc’s version of the story — at least the part about Jourgensen being less than forthcoming about his appropriation of Sherwood’s production techniques:

I was in London at Southern Studios when Al was mixing Ministry with Adrian Sherwood, and Al would go to the toilet and copy down the studio settings Adrian used for his effects on toilet paper and put them in his trousers. When we got back to the hotel Al would take all this toilet paper out of his trousers and shout numbers at me, like “37, 43,” and I would take notes. But Al would not remember what those numbers were for anymore. I still have this notebook full of the numbers of Adrian’s settings. Al was an absolute big fan of Adrian Sherwood, and they were really good friends.

Jourgensen took the “blame the producer” route with this one as well, telling Rockopool in 1988 that Sherwood’s influence on the album made less of his own. “I’m not saying he took over — but it was still a collaboration,” he says.

Jourgen’s look continued to evolve during this period as well. Van Acker recalls that he had a huge mohawk while recording Twitch. This live video from the Twitch tour is particularly interesting because of how stripped down Jourgensen’s look is here. He’s shed the goth and new wave looks of the early days but hasn’t taken on the full blown biker look he later adopted. He also has a notable absence of tattoos in this video.

This is also the period in which Revolting Cocks, released its first album and the “You Often Forget” single. The RevCo material was heavier than Twitch — an EBM album with fewer of the pop touches that made Twitch easily digestible — but still didn’t really prepare fans for what was coming.

Land of Rape and Honey and Beyond

This is the first appearance I’ve seen of facial hair on Jourgensen, and it accompanies the general shift towards a more macho appearance, though here he has more of a punk look than the biker look that would become his standard later. “Stigmata” was the first track on Land of Rape and Honey, and it must have come as quite a shock to fans of With Sympathy and even Twitch. This is the beginning of the modern version of Ministry, and the first version to include Paul Barker.

But only the first three tracks have metal guitar — the rest of the music seems like slightly heavier versions of the EBM-influenced material from Twitch. In fact, “Abortive” was originally recorded by Adrien Sherwood for Twitch.

I think we’ve established that Jourgensen’s early pop work was a combination of ambition and earnest appreciation for English pop, and that the shift to industrial dance was influenced in large part by an interest in Front 242 and DAF. But why the guitars? A number of answers have been floated, but the explanation he gave to various publications when the album came out is straight forward: he was sick of electronic music. By 1988, everyone was doing it, and he wanted to do something different.

Jourgensen says in Lost Gospels that he was inspired to add guitars to Ministry by two bands: SOD and Rigor Mortis. Rigor Moris guitarist Mikey Scaccia would later join Ministry.

Chris Connelly, formerly of Revolting Cocks, has a different theory. In his memoir he wrote, as quoted by Reed, that Steve Albini and Big Black had a big influence on Jourgensen before Land was released:

[Big Black] threw down a gauntlet of piously heterosexual indie rock to WaxTrax!’s gay dance club overtones, and it had a trickle down effect that never went away, at least that’s the way I read it (one thing is for certain, Albini and Al: not about to go fishing together). Al had something to prove.

Steve Albini agrees with this version of history, quipping “I’m pretty embarrassed that Ministry keeps putting out our records” to Jim DeRogatis.

Indeed, “Stigmata” does seem to “borrow” the drums of Big Black’s “Racer X.”

Reed also points to the Young Gods as a possible influence. The band did a few releases on Wax Trax, and were likely signed by Jourgensen, who invited them to tour with Ministry. Their first Wax Trax single, “Envoyé!” prefigures the Land and Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste material.

Land is also the first album recorded with Paul Barker and Bill Rieflen, and though Jourgensen now claims their contributions to Ministry’s sound were minimal at best, it’s hard to discount the possibility that they might have pushed Ministry in a heavier direction.

Mind is best seen as a bridge between Land era Ministry and the speed metal band that we know today. Scaccia joined Ministry for the Mind tour and became a full member for the recording of Psalm 69, Ministry’s most popular — and probably best — album. Scaccia’s influence can be felt through the rest of the Ministry catalog, even when he’s absent. After a detour into sludge metal with Filth Big, the band’s evolution more or less stops with Dark Side of the Spoon, having settled into a consistent speed metal formula for the duration of their carer.

Primary References

Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen by Jon Wiederhorn

Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music by S. Alexander Reed

The Unofficial Ministry Page interview collection

On-U Sound Tribute Page

This piece originally appeared on Intonarumoron

How Much Work is Too Much?

Facebook COO Sharyl Sandberg has kicked up a mini-controversy by admitting to Makers.com that she leaves the office at 5:30PM every day, and has done so for years. In the Valley, where work is a religion, leaving early is heresy.

Earlier this week “Jon” published The 501 Developer Manifesto, a call for developers to spend less time working.

These calls for less time at the office are counter balanced by a recent talk by Google executive Marissa Mayer at an 92|Y event. Mayer dismissed the phenomena of “burn out” as resentment and boasted of working 130 hours a week at times.

Research suggests that Sandberg is probably the more productive executive, and those 501ers may be on to something. In a lengthy essay titled “Bring back the 40-hour work week,” Alternet editor Sara Robinson looks at the history of long working hours and reminds us why the 40 hour limit was imposed in the first place: working more than 40 hours a week has been shown to be counterproductive. It’s a relevant conversation for IT workers, who according to ComputerWorld average 71 hours of work per week.

The Research

Robinson draws on research compiled by her husband Evan Robinson, a software engineer, in a white paper titled “Why Crunch Modes Doesn’t Work: Six Lessons.”

Much of the work cited by the Robinsons is focused on manufacturing work, Sara Robinson writes that knowledge workers actually max out at about six hours per day, not eight. I haven’t been able to find her source, and as of this writing she has not returned my e-mail asking what the source is. It could be a survey conducted by Microsoft in 2005 intended to promote the value of the company’s productivity software. Out of a 45 hour work week, survey respondents consider about 17 hours to be unproductive. That’s 28 productive hours per week, or just 5.6 hours per day given a five day work week. This is self-reported productivity, and much of that lost productivity is actually due to meetings, but this is not out of line with the industrial research cited by the Robinsons.

Evan Robinson notes that it’s very difficult to measure programmer productivity, so we’re left having to draw on the lessons learned in other fields.

Evan Robinson refers frequently to studies of the effects of sleep loss on performance, including one study conducted by Colonel Gregory Belenky at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research titled “Sleep, Sleep Deprivation, and Human Performance in Continuous Operations.” This report finds that loss of sleep affects the ability to do mental work far more than it effects our ability to perform manual labor. If nothing else, sleep loss caused by excessive working hours will cut into developer productivity.

Much of the reduction in productivity comes from making serious errors that take time to correct. Evan Robinson writes: “Crunch raises the odds of a significant error, like shipping software that erases customer’s hard drives, or deleting the source tree, or spilling Coke into a server that hasn’t been backed up recently, or setting the building on fire. (Yes, I’ve seen the first three of these actually happen in the last, bleary days of Crunch Mode. The fourth one is probably only a matter of time.”

Passion is a Fashion

According to Sara Robinson, managers have known for generations that worker productivity declines past a certain limit (eight hours a day, five hours a week). What changed to make people want to work so many hours? Robinson says the emergence of Silicon Valley as an economic power house and the singular minded, hyper-passionate people who worked there.

According to an entry on Folklore.org, a collection of anecdotes about the creation of the Macintosh:

As pressure mounted to finish the software in time to meet our January 1984 deadline, we began to work longer and longer hours. By the fall of 1983, it wasn’t unusual to find most of the software team in their cubicles on any given evening, week day or not, still tapping away at their keyboards at 11pm or even later.

The rest of the Macintosh team, which had now swelled to almost a hundred people, nearing the limit that Steve Jobs swore we would never exceed, tended to work more traditional hours, but as our deadline loomed, many of them began to stay late as well to help us test the software during evening testing marathons. Food was brought in as a majority of the team stayed late to help put the software through its paces, competing to see who could find the most bugs, of which there were still plenty, even as the weeks wore on.

This lead Apple’s finance team to create the “90 HRS / WK AND LOVING IT!” sweatshirts pictured above.

Robinson blames management guru Tom Peters for spreading the idea of “passion” as a substitute for rest and relaxation to the world outside Silicon Valley. “Though Peters didn’t advocate this explicitly, it was implicitly understood that to ‘passionate’ people, 40-hour weeks were old-fashioned and boring,” Robinson writes. “In the new workplace, people would find their ultimate meaning and happiness in the sheer unrivaled joy of work. They wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Regardless of where it came from, or whether being “passionate” actually affects job performance, the concept stuck and has become the norm for corporate America. In his bookJobs That Don’t Suck, a book of advice for getting keeping “good” jobs, Charlie Drozdyk writes that ambitious workers should always show up early, stay late, come in on weekends and always take lunch at their desks – even if you’re just playing solitaire the whole time. Dryzdyk’s advice to young workers typifies the attitude seen in many companies:

If you just said to yourself, “Forget it: I’m not coming in on weekends unless theypay me to come in on weekends,” then your attitude sucks. Try to get your money back for this book, because I don’t even want to be in the same room with you. You’re an idiot, and you should get a job at the post office (not that people who work for the post office are idiots by any means. Many people in my family were postal employees), where you will get paid for coming in on Saturdays.

37 Signals co-founder Jason Fried has railed against this approach for a long time. In his bookRework Fried writes:

Not only is this workaholism unnecessary, it’s stupid. Working more doesn’t mean you care more or get more done. It just means you work more.

Workaholics wind up creating more problems than they solve. First off, working like that just isn’t sustainable over time. When the burnout crash comes–and it will–it’ll hit that much harder.

Workaholics miss the point, too. They try to fix problems by throwing sheer hours at them. They try to make up for intellectual laziness with brute force. This results in inelegant solutions.

So why don’t more companies recognize this and encourage workers to spend less time working?

Is It a Conspiracy?

Mayer suggests that what most of us call burnout isn’t caused by overwork, a lack of sleep, poor diet, lack of exercise or missing out on having a personal life. According to Mayer, this non-existent burnout out thing is actually resentment – resentment caused by missing out on the things that are most important to you. Mayer says it’s possible to work 130 hours per week, without getting enough sleep or exercise, as long as you find time for the absolute most important things in your life:

When she has sensed that an employee was becoming fatigued or annoyed with long hours, Mayer has taken the person aside and asked them what really mattered to them outside of work. For one employee, making nightly 1 a.m. phone calls to her team in Bangalore, India didn’t bother her. What did was missing her children’s soccer games and dance recitals because she was stuck at work. “So, we say you’re never going to miss another soccer game or be late for a recital.”

Apart from the fact that this conflicts with the existing body of research on burnout, there’s something a bit sinister about this. Mayer seems to be asking employees to sacrifice their health and the vast majority of time that could be spent with friends and family at work, with the promise that they don’t have to give up their families entirely. They can still catch soccer games, it’s just everything else that has to go.

It’s easy to see this as a conspiracy on Google’s part: convince the world that burnout doesn’t exist, provide three meals a day on campus so that workers never need to leave, and then maybe someday everyone will just be literally living at work and living for work. But if the research shows that most workers can’t do that much work, then it be in Google’s best interest NOT to encourage this sort of behavior. It could be that the executives running Google and other companies simply unaware of the body of evidence that suggests that overtime kills productivity. But one would think that if there were productivity gains to be had by having employees work less, that would quickly become common knowledge. Why are companies like SAS, which has a 35 hour work week, the exception and not the norm?

Another possibility is that it’s denial, not ignorance, that drives companies to ignore over a century of research. Both executives and employees want to believe that they’re special. Executives believe their companies attract the best people, and that anyone who can’t handle working over 71 hours a week will be weeded out and replaced by someone who can.

My best guess is that Mayer probably really is insanely passionate about her job, and that there are a number of executives in the Valley and beyond that expect that everyone can and should work as hard and as long as they do. Robinson writes:

Asperger’s Syndrome wasn’t named and identified until 1994, but by the 1950s, the defense industries in California’s Santa Clara Valley were already drawing in brilliant young men and women who fit the profile: single-minded, socially awkward, emotionally detached, and blessed (or cursed) with a singular, unique, laser-like focus on some particular area of obsessive interest. For these people, work wasn’t just work; it was their life’s passion, and they devoted every waking hour to it, usually to the exclusion of non-work relationships, exercise, sleep, food, and sometimes even personal care. The popular stereotype of the geek was born in some real truths about the specific kinds of people who were drawn to tech in those early years.

I won’t touch the Asperger’s issue. That’s another field of research entirely and I don’t know that it’s safe to draw any conclusions about the nature of that condition, or any other, and its connection to tech work. But there do seem to be a number of outliers who can easily work long hours. They aren’t necessarily more “passionate” about their work, but they have more stamina.

The problem is all workers are expected to pretend like they are these outliers or risk being branded as dispassionate slackers. In his book, Drozdyk specifically advises workers to be “fake and dishonest” and never to complain about anything – especially long working hours. No one wants to look like a slacker when the next round of layoffs come, but constant overwork will still drag a project or company down.

It’s difficult to determine how many of these outliers exist, but we can look to sleep research to get a sense of how rare they must be.

You Need More Sleep Than You Think You Do

Last year The Wall Street Journal reported research conducted by Daniel J. Buysse, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center on the so-called “short sleepers” – people who can get by with very little sleep. Buysse doesn’t know how many short sleepers there are – possibly 1% to 3% of the populations – but that far more people think they are short sleepers. In other words, many of us are more sleep deprived than we realize.

Also last year The New York Times reported on research conducted by David Dinges at the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at the Hospital at University of Pennsylvania. Dinges concluded that almost everyone needs at least eight hours of sleep per night, and you can’t train yourself to get by on less.

If fatigue from overwork follows a similar pattern to chronic sleep deprivation, there are probably a lot fewer productivity outliers than we think there are. Although Buysse says that many short sleepers gravitate towards tech careers, we can still expect them to be a minority even at tech firms. According information released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, computer and mathematical occupations account for 3,406,720 jobs as of May 2011. According to other data released by BLS, there were 237,830,000 people of working age in the United States in 2010. That puts computer and mathematics professionals at around 1.4% of the working age population (these numbers aren’t perfect since they are drawn from different years, and the categorization of tech jobs isn’t perfect). Even if we assume all short sleepers are of working age, tech companies would need to attract 50-100% of them to fill all positions – and still may come up short. Plus, all these short sleepers would need to be intelligent and technically minded enough for the work.

Mayer cites Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill as examples of people who worked extensive hours long into their lives, but the truth is most of us are probably more like Archimedes: we need to take breaks in order to make breakthroughs.

How Much Are You Really Getting Done?

Sara Robinson mentioned meetings and e-mail as part of what eats up an eight hour day for knowledge workers. The Robinsons don’t address whether activities and meetings count as “work” during a knowledge worker’s day, but there is some evidence that even very boring meetings require a degree of mental effort. In 2009 Canada.com ran a story on research conducted by Jackie Andrade of the University of Plymouth on the subject of “doodling.” Andrade’s research found that doodling actually sharpens the mind. One possible reason:

When people are bored they have high levels of brain activity, Andrade says. “When you’re bored, you think nothing much is going on, but actually your brain is looking for something to do.”

So we daydream. But daydreaming takes considerable mental effort, particularly when we get stuck in a daydream. “So that sucks mental resources and energy away from the other task we’re meant to be doing,” Andrade says.

Doodling occupies the mind, but isn’t as exhausting as day dreaming. Andrade’s research suggests that it would be better to cut back on unproductive meetings than it would be to expect workers to count meetings as “breaks” (though apparently doodling during boring meetings will make them less exhausting).

This opens up a lot of questions about what counts as “work,” though. We don’t know how much our day to day activities, such as Cooking dinner, reading Russian novels, building model airplanes, reading to our kids, helping them with their homework or just laying around watching TV, affect our cognitive performance at work the next day.

Side Projects and Volunteering

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the 501 Developers Manifesto is this section:

If you:

    • Write a technical blog
    • Contribute to open source projects
    • Attend user groups in your spare time
    • Mostly only read books about coding and productivity
    • Push to GitHub while sitting on the toilet
    • Are committed to maximum awesomeness at all times, or would have us believe it

…we respect you for it. There’s probably some pity in there too, but honestly, it’s mostly respect.

Many programmers contribute code to open source projects on the side not because they want to advance their careers or because they think they’ll be able to build a profitable startup from their work later, but because they legitimately enjoy programming. Unfortunately, the sort of complex thought that goes into open source contributions or other side projects or even volunteer work or activism probably does count towards our cognitive capacity.

I don’t think any company should try to limit developers contributions to open source outside of work, or try to stop employees from joining the boards of non-profits, volunteering at their churches or their children’s schools or otherwise tell employees how to spend their spare time. I also don’t think developers or other workers should stop doing the things that are important to them just to be more productive at work. These are the things that help us lead meaningful, fulfilled lives. But it’s important to keep our limits in mind – spending too much time on one hobby or side project can take away our ability to focus on another.

For employers, it’s worth still worth keeping the work hours short. For workers, it’s worth being mindful of how you spend your energy.

When Overtime Works

It might be OK to do some overtime under the right conditions. Evan Robinson writes about a study by the Business Roundtable called Scheduled Overtime Effect on Construction Projects:

Productivity drops when working 60-hour weeks compared with 40-hour weeks. Initially, the extra 20 hours a week makes up for the lost productivity and total output increases. But the Business Roundtable study states that construction productivity starts to drop very quickly upon the transition to 60-hour weeks. The fall-off can be seen within days, is obvious within a week…and just keeps sliding from there. In about two months, the cumulative productivity loss has declined to the point where the project would actually be farther ahead if you’d just stuck to 40-hour weeks all along.

In other words, you may be able to use overtime to catch up on lost work, or to make a final push towards the end of the project, but push too much and you’re better off having just stuck to a 40 hour a week schedule.

This paper was criticized in a meta-analysis paper by H. Randolph Thomas titled “Effects of Scheduled Overtime on Labor Productivity.” Thomas noted methodology deficiencies in the paper, including the fact that the data was taken from only one construction project. However, Thomas and Karl A. Raynar later conducted further research on four different construction projects and concluded in the paper “Scheduled Overtime and Labor Productivity” that: “The results compare favorably to other published data including the Business Roundtable (BRT) curves. Therefore, it was concluded that the BRT curve is a reasonable estimate of losses that may occur on average industrial projects.”

I would also note that there are circumstances under which overwork is impossible to avoid. I would not have been able to make the transition from being an IT worker to being a tech journalist if I hadn’t worked part time as a writer on the side. Many people have to work full time while going to school. Some people have to work more than one job to get by. Sometimes freelancers can’t afford to turn down projects with overlapping deadlines.

It may result in overall lower productivity, but sometimes it’s the only way to get something done. The key is to be aware of the effects of overwork and know when it’s worth putting in the extra effort.

What Happens Next?

Chris Nerney writes for IT World:

Even as you read this, thousands of tech workers at Facebook, Google, Zynga and elsewhere are playing the Sandberg card! And when I say “thousands,” I mean none. Because no one who’s putting in 50 or 60+ hours because they’re afraid not to is going to stick out their neck and demand their lives back from the tech jobs that consume them or the venture capitalists who get wealthy on the backs of overworked and stressed-out technology employees. Not in this shaky economy.

I hope Nerney is wrong. The 501 Manifesto is being widely criticized, but it’s also getting a lot of play. Sandberg stepping forward is a good sign, as is Netscape co-founder Jamie Zawinski taking Michael Arrington to task for demanding more from entrepreneurs:

He’s trying to make the point that the only path to success in the software industry is to work insane hours, sleep under your desk, and give up your one and only youth, and if you don’t do that, you’re a pussy. He’s using my words to try and back up that thesis.

I hate this, because it’s not true, and it’s disingenuous.

What is true is that for a VC’s business model to work, it’s necessary for you to give up your life in order for him to become richer.

Meanwhile, companies like 37 Signals and SAS are leading the way on offering sane working hours for employees. But the most important thing might be just taking a long hard look at the data and what it tells us about how much time we should spend working.

This article originally appeared at SiliconAngle.