Friday, December 31, 2004

Happy Birthday to Me!!!

I changed my mind. I didn't get my SoundDock for Christmas, but I did get to choose what I wanted for my birthday. Now that we were being serious, I decided to read some reviews and figure out what would be best for me. Thanks to the iPodlounge GearGuide, I found a better alternative: the JBL OnStage. According to the reviews, it has clear, balanced sound and it will accept a normal line in, so you aren't tethered to the iPod as your only source of music. I don't see myself necessarily using it any other way, but it's nice to have the option.

The best part about it is that it costs about $190 less than the SoundDock. Since I apparently don't have a group of people waiting to pool their money and get me something extravagant, this price tag seems much more palatable.

Not to mention, with the horror happening across the world right now, extravagance seems a bit harder to justify. I gave the difference in price, and then some, to the Red Cross for the tsunami flood victims.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

You'll be sorry you asked

OK, as requested, here's another "how's the novel coming?" status update. Read it at your own risk, since I can't promise that it will be anywhere near as entertaining or thought-provoking as previous updates. Fair warning: I may have repeated some of this previously, but since I'm the only one reading it, I don't really care. The history helps to put things in perspective.

After several years of saying, "I really should write a book about this," I finally bit the proverbial bullet this year and started writing in January. In fits and starts, I have kept going all year, and just finished chapter 8 this week. Word count-wise, I'm at about 40K, so if my estimates are correct and I really am somewhere between one-third and halfway done, then this will be about a 100K-word book. Right in the sweet spot for satirical fiction: not so long as to excite comparisons with Twain, but not so short that it's filed with the Bathroom Reader series in the bookstores.

The book is tentatively titled Hollywood.bomb©. It provides a humorous look inside a hot young software company, where you can see what happens when social norms are relaxed in deference to technical prowess, and what happens when the brainy, esoteric world of software collides with the hype-driven superficiality of Hollywood.

Hmm, that sounds pretty good. I might save that for my query letter.

I spent the first half of this year playing around with the plot and characters, thinking deep thoughts about the meaning of satire, and generally avoiding putting anything that looked like a plot on virtual paper. Then in July I took advantage of the rest of my family's annual summer pilgrimage to my in-laws' house, and took a one-week writing retreat to see if I could really write when I tried. Turns out that I can, just not very quickly.

One week of "full-time" writing got me through three chapters, and another month resulted in a fourth. Then I slowed down again and spent a lot of time saying, "I really should write tonight," or, "I should remember that for my book." I recruited some relatives to read what I had so far, and was rewarded with chuckles, guffaws, and the occasional belly laugh. And that was before they read what I wrote (ba-dump bump!).

Finally, I participated in NaNoWriMo and got serious about writing nearly every night. Once again, I was reminded that I can write, just not very quickly. I also learned that an hour of writing a night isn't as painful as I thought it was, and that I don't miss TV that much when I don't watch. This caused an unfortunate drop in the value of my Netflix subscription, but it was a small price to pay for creative productivity. Chapters 5, 6, and part of 7 resulted from this tortoise-like sprint, but a new habit was born.

I caught a series of colds in November and early December -- actually, I'm still getting over one now -- which sapped much of my energy. I went back to knowing I should write, but really just wanting to slump in my "Big Man" easy chair and watch football. Or Buffy, Season Two, I wasn't picky. I mustered up the energy for a bout of writing here and there, and even took advantage of some slow times at work, and managed to complete Chapter 7 and start Chapter 8.

I took a week off for Christmas, too. My dream was to get in at least three four-hour writing sessions over the vacation, but managed only one. On the other hand, my wife's presents were wrapped as well as I could make them, and we have almost decided on the color of the new living room furniture. Four hours was enough to finish Chapter 8, though, which was satisfying. I think that Chapter 9 will go quickly, as well, since I have already written one long scene that will go there. I just need to fill in around it and come up with a few minor plot twists to keep things interesting.

Probably the hardest thing for me about this process is that it takes so darn long. I have never had to wait more than a couple of weeks to complete a personal project, and have always dashed off anything I needed to write in a day or so. To maintain the energy and purpose over a long haul of a year (and counting) has been a real test of my patience and commitment. It's also really hard to wait for the fun parts of the book to arrive. When I started seriously considering this book (see: January through June), I came up with some very funny scenes and concepts that I thought would make the book. Unfortunately, as with most comedies, the action has to build up to the funniest stuff. So I have had to wade through exposition and character introductions and all kinds of other setup before I can get to the really good parts. In fact, I'm still not there. I have been able to write some stand-alone scenes that won't actually happen for many more chapters, so that has helped somewhat. At least I don't have to worry about forgetting that really funny image or that perfect line between now and Chapter 16. But the best part, the culmination of many interactions and tensions between characters, where everything explodes in a big messy climax, is still a ways off, and I don't feel that I can write it now.

I am also seeing something else firsthand that I have always heard authors say, but which sounded like fanciful artist-speak to me: the story changes as you write it. Now, I don't have characters waking me up in the middle of the night with a story to tell -- don't get me started on the guy who claimed that -- but I do find myself throwing things in that I had never have thought of until just that moment, things that turn out to be integral to the plot or a characters arc. That's a big part of the reason that I can't write the big scenes yet: there are pieces missing from them that I don't even know about now. if I tried to insert them into a previously written scene later, I think it would be awkward at best, contrived at worst. Those things are going to come together naturally, but I have to wait to get there.

In books, movies, or even TV shows, I love it when a story or a joke comes all the way back around to the beginning, and uses things that you didn't even know were important until just then. Arrested Development is the best example of this on TV that I have seen, with no element ever wasted. I always thought that you had to intricately diagram every aspect of your story to make that happen, but now I'm starting to think that maybe you don't, that you can just let these things fall where they may and gather them up at the end. That's a great relief to me. I don't think I'd have the patience to do it otherwise.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Trackbacks now added!

I just added Haloscan commenting and trackback to this blog. Now I can get into long arguments with people I have never met and -- if I'm lucky -- probably never will meet. Technology is a wonderful thing.

I think I'll go find someone and pick a fight.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Marion Fights Back

Marion Jones Sues Accuser Over Steroid Allegations

Now Marion Jones is suing Conte over his claims that he witnessed her using steroids. This is shaping up into the greatest "He said, she said" battle since Monica and Bill squared off. Well, at least as far as the sports world is concerned, though I expect it will have about as much impact on the rest of the world as the Lewinsky story had on sports.

Now that this is going to a civil trial though, my question is: how does Marion make her case? If you can't prove a negative, how does she prove that Conte was lying? I guess they can try to force him to give specifics about the incident and then prove she was elsewhere, but that's a dangerous game. They did meet in person, and all he has to do is use some of those meetings as the basis for his story, assuming he's lying. If he's telling the truth, then Marion doesn't want this to get anywhere near a trial.

Filing the lawsuit is a good move, but going through with it is the only way to show that she has nothing to hide. If this settles out of court, I'll be very disappointed.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Oy, that's early!

I had to be at work by 4 AM today (don't ask why, it's a long story). It's a surreal experience driving to work at 3:00 in the morning, just you and a couple of semi trucks. Heck, even the truckers were mostly sleeping at that time. The convenience of having the road to myself was tempered by the fact that I had to slow down or risk outdriving my headlights. And did you know that the rest area McDonalds only offers a limited menu in the wee hours? It's somewhere between late-night burgers and breakfast.

It's also really hard to get gas at 3:00 AM. Only the rest area station was open.

I was ready for lunch by 9:00 and now that everyone else is getting lunch I'm ready to go back to bed. Call it the swing-and-a-half shift.

Friday, December 10, 2004

All I want for Christmas

Now, this is what I want for Christmas: the new Bose SoundDock. I can't think of a better way to fill the room with those holiday favorites. Family, are you listening?

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Just Write

"Good," "great," and "stinky" writing are all relative, and are primarily a function of practice. Just being capable of putting words together in an order that other English-speaking people are able to understand, with relatively few typos or misspellings would put someone ahead of many people with whom I work on a daily basis, even if they didn't consider it a God-given skill. This ability can be honed, just like any other ability, only through practice.

I threw javelin in high school and college. God graced me with a strong arm, so for the first year or so I got by on muscles alone. I ran down the runway, did a few cross steps, and then basically stopped and heaved as hard as I could on that little spear. I topped out, though, at about 150 feet, which was as far as my raw strength could take me. To go any further than that, I had to find a way to convert the momentum of the run into the kinetic energy that would propel the javelin further than my arm could alone. That took practice, lots of it. I had to train my muscles to work in concert, but I also had to create new neural pathways in my brain to control the millions of actions that had to take place to transfer energy from my planted left foot all the way to my arm without interruption. The only way to do that was through massive repetition.

Writing works the same way. When you start trying to tell a story, your brain contains the images you want to convey, but your fingers don't yet have the skill to convey them perfectly. More importantly, the neural pathways between your visual imaging centers and your language centers haven't formed yet. That, too, takes brutal repetition.

I participated in National Novel Writing Month for the first time this year, and while I discovered that speed-writing doesn't exactly fit my lifestyle, I read some things that got me excited about their damn-the-torpedoes approach to creativity:


If I'm just writing 50,000 words of crap, why bother? Why not
just write a real novel later, when I have more time?

There are three reasons.

1) If you don't do it now, you probably never will. Novel writing is mostly
a "one day" event. As in "One day, I'd like to write a novel." Here's the truth:
99% of us, if left to our own devices, would never make the time to write a
novel. It's just so far outside our normal lives that it constantly slips down
to the bottom of our to-do lists. The structure of NaNoWriMo forces you to put
away all those self-defeating worries and START. Once you have the first five
chapters under your belt, the rest will come easily. Or painfully. But it will
come. And you'll have friends to help you see it through to 50k.

2) Aiming low is the best way to succeed. With entry-level novel writing,
shooting for the moon is the surest way to get nowhere. With high expectations,
everything you write will sound cheesy and awkward. Once you start evaluating
your story in terms of word count, you take that pressure off yourself. And
you'll start surprising yourself with a great bit of dialogue here and a
ingenious plot twist there. Characters will start doing things you never
expected, taking the story places you'd never imagined. There will be much
execrable prose, yes. But amidst the crap, there will be beauty. A lot of
it.

3) Art for art's sake does wonderful things to you. It makes you laugh. It
makes you cry. It makes you want to take naps and go places wearing funny pants.
Doing something just for the hell of it is a wonderful antidote to all the
chores and "must-dos" of daily life. Writing a novel in a month is both
exhilarating and stupid, and we would all do well to invite a little more
spontaneous stupidity into our lives.

(from their FAQ)

It's too late for anyone else to participate in the official NaNoWriMo for this year, but it's not too late to take these ideas to heart:

  1. Just write.
  2. Shut up. Just write.
  3. Don't reread, don't edit. Just write.
  4. Give yourself permission to stink, at least on the first pass. You can clean it up later when you edit the complete work.
You will start awkwardly, but your writing muscles will loosen and strengthen as you go on. Don't let the initial cramps keep you from getting any further, and don't try to be a great writer! Settle for "legible," then move on to "readable," and accelerate from there. Even if your first few chapters stink, it will get better as you go on. Plus, you can always come back to them later and apply your bulging writing muscles to rewriting them in painfully beautiful prose.

Just Write.

- WS
Who is now on chapter 8 of his first novel and getting better all the time.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Late Model CARS

Disney, Pixar delay release of last joint movie

Pixar announced yesterday that it will delay the launch of its next movie, Cars from November 2005 to June 2006 in order to maximize potential box office and DVD revenues. While analysts had several theories as to the real reason for the delay -- including production problems and stalling to give more time to find a new distribution partner -- Steve Jobs was quick to squelch any rumors.

"The truth is, that aliens have abducted Lee Unkrich, who's in charge of our first non-Disney film," stated Jobs, "and we need time to negotiate a prisoner transfer that will get Lee back and return Michael Eisner to his home planet."

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Go Canadian, eh?

T-Shirt Co. Offers 'Go Canadian Package'

A New Mexico T-shirt company is offering a "Go Canadian" package, which will allow Americans traveling abroad to avoid political discussions by posing as Canadians. The kit includes a Canadian flag T-shirt, a Canadian flag lapel pin, and a Canadian patch for luggage or a backpack. There's also a quick reference guide — "How to Speak Canadian, Eh?" — on answering questions about Canada.

The product has been met with enthusiasm, leading the company to consider several other kits, including:

  • The his-and-hers "Go Taliban" kit: a fake beard and AK-47 for him and an all-enclosing burka and chastity belt for her.

  • The "Go Yankees" kit: a steroid syringe, a vacuum with an attachment that fits directly over your wallet, and a one-size-fits-all choke collar

  • The "Go Democrat" kit: same as the "Go Yankees" kit, only the syringe is replaced by a large "I'm sorry, world" sign

  • The vintage "Go German" kit, (for sale in France only): a white flag, swastika armband, and French-to-German dictionary, complete with 32 different German phrases for "I surrender unconditionally"

Friday, December 03, 2004

Look into the Future

Deep thought for the day: If you want to know what your girlfriend will look like in twenty years, look at her mother. If you want to know what you will look like in five years, look at your boss.

Sweet Pain

You know you've had a good workout when you have to open the locker room door with your head.

Marion Jones Juiced?

ESPN.com - OLY - BALCO chief says he gave drugs to sprinter Jones

Victor Conte is cutting loose and doing his best to take everyone else down with him. I find his self-righteous tone more than a bit laughable, given that he has been dealing in illegal drugs for the past several years. He says, "Do [I] feel ashamed about what [I've] done? The answer is, no. Because I got to a point where I realized that elite sport is about doing what you have to do to win. I've seen athletes being forced to decide whether to use or not use, and it's much more painful for them to entertain the idea of giving up their dream than using anabolic steroids. So those are the real rules. That's what's really going on. Those are the real choices that athletes face when they get to the very top of their sport."

That's like hearing a drug pusher say, "Hey, I just provide the smack. They kill themselves with it." Or maybe Philip Morris (I mean, "Altria") saying, "We didn't force people to smoke cigarettes."

The relativistic argument of "everyone's doing it" doesn't hold any more water now than it did when you used it on your Mom in fifth grade. You remember: when you wanted to go jump your dirt bike off the edge of the overpass, because Tommy Milewski said that it would prove you weren't a wuss. Guess what? Even if you had gone and cracked your head open, you still would have been a wuss, because you let him tell you what to do. Only now, you'd be a brain-damaged wuss. So Mom was right. Go call her and tell her I said so.

I was an athlete in college, and I wanted to do my best. I wasn't exactly competing on the international stage, though I had my dreams. I can't imagine taking something that was both illegal and unhealthy (come on, everyone, do you think your body likes being pumped full of chemicals?) in the name of those dreams. Especially in sports, which are supposed to be about bettering yourself and striving in clean competition to outrace, outthrow, or outjump someone, how do you knowingly cheat and then claim that you're proud of your achievements?

I don't buy the "leveling the playing field" argument. It sounds too much like an excuse to take a shortcut, and I think that you have to exhibit some personal integrity if you want to be lifted up as an "elite" anything. I also suspect that it's more about getting -- or being afraid of losing -- those big endorsements than it is about achieving dreams anymore. Money is a far more powerful stimulant than any adrenalin surge that comes from winning.

All that said, I'll still be very sad if it turns out that Marion Jones was juiced. Sad, but not terribly surprised. I mean, did you see her last spring? I wish that I had a body like that.

Speaking of things you can't say...

... my only hope for polite society is that most of this goofiness is restricted to California: Yahoo! News - 'Master/slave' Most Politically Incorrect Phrase.

Then again, this is no crazier than some of the freakishly over-sensitive debates that people entered into around the time that I was in college. Don't even get me started on the Water Buffalo Affair....

Thursday, December 02, 2004

You Don't Say!

Further reading on Paul Graham’s site has given me a new favorite essayist. Well, let’s be honest: I didn’t really have a "favorite essayist" before, so he’s "new" in the sense that I hadn’t ever read anything he’d written before, not because he replaced someone in my great pantheon of essaydom. Although, now that I think of it, Mark Twain and C.S. Lewis both wrote some rather famous essays, so I guess I did have some other favorites. OK, Paul is now in my Top Three of favorite essayists.

Why do I call him an essayist? Because he calls himself one, right here. After reading that piece, I realized that I, too, have been writing essays ever since I started this infernal blog. So I guess Paul’s really in my Top Four.

One of Paul’s works, What You Can't Say, really challenged me (go ahead, read it. I’ll wait). At heart, I agree with what I think is his common theme: "Question everything," or as he puts it, ABQ -- Always Be Questioning. We can’t improve what we don’t question, and in my job I try every day to ask, "Why are we doing this, and how could it be done better?" So we’re all right there, me and Paul.

As I read, though, I started feeling defensive. Somewhere between the lines, I felt that I could read a hidden message: "It’s people like you that are enforcing these ridiculous taboos. Why can’t you just lighten up and stop forcing your morality down my throat, man?" I mean, I’ve never even met this guy, and now he’s attacking me? Where did he get off, with his relativistic intellectual pseudo-superiority? The nerve!

Well, it passed, but not until I walked away from the computer for a while and, in the interest of being true to my previously stated principles, asked myself some questions? Why did I feel defensive? Was I oppressing anyone or taking away their intellectual independence (my children notwithstanding)? No, not as far as I knew, which is why it felt so unfair. Was I part of a group that Paul identified as actively oppressing freedom of speech? Not directly. Nowhere in the essay did he say, "specifically, all tall white guys with white-collar jobs who lives west of Cambridge, MA, really need to think about what they’ve done." But we were getting warmer. Then it hit me: I am so used to being lumped in with that group that the other side is always accusing of oppressing something or other that I automatically assume, whenever I read something calling for open-minded dissent, that I’ll be demonized. The funny thing is, I get it the right or the left, depending upon which issue we’re talking about. But it doesn’t matter, because, by virtue of my skin color, faith, education level, income, and/or sexual preferences, I must be wrong, at least according to the other white guys leading the debate on the other side of the issue.

This is the main flaw in dealing with people as a group: you inevitably lump someone in based on demographics who really doesn’t match the color of the brush with which you’re painting them, and they get offended. Now, on top of the usual demagoguery and polemics, you have hurt feelings from someone who thought they were on your side. Better to deal with people as individuals, I say, and stop being so lazy. Despite what you may have heard and read over the past (Heaven help us) 13 months or more of campaigning, the world isn’t divided up into groups that all move en masse from one issue to the next. It is made up of individuals, all exhibiting their independence to one degree or another, all making up their minds -- or deciding not to make up their minds -- on their own. I'll admit that I feel a fair level of pity for those who have decided to unquestioningly follow the herd, but it was still their decision and even they can be shaken enough to question the herd mentality when it comes to extremes.

So what have we learned so far?

  1. Paul Graham is a good writer who makes you think.

  2. I don't like being lumped in with other people, especially negatively.

  3. It's better to deal with people as individuals than as members of a group.

  4. It's better to deal with issues in the same way. (I didn't really say that before, but I think it's a good corollary, and I like lists)

Once I got over my knee-jerk reaction and realized that I wasn't being blamed for anything yet, I started thinking about some of the things that we can't say, specifically in business. What heresies are out there, lurking in people's heads every day as they go to work? The company Christmas (oops, Holiday) Party isn't until next week, so rather than listening in on drunken conversations I'll have to make up the answers myself. Here's a few I came up with:

  • Maybe A Better Process isn't the answer. Maybe doing better has something to do with personal responsibility.

  • Maybe our CEO and other executives are fallible, or worse, don't actually know what they're doing.

  • Maybe going into this market, product line, or up against that competitor was a mistake.

  • Maybe we should treat employees like adults and hold them accountable for what they do while they're at work, rather than making up a bunch of rules describing what personal accountability doesn't look like. Could we still succeed as a company?

  • Maybe work really is personal and we should acknowledge that fact in the way we deal with our employees.

  • Maybe the bottom line shouldn't be the most important factor in every decision.

  • Maybe we're getting our butts kicked because we did something wrong, and not because of macro issues in the economy, our industry, or the world at large. Should we try to fix that?

That's a start. If, by some small chance, someone else actually reads this, feel free to add your own in the comments below, so I know that I'm not just entertaining myself. If I know you're out there, I may even try to make future ramblings more coherent and entertaining.

Or, as they say nowhere that I've ever been, "Holla back!"

Oh, one more thing: If you like what you saw on Mr. Graham's site, you should check out his book: Hackers and Painters. It's worth the read.

Just Design It

This great essay from Paul Graham attempts to describe why Americans do some things well and other things badly. I think he's hit the nail on its well-designed head.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

TMF: NaNo-NoMo: Stick a fork in me...

... I'm done.

OK, I might not be completely done, since I may actually write some more before midnight. I can safely say that I have been mathematically eliminated from "winning" by crossing the 50K threshold. This has been extraordinarily helpful to me, though, in building the habit of writing (almost) every day. I am going to keep at it, and still hope to have a final first draft of my novel by the end of the year. Maybe I'll participate in NaNoEdMo in March.

Final Word Count (as of 11/29/04): 16,375
Estimated Crap:Quality Ratio: 4:1

Honk if you're shallow

If your philosophy of life, religion, or politics can be summarized on a bumper sticker, perhaps it's not worth sharing.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Why thank y-- Hey!

The other day, a friend said that he thinks I look just like Mr. Incredible. I was flattered until I realized that he didn't clarify whether that was with or without the extra 50-100 pounds of tummy.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

The secret

The secret to good satire is that no one is as smart as they think they are, but some people are smarter than they appear.

OK, you could probably argue that this is the secret to a good story in general, or even that it's not really a secret. Maybe everyone knows this already. But in satire, or any humorous writing, a lot of the comedy comes from people trying to operate at a level that is higher than their capabilities, and getting into trouble as a result. So I maintain that, while not exclusively the province of satire, this truth is nonetheless a central building block of good satire.

And now that I think of it, I can attest from firsthand experience that not everyone is aware of this fact in life. I know a lot of people who think they're smarter than they really are, and even more who think they're smarter than everyone else. Maybe that's why this works so well in a story: we see it in the people around us every day, but not in ourselves. That's why everyone can laugh at the joke, without realizing that it's really on them.

Friday, November 19, 2004

The career ladder, as seen from each rung:

Entry level:
"I have no idea what I'm doing, and I'm going to fail miserably at any moment."

Management:
"I think I'm getting the hang of this, but I miss doing real work."

Senior Management:
"I'm too good for this job."

Executive Management:
"I have no idea what I'm doing, and I'm going to fail miserably at any moment."

Gnome Love

Naked Gnomes Stolen from Peep Show

BERLIN (Reuters) - Thieves have stolen scantily clad, anatomically correct garden gnomes from a gnome peepshow in an eastern German amusement park, park manager Frank Ullrich said on Thursday. The adults-only attraction at Dwarf-Park Trusetal, where visitors peep through keyholes to see the saucy German miniatures in compromising poses, was smashed open early on Thursday morning.

While police realistically hold out little hope that they will find the naked gnomes, they have nonetheless requested warrants to search the homes of both Michael Jackson and Verne Troyer.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Barely managing

I think it's about time we got rid of the term "manager." The word is so full of passivity that it can barely stand upright on its own. It implies a lack of ownership, a sense of "just keeping an eye on things," of making sure nothing goes wrong while not really doing anything right, either. I mean, look at this:

"He managed to get through the day without breaking anything."

"How are you today?"
"I’m managing. You?"

"The morphine will help us to manage the pain as you go through the treatment, Mrs. Clark."

Inspired yet?

By definition, managing is just keeping things from spinning out of control:

Manage:

  1. To direct or control the use of; handle: manage a complex machine tool.

  2. To exert control over: "Managing the news... is the oldest game in town" (James Reston). "A major crisis to be managed loomed on the horizon" (Time).

  3. To make submissive to one's authority, discipline, or persuasion.

  4. To direct the affairs or interests of: manage a company; an agency that manages performers.

  5. To succeed in accomplishing or achieving, especially with difficulty; contrive or arrange: managed to get a promotion.


"Managing" is, in fact, the essence of everything that is wrong with most companies today. In good times and bad, most companies are full of people who are just trying to get by, keeping things under control and hoping no one screws up in too visible a fashion. It’s not the economy that has made scared little rabbits out of most managers; it just shrank the size of the rabbit hole and flushed more of them out into the open.

I don't want a company full of managers. Instead, give me a company full of leaders. Give me men and women who will inspire people to follow them, whether into a brave new world of technology or another day of outstanding customer service. Give me people who take responsibility for the assets and people under their care, who talk about "my team" and mean it with all of their hearts. Give me people with the basic courage to make a decision and act upon it without seeking coverage from someone higher up. With a handful of these, I could beat the pants off of a room full of managers.

Somewhere along the line, though, we decided that leaders were too dangerous to have around. They're headstrong, full of their own ideas, unwilling to build consensus before rushing off. Managers are much safer. They keep everyone informed, they gather everyone’s opinions before they act, and they are always polite and open to new data. The fact that they rarely accomplish anything of import is strangely comforting, too, since that keeps them from ever being a threat to their managers. They keep everything calm and on an even keel. They don’t rock the boat.

Leaders, now, they make everyone nervous, especially their managers, because, by definition, people will follow them. And if people start following the leaders, who will be left to attend the managers’ meetings? And leaders definitely don’t keep things smooth and unruffled. They hate the restriction of comfort zones, and keep pulling people out of them. And if you have more than one in a room, they will inevitably bump into each other, sometimes with loud results. That can be frightening to people who prefer everything comfortable and quiet. A good leader, though, knows when to follow someone else with better ideas, even if it takes a few discussions before realizing the value of those ideas. He recognizes leadership in someone else and, rather than seeing it as a threat, sees it as an opportunity to learn or to teach. He knows that, if he follows someone else, that soon he will have a chance to make a piece of the vision his own, and lead others in making it come true.

Someone who can’t follow, who sees every spark of leadership in another as a threat to be crushed, isn’t a leader; he’s an egomaniac. Unfortunately, even egomaniacs can be charismatic, so some of them have gathered enough followers to be seen as leaders. Don’t be misled, though: the egomaniac is wholly wrapped up in himself, and self is always finite. The egomaniac will flame out eventually, usually spectacularly, and his fall is often hastened by his own followers. A leader, on the other hand, harnesses the collective power of the whole group, which is infinite, since success will cause the group to grow. He values every opinion, nurtures every other person’s ability to lead, so that he doesn’t have to do it all himself. He finds strength in numbers, and gives strength to others.

Can everyone be a leader? I think so, if they want to be. Some prefer to follow, and some of those will always do so. They like the comfort of knowing someone else is making the big decisions and taking the risk of being wrong. They prefer “I told you so,” to, “Let’s see what happens.” As long as they follow willingly, and provide what help they can, they serve a purpose. Many, though, may find themselves inspired by leadership, and think, “I could do that.” These can become leaders in their own areas, taking on as much responsibility as they can handle and eventually, if their own leaders are good, maybe a little more than they can handle, and they will grow. They will make mistakes, but if they are encouraged to keep trying, they will learn from them and become even better. And when they are ready, hopefully, they will teach others to lead as well, and the process continues, and the team grows.

Enough of managers. Give me leaders.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Now THAT'S comedy!

A funny story is best told with a wry quirk of the lips, and nothing more. In my experience, a story laughingly told is as often met with puzzled silence as with answering laughter, and followed by, "You had to be there."

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Negotiating 101

A former colleague of mine has a new job offer (congratulations!), and asked for advice on how to negotiate the terms of his employment. Here's what I suggested to him:

Negotiating is all about showing your worth to your prospective employer, and no one knows your worth better than you do. Show them how highly you value yourself by demanding double their original offer in both salary and vacation time, with extra dental benefits. And remember to insist upon those little perks that say, "I'm the best you're going to get," like free soda, extra bathroom breaks, ergonomic chair attachments, and a duck. Never forget the duck.

At the same time, negotiating is about showing how excited you are about this new prospect, so ask lots of questions to show that you're engaged. Here are some suggestions:
  • How many vacation days do you have per year, and what's your policy on pseudo-religious holidays?

  • Does the company medical policy cover self-inflicted wounds? What if it was an accident?

  • How many of your corporate officers have been convicted in the past year? Do you expect that number to go up or down in the next fiscal year?

  • Does the company provide legal counsel to all employees, or are they required to hire their own?

  • Could I bring a pet to work if it enables me to do my job? What if it's an iguana?

  • What is the company policy on drinking during business hours? Does it matter if I bring my own Scotch?

And of course, negotiating is also about compromise, so be willing to give up any of this if it means you get a job that you like. But not the duck; never the duck.

Monday, November 08, 2004

What's that high-pitched whining noise?

Is it me, or are the post-election histrionics reaching a higher level this year than in other election years? It seems like people have just picked up where they left off on November and carrying their complaining right on into the new year. Maybe this is just a new version of people believing their own hype. It definitely seems to be a situation where, if you repeat anything enough times you'll believe it to be truth.

Unsurprisingly, the hysteria has reached its highest pitch in San Francisco, which is threatening to secede from the union and join Canada. Let's be honest here: do they really think Canada needs more complainers? They already have Quebec wanting out.

I know! Let's trade! We'll take Quebec and Canada can have San Francisco! The net effect on fashion will probably be a wash, and there are probably just as many people in each region who wish they could move to France. I doubt even that would work, though. I give the Franciscans a year before they're complaining about the repressive Canadian regime trying to impose its Middle Saskatchewan morals on them.

Listen up, everyone, this is the way democracy works: you pick the person you think is best leader for the country and you vote for him. If he wins, you can congratulate yourself on what a smart person you were for backing the right man (or woman, come 2008). If he loses, you have two choices: you can trot out your "Don't blame me, I voted for the loser" bumper stickers and whine and complain for four more years about how screwed up everything is, or you can do everything in your power to make things better right where you are, supporting the structure that will allow you to try to vote your person in next time.

That's the beauty of our system. If you don't like who won, you can try again in four years. Regardless of the breast-beating and whining from certain areas of the country, one person really can't screw things up that badly in that time, and if they really do a bad job, we have ways of dealing with that, too. So quit complaining and look around you. What can you do to make your town a better place to live, or to help all those people that you blame someone else for disenfranchising?

Maybe everyone should just listen to some Mozart and chill out.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Almost 10% of the way there

Meet me at NaNo

4345 words down, 45,655 to go. The writing gathers speed, and each night I write more than the last. I have yet to hit my target of 2000 words per day, though, so I'm starting to wonder if I can actually churn out 50,000 in a month. I'm not giving up hope yet, though, and I'm thrilled to be making progress on my book again.

I find that it's hard for me to just stick with the plot and keep moving forward in a straight line. I want to jump ahead to the good parts, when everyone's already been introduced and the crazy stuff is happening. That's where the fun is, and where the funny really happens. Still, a good farce is built on a solid setting, the launching pad from which the lunacy takes off. I have to build the foundation, and I trust that will make the comedy that much more, well, comedic. It's pretty funny in my head already, but if I build in the details, flesh out the characters, I have much richer material to use when they all lose their minds.

This is going to be fun. I just hope my fingers hold out.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Out of the gate

OK, so I'm off to the races. I wrote just over 1,000 words last night before I had to give it a rest. It took me about 90 minutes from when I sat down and turned on the laptop, but just over an hour from the time I stopped surfing, entering my picks for this week's football games, and checking on election results. By the time I stopped, my hands were sore from typing. I may need to stop using the laptop keyboard if I'm going to reach a reasonable level of profligacy.

Things I have already learned about myself as I attempt to go into high-volume mode:

  • I care too much about accuracy. Is anyone really going to check to see if "regular" means coffee with cream and sugar in Boston, as opposed to black in LA?

  • I edit myself constantly. I tried really hard not to go back and change words once they were typed, but I often went back before the sentence was even complete to change it. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since I think every change was for the better, but it certainly slows me down.

  • It's freeing to stop wondering whether this really belongs in the book. I think that, before this, I was so worried about bogging the story down that I ended up writing a distilled version of every scene. Now I'm just letting it wander. I can come back later and tighten it up if it feels like I spent too much time in the coffee shop.


I'm excited about this, though. I started this book earlier this year, wrote 4 chapters, and then left it for a couple of months. (By the way, don't tell anyone at NaNo that I'm continuing a previous work, or I might get in trouble.) For NaNoWriMo, I'm commited to adding 50,000 or more words to my story, which should be almost enough to wrap it up, I hope. Then I can get to work on selling it.

On to the next few pages!

Monday, November 01, 2004

Time to write

Now I've done it. I just signed up for NaNoWriMo -- National Novel Writing Month -- and committed to attempt to write a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. I'd heard about this through a couple of people and was very impressed by the craziness and the humor of the organizers. So I thought: well, I'm supposed to be pursuing this dream of writing a book (or two), so why not do it in the company of a bunch of other crazy people?

Now I have a goal of 2,000 words per day for the next month, since I'm sure that I'll miss some days. That should be doable. I hope.

We shall see.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Curse, Shmurse: they did it!

Sox win! Sox win! Sox win!

After 86 years, a World Series championship returns to Boston!

Can I sleep now? Please?

Kerry's -- no, wait -- Bush's name left off the ballot!!!

Kerry Left Off Some Absentee Ballots

It's an epidemic!

Absentee ballots leave off GOP presidential ticket

I suspect a secret Green plot to get David Cobb elected by confusing voters so badly that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans can gain a majority. I mean, think about it: there have to be a lot of Green supporters running the copiers that print these ballots. Or it could be simple vengeance from Naderheads angry that Kerry's supporters want him thrown off the ballot in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Here's the quote that scares me the most in the Cincinatti article:

"I knew enough to see something was wrong," said the voter [who received the misprinted ballot], who asked not to be identified. "But you wonder whether others maybe didn't notice it before they sent their ballots back."

If the person casting the ballot doesn't even know who the major party candidates are, should they be voting? Are there well-informed US citizens out there in the world saying, "Hmm, I thought the Democrats were going to run someone this year, but I guess they decided to wait until Hillary's ready in 2008?"

Now that's scary.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Two down, two to go...

Here's a great column that perfectly captures the feeling in New England these days.

ESPN.com: Page 2 - Hey, why not us?

And since you asked, here's how I'm feeling:

My fantasy football team lost this week, thanks to a typically weird weekend. 56 points from one team, all on the ground? Come on....

Am I upset? Nah, not really, because there's this strange energy surging around the entire New England region. People are smiling as they shuffle through the drifts of brown leaves. Drivers wave happily at each other, using all five of their fingers. AM radio is suddenly much more popular than FM, and Fox has almost 100% viewership in prime time. Why? Because the Sox are in the Series. Not only that, they're up 2-0.

Now, I didn't grow up here, but frankly, last year would be enough for me to understand that you don't count your playoff wins before they're hatched. As a matter of fact, even if the Sox win four games, I expect most fans will still check the news for several days to make sure the MLB commissioner doesn't overturn one of the wins. Still, people are excited, and for some reason it feels different this year. For real.

We beat the Yankees, and almost all of the bizarre calls went our way. Sure, Ortiz was really safe when he accidentally stole second in Game 6, but Bellhorn's home run and Rodriguez's glove slap were called correctly. The umps didn't steal the game away. Yeah, the Sox have four errors per game so far in the Series, but they won anyway. Mueller booted two balls, but then he caught a wicked line drive and tagged the runner for a double play. These guys aren't seizing up the way other teams have. It just feels... different.

I won't predict that the Sox will win. I know that St. Louis has crushed their opponents at home this year. I will wait for fifteen minutes after any Sox victory to make sure it actually happened. Then I plan to run around my neighborhood barefoot, yelling at the top of my lungs along with all the other crazy people.

Why not us?

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Can you hear me now?

My new neighbor in the cubicle farm is a loud talker. Or, rather, a LOUD TALKER. If he were a keyboard, he would be stuck in all caps with the Caps Lock key forcibly removed. His mutters are speeches, his normal speech a shout, and I shudder to think what he does when he wants his voice to carry. I know more about his project than I do mine, mainly because his booming nasal voice has driven all independent thought from my head. Except the sweet, sweet whisper of the darkness. That's always there.

Have you ever spent a considerable amount of time next to someone like this? It's like being trapped on a transcontinental flight next to an obsessive-compulsive sharer. In short order, every detail of this person's life is imposed upon you, and you feel your own self slipping away under the deluge, your grip on reality failing as you are pulled under by the torrent of words.

And there are plenty of words. My new friend has an opinion on everything, and is certain to his very marrow that everyone else not only wants his opinion, they need it. He is convinced that everyone else with whom he works (present company always excepted) is a total idiot, and needs everything explained to them in the most minute detail. When they ignore his enlightenment -- which after a while they all must, if only out of self-preservation -- he takes this as proof that he is the only person who knows what's right.

Believe it or not, I have never actually spoken to my neighbor directly. I gather all of this excruciating detail from his conversations with his neighbor, who is working on the same project. They loudly debate every twist and turn in the fascinating tale of their project whenever they are able to take a break from telling everyone else what they should be doing. For fun, they sometimes call over a third person, so that all three of them can gather around one cubicle "doorway" and discuss what they should do next to make everyone see the light. At these times, they lower their voices to a conspiratorial holler. It's a little like invisibly attending a very boring cocktail party.

Has anyone seen my headphones? Or some earplugs? Please?!?

Monday, October 04, 2004

Denmark finds the brighter side of global warming

Denmark to Claim North Pole, Hopes to Strike Oil

Finally, someone counteracts all the doom and gloom predictions from those whiny scientists! The best part of Denmark's plan is that, if they do find oil under the ice, we will be able to keep driving our massive, gas-guzzling vehicles for many more years, thus increasing global warming and making even more of the Arctic circle accessible for exploration! It's rumored that their long-term plans are to open the southern coast of Greenland as a tropical resort in 2055.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

BEA Battles the 'Vision Thing'

BEA Battles the 'Vision Thing'

Here's an interesting article on BEA's current struggle with defining its future direction. A lot of the comments sound eerily similar to what people were saying about ATG, another Internet software vendor, two or three years ago. Of course, BEA has $1.8 Billion in cash, so no one is predicting their imminent demise, like they were with ATG back then. ATG is still around, by the way, albeit in a much humbler form.

In 2000, ATG predicted the impending commoditization of the Web application server space. They decided to concede the battle for the app server space and concentrate on commercial applications that were built on top of the app server. It's interesting to see in this article that they were right about the pricing and competitive pressures that application server vendors would face. They were just five years too early in their predictions of when it would happen.

Here are some things I have learned from my ongoing study of Internet software, specifically BEA, ATG, and their competitors:

  1. It's not enough to have the best product. Customers have to understand why it's best for them. Otherwise, they'll be perfectly happy with a mediocre to crappy product that meets their perceived needs. Apple and Microsoft might have something to say on this matter.

  2. Accurately predicting a sea change in your industry might make you a visionary, but it is not enough by itself to make you a succesful business leader. You have to also accurately predict when that change will occur, and make sure you are just barely in front of it. When you get too far ahead of the rest of the competition, you leave your customers behind with them. It's better to spend most of your resources giving customers what they need now, while focusing a small effort on exploring what you think the future will be. That way, you increase your dominance in today's market while positioning yourself for tomorrow's.

  3. If you can't clearly explain your company's vision to either your clients or your customers, maybe you should stop what what you're doing long enough to figure it out. It does no good to sprint off somewhere if no one knows where you're going.

  4. Corollary to #3: if your product is too complicated for the dumbest person in your company to explain, it's too complicated to sell (no commentary on the intelligence of sales people implied, though you can draw your own conclusions).

  5. If you have more money than all of your competitors combined, you can get away with ignoring 1-4, at least for a while.


Win-lose situations

After not being able to string together two workdays with decent weather here in Boston for the last couple of months, I finally got back into doing my 25-mile commute by bike last night and this evening. You see a lot of interesting things on the road at six in the morning (most of them dead), but not enough of them to keep the ride interesting. My mind tends to wander on these rides, and today I started thinking about win-lose situations, those times when, even though you win, you still lose. Here are the ones I thought of, one of which happened on my ride today. I'll let you guess which one:

  • Finally going on that long ride you've been dying to do, the one with all the scenery. In a thunderstorm.
  • Drafting behind a garbage truck.
  • Racing a car down a hill, leaving it behind when it stops for the yellow light, and giving a triumphant glance behind as you go by, only to see your wife/mother/boss behind the wheel.
  • Remembering your helmet, but forgetting your shoes.

Bringing new meaning to "getting air"

Yahoo! News - Prison Guards Find Basketball Full of Pot: "Prison Guards Find Basketball Full of Pot "

McALESTER, Okla. - Oklahoma State Penitentiary officials cut into an exercise-yard basketball and found nearly two pounds of what is believed to be marijuana stuffed inside.

Acting on a tip from McAlester police, prison officials searched the yard and found the basketball, which held 30 one-ounce packets of the leafy substance.

Prison officials did not seem overly concerned at the discovery. "We just assume that this ball was accidentally left behind when the USA Olympic basketball team came here last month for an exhibition game," they said.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Dog Bites Off N.M. Man's Genitals

News - Dog Bites Off N.M. Man's Genitals

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - A man whose genitals were bitten off by a pit bull remained in serious condition Tuesday, and the dog remained on the loose.

The man, who has not been identified, was attacked Monday while walking the dog.

When asked for comment, the dog replied, "Now we're even."

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Irony is alive and well, even if this chap isn't

Man on Quest for Knife-Proof Body Bleeds to Death

And you thought your HMO was bad.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

The Inverse Law of Intelligence Volume

ARTG: Message Board for ART TECH GROUP - Yahoo! Finance

Here's what I discovered today:

The intelligence of a conversation on the Yahoo boards is inversely proportional to the number of messages relating to that conversation.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

The Two Things

The Two Things

"For every subject, there are only two things you really need to know. Everything else is the application of those two things, or just not important.”

I have an addition:

The two things about religion, politics, and child-rearing:
1. I'm right.
2. You're wrong.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Would you like "fresh vegetables" with that?

Batter-Coated Fries OK'd As Vegetable

WASHINGTON - Batter-coated french fries are a fresh vegetable, according to the Agriculture Department, which has a federal judge's ruling to back it up.

The ruling last week by federal District Judge Richard Schell in Beaumont, Texas, allowed batter-coated french fries to be considered fresh vegetables under the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act.

Encouraged by this ruling, Democrats announced today that they are renewing their efforts to have President Bush labeled a vegetable before the November elections.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Re: IT Infrastructure plan?

A former colleague recently asked for some advice:

I'm advising a very early stage startup. They want to put together a computing infrastructure for their office. This includes purchasing the usual desktop computers, say about ten, but also networking equipment, servers for the usual services such as email, ldap, internal web services and a file server (NFS, SMB and perhaps even AppleTalk). They want to plan things out so they can hit the ground running.

This exercise happens all the time. Does anyone have a project plan or checklist that enumerates the steps to get a functioning office and software develop group up and running as quickly as possible?

Thanks in advance,
Joe


This was my reply. Maybe it can help you, too:

I haven't put this into MS Project yet, but here's the basic plan, based upon my experience:

WEEK 1, Day 1: Kickoff. Tell the developers that they will be getting the best computers money can buy, tell the business people they will be getting the lightest computers available, and tell the controller/CFO that you were lying to the first two groups.

Days 2-5: Hardware specification. Argue with the developers over which operating systems and manufacturers to use. Settle on Windows for business users, dual-boot systems (Windows/some open source OS) for developers, and a really big freakin' server for the network. Promise to continue the conversation by email once the mail server is up.

Week 2: Network and software standards. Discuss licensing costs with controller/CFO and decide to use open source wherever possible to save money. Begin discussions with developers over which open source packages are good, which are crufty, and which are only pushed by techno-religious zealots. Realize that everyone you work with is, in fact, a techno-religious zealot.

Week 3: Network and software installation. Hardware arrives. Developers begin installing their preferred software on their own machines, establishing the ability to work together by means of compatibility negotiations that make the SALT II talks look straightforward. The developer that sets up his own machine first wins the ability to set up the network, which he does over the weekend with the aid of several six-packs of Newcastle Brown Ale. The second-place developer gets the mail server, third-place the file server. Disputes over network, file-sharing, and messaging protocols are settled by shouting, wild gesticulating, and, eventually, rock-paper-scissors. Anyone who suggests using a Microsoft product is summarily expelled from the server room.

Weeks 4-20: Tweaking and maintenance. Now that the mail server is up, software standard negotiations can continue at a faster pace. Developers change tools regularly in an attempt to form a group consensus, eventually reverting to a combination of Notepad/text editor of choice and CVS. While the network servers never actually need to be rebooted, they do require regular reconfiguring to accommodate the evolving standard. The most opinionated developer becomes the de facto IT guy after driving out any contractors/part-time IT staff that were originally hired, and splits his 60- to 80-hour weeks evenly between development and network support. Spend time with business users to make sure that they can connect to email and their shared network directories, occasionally explaining to them why they need to stop downloading the "free" porn dialers if they want their computers to continue working. Explain the difference between "hard" license costs and "soft" productivity costs to the controller/CFO.

Week 21: Capitulation. Contact Microsoft about purchasing a Complete Office Solution.


I'm kidding, of course. No one ever makes it to Week 21.

Good luck!
- Me

Friday, June 11, 2004

Does Google's search engine have a sense of humor?

This page was in the top 30 results of a search for "laconic." The word is nowhere to be found on the page or in the source HTML.

I'm sure there's a logarithmic neuro-net explanation for why this showed up, but I prefer to think that Google is approaching sentience.

Nigerian police use acapella to disperse crowd

'We were singing to disperse crowd of strikers': Nigerian police

LAGOS (AFP) - Nigeria's police force, notorious for its strong-arm tactics in dealing with street protests, unveiled one of the more melodious weapons in its armoury -- an impromptu male acapella choir. On Wednesday, a squad of officers was caught on camera by the international news network CNN apparently singing along with a crowd of workers and a well known pop star in a Lagos market on the first day of a general strike. After the impromptu concert ended, the crowd dispersed peacefully.

Seeing the effectiveness of this tactic, Boston Mayor Tom Menino is reportedly considering asking the Village People to come out of retirement to help him end the police union strike outside the Fleet Center, site of this summer's DNC convention.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Not Much Ado About the Holy Grail

Not Much Ado About the Holy Grail

I do love a good parody, especially if it has a bit of the literary to it. Then I can feel sufficiently intelligent while still laughing at people being utterly silly.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

"Drop the Chalupa"

Man Charged With Chalupa Assault

DES MOINES, Iowa - A man who claimed he didn't get the taco he paid for has been charged with assault for allegedly pelting a Taco Bell clerk in the face with a chalupa. In an effort to protect drive-through servers at their other chains, Yum! Brands International, the parent company of Taco Bell and KFC, has announced that it will no longer include flatware packets in its to-go bags.

Said one company official who declined to be named, "The last thing we need is another rash of drive-by sporkings."

Friday, June 04, 2004

Punctured punctuation

If an ASCII character could feel fatigue, then I know of two that would be near death from overuse. If they were animals, PETA would be breaking into my office to set them free, and setting fire to several people's computers to ensure the abuse never happens again.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the hyphen and the apostrophe!

The Humble Hyphen
It has come to this: I now immediately assume that any hyphen I see is misapplied and I ignore any hyphenated word. When did we decide that you were hip if you strung a bunch of irrelevant words together with hyphens? Witness these poor victims of hyphen abuse that I stumbled across this week:

  • Back-out plan

  • Back-up

  • Roll-out

  • Time-sensitive decision

  • Go/no-go meeting

  • High-quality

  • best-of-breed

  • Follow-up

Maybe this wouldn't be so bad if people didn't then go and leave hyphens out where they were actually needed. Here's a tip: if you must stick the noun in front of the adjective that describes it, you generally need a hyphen to let your poor reader know what you're trying to say. Better yet, just write it the normal way and accept that you might have to use another word or two to make a complete sentence. While I realize that this may require you to reduce the font size of your PowerPoint presentation to something below 54 point, believe me when I say it will be worth it.

Apostrophe Catastrophe
And then we have apostrophes, or as everyone I know says, "apostrophe's." I'm trying really hard not to sound like a cantankerous old English teacher here, but please, people, can we rein in the apostrophe use now, please? The apostrophe is now officially more overexposed than Britney Spears' bellybutton. I can't open my email or even look at a newspaper circular without being assaulted by apostrophes that really shouldn't be there. Let me make this simple for everyone:

AN APOSTROPHE DOESN'T MAKE SOMETHING PLURAL.

That's right, you can write about CD's, PO's, Honda's, and how it's raining cat's and dog's, until the superfluous apostrophes litter the ground like sunflower seeds in the Red Sox dugout, but you'll still be wrong. I know, by now, that it looks a little strange to see an "s" without an apostrophe in front of it, but believe me, they exist. And when your sister's sisters come to town with their kids' dogs, you'll be wishing that you knew how to write about it to your aunt's friend in New Orleans without confusing the old biddy more than the AOL interface already has.

Whew! I feel better now.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Talk about taking your ride seriously...

Woman banned from park for spreading dog feces

(Excerpted below)

PORTLAND, Maine — A Portland woman accused of spreading dog feces at Deering Oaks Park as part of a vendetta against its weekly farmer´s market has been banned from the park and charged with criminal mischief.

Lora Leland, 53, was caught early Saturday emptying 16 bags of dog feces in the road that winds through the center of the park, police said. She explained that she was angry at the Saturday morning farmer´s market because it interfered with her ability to ride her bicycle through the park, police said.

***

Ironically, she ended up being banned from the park for a year, so now she has to find a new place to ride anyway.

The moral of the story: Doo unto others as you would have them doo unto you.

Sorry, I couldn't resist.

Wait, that was about DRUGS?!?

27 years after it was written, Paul McCartney finally admitted that "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" was, in fact, about LSD.

In related news, Bob Dylan still stubbornly maintains that his song "Everybody Must Get Stoned" is about capital punishment.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Chicken Soup for the Tortured Soul

Here are some Chicken Soup titles I'd like to see:

Chicken Soup for the Cynical Soul, with foreword by Dennis Miller

Chicken Soup for the Annoying Soul, featuring the essay, "Why does everyone hate me, buuuuuuuddy?" by Pauly Shore

Chicken Soup for the Boring Soul: now with more lists!

Chicken Soup for the Obsessive Soul: guaranteed to have at least one spelling or grammatical error in every chapter. Sometimes more, but we won't tell you in which ones.

Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul: so your mother's soup isn't good enough for you, nu? Maybe when she's dead you'll appreciate it more!

Chicken Soup for the Lazy Soul: just three pages long, and two of them are title pages

Chicken Soup for the Scientologist Soul: you get the first ten pages now, and we send you the rest after we get your bank account number.

Chicken Soup for the Vacant Soul: just blank pages

Chicken Soup for the Materialistic Soul: actually, it's just a Sharper Image catalog with a new cover. But your friends don't have one yet!

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Paddling my life away

I took my family canoeing for Memorial Day and had a great time. It's wonderful to float along on a placid river, enjoying the scenery and gawking at the huge houses overlooking your watery path. The peaceful gurgling of the water under your hull is a gentle counterpoint to your 4- and 5-year-olds' attempts to paddle. Everyone is calm and relaxed, as life slows to pace the meandering amble of the river.

That's the first fifteen minutes.

Soon, your pre-launch lecture on the importance of everyone staying still and hanging on to their paddles has worn off, and the you find yourself alternating between urgent commands as you continuously shift your seat to try to keep the boat afloat:

"Honey, please stop hitting my paddle with yours. I know it makes a great sound, but we're going to hit the bridge if I can't paddle."

"Sit down, please, unless you want to go swimming."

If you're going to hang over the side and drag your arms in the water, could you at least pull up your sleeves and try not to both be on the same side at the same time?"

"Didn't I tell you to hold on to the paddle with both hands?"

Still, the easy drift downstream was pleasant, and the scenery breathtaking. We saw baby ducks, and everyone got to pull leaves off the downed tree while we were tangled in it. We stopped at the Old North Bridge in Concord and paid our Memorial Day respects to the first men to die in battle for our country. The kids had a chance to run around the fields and climb some trees after the nearly unbearable restraint of nearly sitting still in a canoe for 45 minutes. Eventually, though, I felt we should be getting back. After all, we pay for the canoe whether it's in the water or out of it. It's not like there's a little meter in there that counts our mileage.

Come to think of it, that's probably a good thing, as I realized on the way back upstream. We probably traveled two miles as the river flows, but we paddled at least five. Our path back up the river described a perfect sine wave within the confines (mostly) of both river banks, as I tried to find a way to keep the canoe moving against the current while counteracting the activities of my fellow passengers. My son, who continued to drag his fingers, hand, or arm in the water, went from a playful child to demonic friction coefficient, as I began to resent every bit of drag he created. My daughter -- or as I came to think of her, "ballast," -- constantly shifted her position for a better view of birds, trees, rocks, or things floating in the water, when she wasn't making her own wake with her paddle. I'm sure that, from behind, I looked like I was sitting on a live beehive, the way I kept shifting my weight to keep the canoe on an even keel.

My wife, a lovely woman on land, has only been in a canoe once before in her life, back when we were still young lovers, and therefore has never received real instruction in how to operate one. (One attempt at teaching her to ski while we were dating was enough to scare me off of activity instruction for at least a decade.) On this day, she paddled hard and was impressed by my knowledge of proper form, but it never quite sank in that her strokes actually affected our direction. She paddled on one side until that arm got tired and then switched. From up front, that probably seemed like a perfectly reasonable approach. From the stern, it presented unique challenges.

I didn't want to be that guy that we have all seen in outdoor situations, shouting instructions at his poor harried family as he marches them out into the wilderness to have fun. This wasn't a competition, and it was OK if the eight-year-old in the kayak had already passed us going both downstream and up. I wasn't going to start barking out, "Right! Left! Now right again! Stroke, stroke, stroke!" I wanted this to be fun for everyone, or at least everyone else.

After a while, though, I did have to start giving some gentle guidance if I ever wanted to set foot on land again. It wasn't so much a matter of needing to do things correctly as a matter of seeking the shortest distance between two points. To put it bluntly, I was getting tired. That, combined with the knowledge that we had a narrow bridge arch coming up, urged me to finally start explaining the physics of the canoe to everyone, followed by some polite requests for my wife to paddle on one side or the other when I needed help steering. I will admit that the requests grew a little more urgent when the passenger barge nearly ran us down, and when we began to turn sideways in the current under the bridge, but they were always polite.

I think we'll try this again when my family comes to visit. Then we can let the grandparents take one child in their canoe. And we're going upstream first.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Went to sleep in Chicago, woke up in Boston

I went for an overnight trip to Chicago yesterday, which was a strange experience. I've made quick business trips before, but I have never stayed overnight somewhere yet still spent fewer than 16 hours in the city. Nor have I gone to work, then flown somewhere, and been back at work before lunch the next day. It doesn't feel right. If I'm going to get on a plane it should feel like a trip, not a commute. And I shouldn't have to get up at 5:00 in the bloody morning, ever.

This was a sales trip, something else that I don't get to do very often. You see, I'm usually the guy trying to explain to the client that the sales guy was clearly high on a controlled substance when he issued that quote, and that they should be sure that he will be dealt with severely. I've always wondered how they got to the point where they were willing to mortgage the souls of an entire project team in order to get a stranger to give them a PO number. Now I know.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, let me tell you about the plane ride. You've heard of the Ship of Fools and the Village of the Damned? Well, I flew on the Flight of the Queerly Proportioned. Looking around the gate area for my flight was like looking in a hundred funhouse mirrors. There was the extremely tall thin man standing next to the short, round, potbellied plumber. Side by side, they made a giant exclamation point, an excited response to the eternal question mark that was Ultra-Skinny Girl With the Bad Slouch. Everywhere I looked, super-sized bodies advertised the abundance, if not the quality, of airport cuisine, as they waited to be let onto the plane by the flight steward with the abnormally large head. How did all these people come to be on my plane? Was I unwittingly joining some genetic experimentation convention? It was an unsettling beginning to my journey, like crossing into the world of The Triplets of Belleville.

The thing I like most about traveling by myself is that I can read. It's been a long time since I read an actual novel, so I went to my ever-growing To Be Read pile before I left the house and chose what turned out to be a heady read. I highly recommend The Life of Pi to anyone who wants to think and feel while reading a great story. I haven't finished it yet, but my head and heart are already full from it.

One thing I noticed on this trip more than at other times was the complete ubiquity of cell phones. The sound of the airplane door closing was accompanied by a chorus of chirps, farewell songs, and other multi-toned goodbyes from cell phones being powered down. When we landed, the chime of the seat belt sign being deactivated at the gate was nearly drowned out by the sounds of all those phones snapping open and signing their cheerful welcomes to their human traveling companions.

I thought about this as I walked through O'Hare, and I think I now know why cell phones are everywhere now. It's not really about efficiency or getting more work done anymore, is it? It's because we are so very afraid to be alone, even in a crowded airport. We can't bear the noise of our own thoughts, our own pain, so we drown it out in conversation. We call someone, anyone, to let them know that we made it, that we are on our way, that the large man in the seat next to us (after he has walked away in the crowd) had a strange odor of teryaki sauce clinging to him. We check our voicemail because it reminds us that we are necessary, that other people need us to do something for them that, apparently, only we can do. Instead of connecting with the crowd around us, or with ourselves, or with God, we isolate ourselves in a mobile phone booth. It's an amazing sight, to see thousands of people, all moving, all talking, and yet not one of them talking to each other.

On to dinner. As far as I can tell, this was a typical get-to-know-you sales dinner, starting with a bound PowerPoint presentation over drinks. We got the business out of the way early, so that we could enjoy dinner without having to keep working the conversation back around to "why you should hire us." I appreciate this approach, because it saves you from some rather awkward transitions:

Client: While we wait for our appetizers to come, I think I'll head to the restroom.

Sales guy: That's good idea. Speaking of rest, have I mentioned that our clients can rest easy, knowing their project is in good hands?

Client: Um, yeah. I just need to relieve the pressure in my bladder after those six drinks you bought me in the bar.

Sales guy: That's nothing compared to the relief I'll feel when we close this deal.

Client: Look, I'm just going to go pee. Stay here (runs off).

Our prospective client, in this case, was a former sales guy himself, so he knew how to get the work out of the way and get to the fun. Since we were working this deal through another company, their sales guy had come to Chicago as well, and I had my sales guy with me. So, there we were, the three sales guys and me, or as I came to think of it, Alcoholics and Anonymous.

I think there's a reason for all of the old traveling salesman jokes, and the fact that he always ends up trying to sleep with the farmer's daughter. Nearly every sales guy that I have met fits into roughly the same mold: the drink like Vikings, brag constantly about their conquests (women or customers, there's very little difference), and are driven by the fear that someone, somewhere, is having a better time than they are. Their business trips are an eternal quest for the best party ever.

I had little to add to the dinnertime discussion of parties, wild trips, and interesting places to vomit. Fortunately, I couldn't have gotten a word in edgewise even if I had wanted to. I did learn some things, though:

  1. Chicago is known as the best place in America for a business trip one night stand, since half of the bargoing population on any night is in town from somewhere else. Like Vegas, what happens in Chicago stays in Chicago.

  2. No matter how fun it sounds at the time, it is never a good idea to take off all of your clothes and throw them off the balcony when you are 6 feet tall and spending the night with a 5-foot-tall flight attendant. If, however, you decide to do it anyway, remember to take your wallet out of your pants first.

  3. No matter how hot it is, Cabo San Lucas taxi drivers discourage taking off all of your clothes in their cab in an effort to cool down, especially if you are sitting in the front seat.

  4. Finally, it's OK to take your drunk buddy's wallet and use his money to get a room in another hotel (one with functioning air conditioning), but only after he has passed out and with the provision that you owe him a drink the next day.

Needless to say, it's good to be home.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Never mind

My wife has a cold, so I had to go home from work early today to take care of her and the kids.

Remember that thing I said about face time vs. quality time? Never mind.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

I won't grow up

I have to say, I am so grateful for the grownups in the business world. They have taught me so much and helped me to mend my foolish, childish ways. You see, I used to actually think that people were supposed to enjoy their work: imagine that! What did I think this was, college? As it turns out, to be a successful, mature company, you must put such silly notions out of your head and realize what business is really all about: obligations, responsibility, and the burden of respectability.

Young companies and entrepreneurs are allowed to play for a while, but the grownups demand their due in the end. After a while, the press and the other experienced business leaders start saying the things that all grownups say to young adults: "You can't keep playing around like this forever, you know. Eventually, you'll have to start recognizing your responsibilities. You have a duty to the board, to your shareholders, and to the market that must be shouldered. There are bills to pay, reports to deliver, five-year plans to assemble. You've had your fun, but now it's time to start acting like an adult."

Adulthood, according to our wise gray mentors, is a collection of obligations: to family, to country, to employer. There is no room for fun, because that implies that we have some energy left to spend on ourselves. Grownups live a life of dull daily sacrifice, and are glad, in their gray way, to do it. They protect what they have, risk little, and ensure that their obligations will always be met. If they have a little extra time, they pull weeds.

If this is adulthood, then I'm with Peter Pan:

I won't grow up,
I don't want to wear a tie.
And a serious expression
In the middle of July.

And if it means I must prepare
To shoulder burdens with a worried air,

I'll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up
Not me!


I will cling to the belief that work can be fun, and fulfilling, and profitable, all at the same time. I will refuse to accept that a happy employee is an inefficient one, or that money spent on quality of work life is wasted. I will continue to expect that, if I challenge people to rise beyond what they have done before, to push their boundaries and to push each other, that they will rise to the challenge and smile while doing so.

I will not accept the belief that in order to get the most out of people you must beat them down first. I will never allow the frowning grownups with their clucking about "obligation" to convince me that life is only meant to be survived. I may have to spend the rest of my life as an adult, but I refuse to spend it as a grownup! And,

If growing up means
It would be beneath my dignity to climb a tree,
I'll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up
Not me!


File under: ,

Quality time

Over the past decade or so, we've heard so much blather about "quality time" at home that the phrase has become a parody of itself. No one can say it without irony, or at least air quotes. Personally, I think that the concept of quality time was invented by people who felt guilty about how little time they were spending with their children, so they decided, "It's not the quantity of time I spend at home; it's the quality." Right.

The funny thing about kids, though, is that you have to have quantity time in order to get the quality time. You see, they determine when quality time arrives, but you have to be there for it to happen. You can't just sit Junior down and say, "Son, we're going to have some quality time now, and make memories that will last a lifetime. Want to know the meaning of life?" I've seen some friends try -- God help them -- and the next sentence is usually something like, "Son, please don't wipe your boogers on my pants. I just got them back from the cleaners."

What I want to know is, why doesn't anyone ever talk about quality time at work?

At work, we trade quality time for "face time," proving our commitment to our company's success by daily wasting hours of our time there. We say, "I could be doing something better with my time, but because I love this place I'm going to sit here and surf the Net until my boss goes home. That's what makes me a valued employee." And then we go home just in time to kiss our kids good night, spend a little quality time with the TV, and go to bed.

Have you bought into this? Ask yourself these questions, and then try to answer them honestly:

  • At the end of the day, what are you most proud of: the things you accomplished that day or the time you put in?

  • When you go to a performance review, what measure do you use to prove your value to your company?

  • Does "hard worker" feature prominently in your self-description?

That's what I thought.

What if we switched the measurements? What if we sought quality time at work and face time at home? What would that look like?

For one thing, we'd probably accomplish a lot more in both places. At work, we'd look at our day and ask, "What can I accomplish today? How can I make a meaningful contribution to my company's bottom line and my coworkers' lives?" We would think twice before scheduling that meeting, because that's a lot of quality time in one place so it will have to generate a heck of a return. We would start proving ourselves by what we delivered rather than how much effort we expended.

We might even stop bragging -- sure, it sounds like complaining, but we all know you're bragging -- about how busy we were, and how everyone wanted a piece of us. Instead, we'd brag about how we got everything done in time to see all seven exruciating innings of our kid's baseball game, including the inning where every batter hit a home run because the entire infield was chasing a field mouse.

We might stop taking up space and start making the most of the only totally irreplaceable resource on this earth: time.

By the way, this doesn't just apply to people with families. I'm not advocating free time for moms and dads, with the singles picking up all the slack. Though if any of you want to babysit, please let me know. Even if you don't have a family, there has got to be something better you could do with your time than spend it at work. Do you have any dreams? Then pursue them now, before the sleep deprivation of early parenthood makes your brain so soft you forget what those dreams were. No dreams? Then borrow someone else's for a while until you come up with your own: volunteer somewhere where people are trying to get a second chance at life. That way, you get two lives for the price of one.

This isn't the social equivalent of string theory: it's a simple decision to put your effort where you say your priorities are. You don't have to wait for your boss to give you permission, either. If you deliver everything he asks you to do, and you do it well, he can't really complain if your car leaves the parking lot before his. And if he does really give you a hard time, then I bet that a lot of companies will be impressed by someone who has the courage to be "an efficient, delivery-oriented employee," and who refuses to simply take up space. I know I do.

Friday, May 14, 2004

Why would anyone want to sound like an accountant?

Two more additions to the "words you will never hear me utter, except in air quotes" list:

  • Net-net

  • Net-new

What the heck: unless you're talking about injuries received during a summer fishing expedition or an NCAA basketball victory ceremony, I will baldly state that using "net" as a prefix makes you sound like a dork. Using it as both prefix and suffix makes you sound like you have a stutter, and it adds nothing to your conversation. Just say, "That's all we have," or "This stuff is new."

As far as I can tell, this new phrase is an outgrowth of accounting teminology, that eternal pantheon of hipness. While it's OK to say that an invoice is due "Net 30," I think we would be best served to leave that terminology there. Think carefully about this: do you really want people to associate you and your conversations with taxes and bald, nearsighted men in rumpled suits? I didn't think so.


(Note: all references to accountants in this article are based upon other people's opinions. Personally, I think accountants are great, and wish I could be more like them. Especially the ones who review my tax returns. You guys rock!)

Friday, May 07, 2004

More Vocational Vocabulary

More words and phrases I will never use, either in writing or in conversation, even if I choke on my own tongue trying to find alternatives:

  • Go-forward plan

  • Actionable plan of attack

  • Transition (as verb)

  • Accountabilities

  • Resource, as verb. By extension, resourcing

  • Bucket, as verb. Ditto for the past tense, "... has been bucketed."

  • Actualize

  • Impact, as verb. And "impacted," if you have ever watched ER, has a wholly different connotation than I think people are seeking when they use it in emails.

  • Transparent, when used in place of "invisible"


And some that simply need to be used sparingly, if only because everyone else finds a way to insert them into every other sentence:
  • Leverage

  • Facilitate

  • Sign off

  • Best practice (that one hurts, because I used to be the "Best Practices Manager" for a former employer)

  • Resources, as opposed to "people"


Got any more?

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Chair games

It's spring in Boston, and there's a certain smell in the air. No, it's not pollen, though my car has turned a lovely shade of yellowish brown again. And the apple blossoms smell lovely, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the sharp, salty tang of reorganization!

Yes, it's time for the corporate answer to spring cleaning: the reorg. I've been through far too many of these in the past few years, so I recognize the signs: everyone looks extremely busy, but even less seems to be getting done than usual. Directors and managers find excuses to go visit their VPs three or four times a day, just to let them know how well everything is going on their projects. Unless, of course, they go to tell them how that guy in the other department -- you know, the one that does the exact same thing we do, only not as well -- keeps dropping the ball and delaying everything. Or at least, that's what they would say, except their VPs are nowhere to be found. They clearly have been in their offices -- you can tell by the sandwich wrappers scattered around their monitors -- but they've been in all-day meetings with the head of their divisions, or else in an off-site with other VPs in their functional areas from other divisions. Budgets are "under review," and contracts are "on hold for now," except in key areas.

As a manager in my old company, I hated these times. Everyone knew something was coming, but no one was allowed to admit it for fear the strange guy who always wore a fedora, even in the middle of summer, would finally go off the deep end and bring his gun collection to work for show and tell. Because then, "reorganization" was a euphemism for "thanks for playing, but we just sold your desk on eBay." Now, though, I'm a consultant at a large company, and times are better. This reorg probably won't involve anyone getting laid off, except maybe the grossly redundant and incompetent. Now, reorganizing doesn't cost people their livelihoods, just their hard-earned political capital. If Director A gets moved to a new division, he has to start building up his influence all over again and prove his worth to a new boss, and that's a lot of work.

A corporate reorganization is like a grown-up game of musical chairs, but with slightly modified rules. In this version, some people have enough power that they get to save some seats for their friends, and some seats are more comfortable than others. The trick is, you can't always tell who the Chair Savers are, or how many seats they can save. If you're next to the wrong person when the music stops, you may both find yourself fighting over a three-legged stool.

So right now, while the music is still playing, people are running around trying to figure out who the Chair Savers are and who has the cushiest seats next to them. Other people are pretending that they have a couple of seats saved just for their closest buddies, while at the same time desperatley hoping that they don't come to work one morning and find that their own seat has moved.

Round and round the mulberry bush,
the monkey chased the weasel.
Round and round the mulberry bush,
Pop! Goes the....

Monday, May 03, 2004

Say "stress!"

I was loitering near a coworker's desk the other day, waiting for the people in the meeting before mine to evacuate my conference room, and I started looking at his pictures. At first, I didn't recognize anyone in the pictures, but then a strange feeling of happiness mixed with surprise came over me as I kept looking. After a few moments, I realized why I didn't recognize the man in the pictures: he was smiling.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

A great HTML guide

Idocs Guide to HTML

This is how I stay out of trouble no matter how adventurous I become.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Email tag

The thing I love about large companies -- and when I say, "love," I mean, "am so irritated by that I want to beat someone senseless" -- is the sense of distributed ownership. Nothing is any one person's responsibility, except, of course, when it will delay things. In fact, from my experience, you are lucky if you can identify the group that is responsible for doing something, especially if it involves changing anything.

Trying to get anything changed in a large company is like a giant game of tag, where every person's sole purpose is to make sure that he's not "it" when the time comes to do some actual work. You start with a question: "I seem to be missing some data in this environment. Who can help me get it in there?" Then the email tag begins.

Fred: "That sounds like Data Operations. I have copied six people on this message who might know someone in that group. Guys?"

Gina: "Data Ops usually handles these kinds of things, but this is business-line-specific data. Have you asked anyone from the business? Try John."

John: "Sure, we handle that data! Well, at least we know where it comes from. We're not allowed to actually access the system, though. We have systems people for that. Have you talked to the business line DBA group? Oh, by the way, they're offshore, so you'll need to wait 24 hours for a response."

Naveedh: "We will be glad to pull a report for you. Please submit a request via the ticketing system stipulating the columns and criteria of the data you need. We cannot actually update your system, however, because we do not have access to it. If you find out who does, I will be glad to coordinate the data refresh with him or her."

... and so it goes, until finally, after several more emails and at least one escalation to a VP, you determine that Joni is the one person who knows how to update the data in your system....

Joni: "[Automatic reply] I will be on vacation from April 26 through May 10. I will reply to your request when I return."