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February 24, 2005

Thursday Thoughts

I had another post for today (concerning how to reverse the trend of outsourcing), but recent events led me to make a new post. I'm sure I'll get the other one up sometime soon.
Human beings have a split personality when it comes to other human beings. We want to think of ourselves as unique even though most of us are more similar than different.

An “emergency” came up at work today. Because someone did not follow the procedures, a few needed documents fell through the cracks and a client was complaining. I had to stop working on my existing projects, change gears, find out what was wrong, address it to everyone’s satisfaction, and then go back to what I had been working on. No one could see that this “10 minute change” would take me a lot longer because of when it was occurring, how long it would take me to figure out where the task was, get it fixed, then go back to my previous job and figure out where I was, and what I was doing before I was interrupted. When I asked one of the participants how long it takes her to “make a 10 minute change,” she replied “About an hour, when all’s said and done.” I then asked her why she thought it would somehow take me LESS time than her to shift all of my priorities around to do a similar task. Her response was a simple, “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that.” Most people don’t. I imagine it is the same for ANY person in ANY job—yet most of us don’t consider that.

This isn’t just true in modern day life. I am frequently amused when I watch or read about archeological finds or sociological breakthroughs concerning ancient man. A boiled-down version of Occam’s Razor says the simplest explanation is most often the correct one. Yet, when these academics are viewing ancient rock chips, you frequently hear the most complex rationalizations of how ancient man probably used it. I always smile and think to myself, “Well, what would WE use them for today?” Because, in the end, ancient man and modern man still have the same basic needs, desires, and outlooks. We have overcomplicated our lives with a bunch of technology, jargon, and useless knowledge and trivia with which we then overcomplicate our ideas on how ancient man came at things.

I was watching a PBS science special on Native Americans. We recently discovered a new burial mound with lots of flints in some unusual shapes. Two of the anthropologists came up with the most complicated reasons for why the stones were in the shapes they were and why each had multiple sharp sides to them. Then one scientist came on and basically said, “That doesn’t make sense. If I’m using a good stone that makes sharp edges, I keep using it.” He then sat down and took a similar rock and broke it so it had a cutting surface. He then explained, “Once this cutting surface is no longer sharp enough, I either sharpen it again by breaking it off some more, or I shift the rock around and break a new cutting surface from another side of the stone.” He then suited action to words. He went on to say, “If I’ve found a really good stone, I may even have multiple uses for it, having a broader blade on one side and a smaller, sharper blade on the other side.” Again he suited action to words. After only a few minutes, he had created a nearly identical rock to those that had been found at the site. The other two anthropologists looked a little sick to their stomachs as they realized all their overly complicated ideas had just been neatly squashed by a no-nonsense approach. The third scientist had looked at it from a perspective of “What would I do, if this was my only tool?” And, of course, modern man does the same. We don’t go buy a new axe at Sears just because our existing axe is dull. We get a metal file or other sharpening tool and make the blade sharp again or pay someone else to do it. Why wouldn’t ancient man do and think the same?

I hate hearing how my friends and family can’t reply to emails “because I’m so busy.” Yes, so? I’m remarkably busy too. We have only two people in our department and we are currently supporting four product lines. Our metrics show we have enough work for four to five people. Yet, I made the time to send you the email, to reply to your emails. Is your “busy” somehow busier than my “busy?” Of course not. The difference is I make it a priority to send and respond to these and you do not. Your priorities are different. That is fine. But don’t denigrate me by suggesting you and your time are somehow more important than me and my time simply because we have a difference in priorities.

I had a similar problem with my doctor once. My appointment was for 3 pm. I wasn’t shown back into a room until about 3:20 and then the doctor didn’t arrive to see me until about 3:40. He apologized for running late and I said, “Do you realize that my time is more valuable to me than your time is to me?” This stopped him cold, as he had never heard it put that way. I further explained that, by making an appointment, we had a tacit agreement that we would both stop what we were doing and meet at a specific time. I felt he was showing disdain for me and my time by being late. His actions implied that his time was more important—I had put my life on hold (leaving work, driving over, and sitting in his lobby and exam room) and he had taken advantage of that. And we all have friends, family, and acquaintances who have done this to us. Or we have done it to them. It is a very egotistical thing, as you are somehow setting yourself up as the better person in the relationship. It is somehow okay for the other person to wait, but how do you feel when you are the one waiting?

In my days as a manager at Blockbuster, through my days at QSI managing client expectations for software requests, and in my current job, I have learned that most people believe that they must say yes to a client and agree with every timeline that a client puts before them. Somehow, they think that saying no to the client will be a catastrophic failure and the client will leave and take his money elsewhere. Yet, few of these people ever step back and say, “If I were the client and this was about my car being fixed, would I want to be told this?” The answer, quite frequently, is no. People would rather have honest conversation and realistic expectations than to have the sales person say yes to everything and then have the support or account management person come back a month later with some sort of apology or explanation why the company couldn’t do it exactly as agreed or in the agreed to time frame. What I found specifically at QSI was that the clients we had were so used to the people in my position lying to them that they were shocked when I reset their expectations, explained the real timelines, and gave them valid reasons for why something costs so much or would take so long. By the time I left, most clients were quite happy with those realistic expectations and phoned me for more than they should have because they knew I wouldn’t BS them.

The point I’m wandering slowly toward is that the next time you are in line and you are getting angry at the person to whom you are discussing your issue, take a step back and say to yourself, “Is this any different than when I have too many clients to deal with and not enough time in which to deal with the issues?” You might find the anger dissipating and your ability to reach a compromise increases as you relate the situation to your own life. If you don’t like it in your life, it’s very likely that the person with whom you are dealing will not like it his.
I went to get lunch today and the KFC had screwed up my order. Rather than get upset, I thought about my own post and how it applied to the situation and was able to reach a happy compromise with the KFC staff person with whom I was dealing.

February 17, 2005

Thursday Thoughts

I love it when it rains. Matter of fact, I love any type of weather except for wind.

It’s raining today, the slow, steady drizzle where each drop is about a foot apart and falling in near vertical symmetry. The kind that you can almost imagine could last for days or weeks at a time. It’s light enough that the rain hasn’t turned the world cold and dark, but overcast enough that you can look at the world through lids half-lidded from contentment. The only thing better is the overwhelming silence that encompasses a thick fog.

This is the type of rain that thoroughly soaks the ground and enriches the soil on which it falls. A few weeks back we had a deluge, which super-saturated the ground, caused a bunch of flashfloods and mudslides but then washed into the sea and was gone. That kind of rain is purely destructive; it doesn’t last long enough to be enriching and it is powerful enough to cause destruction.

I think what I like about the slow, steady sprinkle is that, as it nourishes the soil, it also cleans. The air rarely smells as fresh or looks as clean as it does during and shortly after this type of calm cleansing. It’s like all the ills that humanity pumps into the sky and drains into the ground and water are made pure by nature again. It’s as if Mother Earth is shaking off our dangerous pursuits for a brief moment; she’s giving us a momentary respite to show us what we are missing—what we have messed up.

And this weather alters my mood. I become softer, my edges blunted. I’m happier, feel healthier, and am more forgiving. My boss today actually commented, “You’re in a chipper mood today. I haven’t seen you like this in a long time!” Well, it’s been a long time since this type of rain.

Under this canopy of clouds and precipitation, I gain new perspectives and contemplate the universe. I have no need to rage against the machine. I just sit, and breathe, and try to take it all in.

Usually I have a point to my posts and to my Thursday Thoughts specifically. Today, I’m just relaxed, mellow, and contemplative. My soapbox is put away for one day, and all the arguments and recriminations are flowing off me like the rain off my head.

It’s good to just be, every now and then. To just breathe.

February 16, 2005

PDFs of Existing Printed Work

Wizards of the Coast, the current publishers of the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game system, have started to release their books in PDF for sale. These books, which cost $29.95 for the largest (the Player’s Handbook) to the smallest (any of the new “splat” books), are being sold in PDF for the exact same costs.

The publishing industry has for years claimed the main reason the price of books has gone up is because the rising cost of paper, printing, binding, and publishing. If this is true, then why would a PDF of an already published work cost the exact same amount? In a PDF you don’t have the same advertising costs and there are NO paper, binding, or publishing costs. These are not new works, but ones that have been publish for at least 2-3 years each.

There are inherent differences between an electronic book and a printed book. For example, you can only use an electronic book online or you must incur the cost of printing and binding the book yourself (and considering the cost of the ink you use in your printer, that’s no small investment). Also, most companies that sell you a PDF or other format electronic book do so in some sort of proprietary way. Which means you can only use that book on your PC or only with a specific type of reader for which you often have to pay or at least register. On top of this, you are relying on the expertise of the person making the PDF to ensure you get a PDF that is searchable, printable, and correctly formatted for the electronic media. Trust me, I know. As a technical writer for a software company, much of my time is spent ensuring the source material will work in both a printed and electronic format and a lot of effort goes into that process.

With a printed book, you own it. It’s yours. You can write notes in the margins, you can put bookmarks to important sections, you can lend it to friends, and you can read it even when you’re on vacation and without your PC if you so choose, and you can roll your dice on it if you are short of hard, flat surfaces in your gaming environment. You don’t have to worry about formats, media drive compatibility, or if your friend’s PC has all the correct rights/permissions before loading it up to check something during your gaming session.

I understand Wizards of the Coast wanting to push their products into markets they haven’t yet reached. I respect and applaud their desire to make the item available in a less bulky format. However, if they want my spending dollar, they must price these PDFs accordingly. I might pay as much as $10 to have a copy of those books I refuse to pay $29.95 for and accept the limitations of the format. I wouldn’t even hesitate to finish my collection of their intellectual work if the PDFs cost $7.50 or less. But I will not pay the full retail price for an electronic copy of the material (and all the problems and limitations these create).

Instead, I’ll just ask my friends if I can borrow their printed copy.

February 14, 2005

Valentine's Day

Dove used to make a pink, plastic heart filled with heart-shaped chocolates. I believe they called it Dove Desires, or something similar to that. A few years ago, for two years straight, I received one of these Dove plastic hearts from an anonymous person on Valentine’s Day. No one, not my office-mate, not my other friends and coworkers, ever copped to being the person who left that gift for me.

What made it more interesting was that whoever left the gift had replaced every instance of the word ‘Desires’ on the card and label that came with the Dove treat with the word ‘Fantasies.’ As the card had a very steamy little description (I remember something along the lines of “Indulge your Desires”), replacing the key word with another had an interesting effect (now it reads “Indulge your Fantasies”).

To the best of my knowledge, no one else at the company received that particular gift under those particular circumstances. And it only happened those two years.

So, now, every Valentine’s Day I think of that gift and can’t help but wonder:

  • Why replace the original name with the word Fantasy? Was I the fantasy, or did the person want to be my fantasy?
  • Why didn’t the person ever fess up? I may have been interested. Even if I wound up not being interested, it would have been nice to know and share the memory with the person.
  • Why did it stop? At that company we had high turnover; did the person leave because of the turnover? Was it voluntary? Did the person move on to someone else?

So, once again, it is Valentine’s Day and I am thinking of that gift and the person who left it. Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, I thank you. I have created so many myths and fantasies because of that gift you cannot imagine. I continue to look back with wonder. I guess partly because I'm such a blunt person, I wouldn't think to do something like that, it makes it that much more intriguing to me that someone would share that anonymous gift with me.

And, even though I dislike surprises, each year I secretly wonder if something similar will show up on my desk again.

February 10, 2005

Thursday Thoughts

Technology is both a boon and a bane to our existence. We have the means now to store, track, research, and resolve most any question or concern that we have, however, that same capacity also limits our creativity, personal knowledge, and memory.

The television and the internet have made the world smaller and allowed us to get more information than ever before. Conversely, they also provide for biased information, the spread of hate and intolerance, and skewed views of the cultures and people presented. Both tend to cut back on a person’s creativity, attention span, and ability to focus. Cell phones, PDAs, and related gadgets keep us connected in a way never before imagined. The need to stay connected also allows students to cheat in school, rude behavior toward others to predominate, and an increase in information junkies who are addicted to their connections.

This conundrum is at its worst in the arena of politics. All across the globe, leaders and would-be leaders use these devices to manipulate the facts as best they can to keep their populations, and the rest of the world, as ignorant as possible. In this way, they spread disinformation and obfuscate facts in ways that distorts the positions and the facts so that they look good to their constituents and can get themselves re-elected.

The boon of this age is that there is all of this information available to help educate the masses. The bane is that, without context and meaning, plus with all of the disinformation at hand, it takes a great deal of effort to sift through the data and come to any meaningful conclusions.

I think it is time to start disconnecting, powering down, and taking a breath. Only by doing this can we gain the perspective we need on this overload of information and provide ourselves a means to handle the double-edged sword that our technology provides us.

February 3, 2005

Thursday Thoughts

I have enjoyed Smallville again this season, after the crap-fest that was most of last season's episodes. On last night's episode, however, the situations that came up really caused me to notice the inconsistent ways that the writers of that show treat their characters and past experiences.

Clark, for example, has many opportunities where he could easily reference situations from the past where he was right to follow his instincts, where the person in question did "get better," and where everything was a case of mistaken identity. Yet, when his parents are uncharacteristically harsh and accusatory over his relationship with Alicia, all Clark can manage is a stupified look.

Chloe, of all the characters on the show, should help people keep their facts straight, yet she was one of those who is on the bandwagon for accusing Alicia as well. Granted, she did not go as whole-hog as Lana, but she did give Clark some grief over Alicia.

Lana has been through so many of these situations herself (just how many times has she been possessed now?) that she should understand that things happen in Smallville that are so out of bounds that it borders on an acid trip. Let's see now, just off the top of my head I can think of the following situations where situations occurred in which she couldn't see the person: a super-speeder, someone using Clark's powers, an invisible person, a ghost, witches/magic, teleportation, and psychic abilities. All used to attack someone or do something in a way in which the person (or others) couldn't see who was doing the action. And this isn't counting the possessions, the switching of minds/bodies, or those with the power to mimic others making people think the wrong person was committing the acts. And yet Lana won't cut Alicia a little slack or believe Clark when he says Alicia was with him?

There is something to be said for having 'one-off' episodes that allow new viewers to jump on. One of the biggest problems with X-Files as it grew in popularity was that most of the episodes dealt with the overly complex alien abduction scenarios surrounding Mulder's sister. These episodes relied so heavily on the viewer's knowledge of previous episodes and the mythology of the show that new viewers struggled. Smallville has the exact opposite problem; they ignore so much of what has occurred in the mythology of the show that the characters look like brain-impaired idiots at times.

I realize it looks like I'm picking on Smallville. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the show (and last night's episode). I also enjoy catching episodes of other teen shows, like Everwood, One Tree Hill, Veronica Mars, et al. Each of these shows struggles with this same situational problem-- in order for the particular episode to work, the writers must ignore character's experiences and growth. How many times on a teen drama do the characters learn the lesson that not telling someone the truth at the first opportunity is bad? Yet how many times does this basic plot twist come up? How many times did Dawson, Pacey, and Joey have to ignore their past in order to keep something secret just long enough so that it could hurt everyone and snowball into three or four more episodes worth of angst, only to turn around and have the characters do it again a few episodes later?

I know it is possible to write shows that avoid this cliche. Gilmore Girls and Joan of Arcadia both have avoided this pitfall. Those characters learn from their mistakes and then make new ones. And the audience grows with them. I particularly like how Gilmore Girls actually references those past episodes in making a point. Just like in the viewer's real lives, where we learn from, or at least remember, our mistakes and think of them when a situation comes up that is similar. These writers play to the audiences intelligence rather than dumbing it down to the masses.

So, to the current TV writers out there: trust your audience. Write up to their intelligence instead of down to their ignorance. Keep your characters consistent and use past episodes as a mean of growth and engagement.