27 February 2006

Addendum to "Prolificity: Stock your head"

When I jotted down my thoughts on keeping problems in mind that you could think about in the odd moments of the day, I had forgotten this anecdote from the late mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota:
Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on how to be a genius. You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, "How did he do it? He must be a genius!"
I say "forgotten," because I stumbled across it yesterday while on a laptop cleaning frenzy. I had jotted down Rota's words a couple of years ago . . . and then neglected to keep them in my own mind during the interim.

The quotation is taken from Rota's talk, "Ten Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught." (You can find a nice PDF version here.) In finding the links to it, I've discovered much more about Rota himself. He was a fascinating man and a great scholar, as this obituary from MIT makes clear. His work bridged mathematics, philosophy, writing, editing, and teaching. From what I can tell--especially given this page of remembrances and honors--Rota's life presents a fine model of what a scholar should aspire to be. Besides the speech already quoted, I can recommend Rota's lecture on "10 Lessons of an MIT Education." Even if your field is not mathematics (mine certainly isn't!), there is much of value there.

26 February 2006

Book review: Jared Diamond's Collapse

This review of mine originally appeared in the 2 January 2005 edition of the Austin American-Statesman.

Guns, Germs, Steel and Litter: From Easter Island to Greenland, Jared Diamond Looks at Civilization's Ecological Rise and Fall

Jared Diamond's "Collapse" is an impressive work of history. It is broad in its learning and vast in its scope. It is written in a fluent narrative voice that would be the envy of many novelists. And it might actually make a difference in how people think about the world. It is, in short, a book that no self-respecting historian would write.

For a while now, the trend among academic historians has been to produce microstudies marked by narrow focus and exhausting theoretical rigor. When historians do work on a larger canvas, they tend to portray big, obvious topics -- lives of presidents, major wars or famous incidents such as the Lewis and Clark expedition. The kind of innovative megastudies that Diamond pursues are disdained as too broad, too ambitious -- beyond the reach of any properly strait-laced specialist.

Thank goodness Diamond is not a historian by profession. He is a scientist and, even by the lights of science, a polymath -- an ornithologist, physiologist, evolutionary biologist and biogeographer. As such, he is not subject to the narrow dictates of the historical profession, which means he is free to write the sort of history that a lay audience -- an intelligent lay audience, mind you -- is interested in reading. This was demonstrated by the huge sales and Pulitzer honors won by his last book, "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies." That subtitle almost seems like a slap at the historical establishment's allergy to master narratives, but it aptly reflects Diamond's devotion to what he calls "history's broadest pattern."

"Collapse," the latest result of Diamond's interest in the big picture, is a cautionary, but far from gloomy, tale that elevates the tone of environmental debate above fearmongering and ideological squabbles. Where "Guns, Germs and Steel" explored why certain societies managed to conquer large parts of the world, this one studies the reasons -- particularly the ecological reasons -- why certain societies have failed.

To elaborate his ideas, Diamond considers several collapsed civilizations, including those of Easter Island, the Anasazi, the Maya and the Greenland Norse. In each case study, Diamond draws on the work of specialists, from anthropologists to pollen scientists, to build a picture of why and how each civilization came to ruin. In the case of Easter Island, for example, he shows how islanders' religious beliefs, tribal allegiances, and use of the land -- all of which played a role in the creation of the island's famous stone statues -- reinforced one another in a vicious circle that led to deforestation, extinction of food species and, finally, civil war and population collapse. (Again tipping his hand as a nonhistorian historian, Diamond enlivens his case studies by frequently sharing his emotions. He opens one chapter with the admission that "No other site I have visited made such a ghostly impression on me as Rano Raraku, the quarry on Easter Island where its famous gigantic stone statues were carved.")

Diamond gives brief attention to societies that managed to solve problems of isolation, climate change, population pressure and social turmoil, such as Iceland, New Guinea and Japan, and then turns to several current societies that suffer from these same threats. For example, Diamond offers the case of Hispaniola, where the Dominican Republic shows signs of sustainable growth while Haiti suffers from an environment as poor as its economy. Haiti's past leaders enacted laws that drastically limited foreign ownership of property but never limited the population's use of trees for fuel. By contrast, longtime Dominican dictator Joaquin Balaguer actively sought foreign investment, outlawed logging, strengthened the country's robust system of national parks and subsidized gas stoves to reduce pressure on Dominican forests.

The last section of "Collapse" departs markedly from most current works of history. While many environmental historians write postscripts about how their studies relate to larger themes, these chapters are often long on generalities and short on policy specifics. Diamond, by contrast, devotes three long chapters to the lessons learned from his far-flung studies. He traces past societies' downward spirals to a small set of reasons: "failure to anticipate a problem, failure to perceive it once it has arisen, failure to attempt to solve it after it has been perceived, and failure to succeed in attempts to solve it."

To his credit, Diamond doesn't demonize the world of commerce. He's a passionate environmentalist, but also a passionate realist. "If environmentalists aren't willing to engage with big businesses, which are among the most powerful forces in the modern world, it won't be possible to solve the world's environmental problems," he writes. Given the sorry track record of many environmentalists on this score, the point bears repeating.

Diamond's final chapter lays out a dozen of the world's worst environmental threats -- destruction of natural habitat, chemical pollution, water shortages and so on. In the book's most practical turn, he lists and rebuts a slew of typical one-liner objections such as "Environmentalists are always crying wolf." One of his best rebuttals counters the claim that "Technology will solve our problems." After noting that "All of our current problems are unintended negative consequences of our existing technology," Diamond delivers this withering rhetorical question: "What makes you think that, as of January 1, 2006, for the first time in human history, technology will miraculously stop causing new unanticipated problems while it just solves the problems that it previously produced?"

Diamond's central thesis is one of hope: Despite major threats to the global environment, societies can act wisely. Many of our ancestors certainly got it right: Intensive but sustainable agriculture was practiced for centuries in the highland valleys of New Guinea; deforestation in Japan was reversed by a succession of Tokugawa shoguns hundreds of years ago. We moderns have it even easier; the advance of scientific knowledge should heighten our ability to anticipate, perceive and solve such problems.

Of course, the customs of certain professions make it less likely that the necessary information will get out to the public at large. Perhaps Diamond's next book will boast the subtitle "How Certain Academic Disciplines Fail or Succeed."

Considering grad school? Read these.

Some books I have found useful:
If you're only going to read one of these, make it the Peters book, which is pragmatic in the extreme. If you can read two, read Peters and Verba. But the most useful thing I've found is this free e-book from Prof. Phil Agre of UCLA:

Networking on the Network: A Guide to Professional Skills for Ph.D. Students

It's sad but true that graduate students--a slice of the population loaded with really smart people--are often very dumb when it comes to the nuts and bolts of putting together a successful career. Yes, it's scholarship, so in one sense it ought to be about ideas and hard work and new discoveries. But it's also an industry, so common-sense careerism will always have a place--a legitimate place. Grad students, no matter how brilliant, ignore this advice at their peril.

Heist Pictures: From my lips to the Guardian's ear.

What was I just saying about heist pictures? This morning I find this tidbit on the Guardian Unlimited blog:
Everyone loves a good heist
[...] There has always been an ambivalent attitude towards particularly daring robberies, whether carried out by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or our own Great Train Robbers, or created on film in Oceans Eleven. While people hate muggers who pull knives on their victims and thieves who break into the homes of the elderly, carrying out a spectacular multi-million pound robbery will win the grudging admiration of the nation. The muscle or menace involved in pulling off the job will be cheerfully overlooked.

Why is this?

However hard banks and businesses try to persuade us that such robberies are not victimless crimes, there is a feeling that if the money is taken from the big boys - banks, security companies, Mayfair jewellers - then no one has been too badly damaged by it. [...]
Well said. In talking about the forthcoming "Inside Man," Spike Lee stressed that it was a thinking person's thriller, with no shooting. However, the trailer makes it look far more menacing than "Oceans Eleven" or "The Great Train Robbery."

Commonplace: Emerson

"Look sharply after your thoughts. They come unlooked for like a bird seen on your trees, and if you turn to your usual task, disappear, and you shall never find that perception again. Never, I say, but for years perhaps, and I know not what events and worlds may lie between you and its return."

Good management is everywhere.

You can find good and bad examples of management in any context. Clearing out some files, I came across this long ESPN profile of Leo Mazzone--by acclamation the greatest baseball pitching coach of this era. You don't have to like (or even understand) baseball to appreciate the power of his techniques.

Future Hall-of-Fame pitcher Greg Maddux:
[In training,] There are no parachutes on your back, no cones to run around, no 10 different meetings talking about something that doesn't concern you. All the other stuff, you don't partake in. So you spend less time doing nothing, and you spend all your time doing what it is you have to do to get better on the mound.
Mazzone in reply:
You don't think pitchers appreciate that? Running all these drills and doing all this stuff before you get on the mound is not very bright. Your first priority is to get on the mound and practice your craft, without being fatigued from drills that are not going to mean near as much as you trying to make pitches.
This is another way of saying "First things first, second things not at all"--an apothegm that's been taped to my computer monitor for years. Mazzone has always kept his players in shape, but primarily by having them throw a lot. Radical concept, no?

One more thing in the first-things-firt vein, this one more baseball-specific. Here's a quote from big-league pitcher Kent Mercker, who worked under Mazzone for six years:
I think there is an understanding, whatever team you are on, whoever your pitching coach is, whoever is hitting, if you can go knee-high down and away on the corner, you are going to be successful. I don't think that's a mystery, but I think it's the fact that he stresses, he harps on it, he doesn't let you forget that. There is not a 10-minute period that goes by in a day where he doesn't say that to somebody.
The heading for that part of the article is "Down and away, got it? Down and away, got it?" Mazzone is willing to be repetitive to implant this fundamental principle into the minds of his charges. His mantra is the converse of a famous observation made by all-time-great hitter Ted Williams in his book The Science of Hitting. Williams said that "baseball history is made on the inner half of the plate"--that is, the part of the strike zone nearer the hitter. Williams waited for the ball inside so he could drive it harder, and thereby make baseball history with big hits. Mazzone consistently--incessantly--coaches his pitchers not to give those pitches to hitters.

If you like baseball, read the article. It's the perfect thing for a Sunday morning during Spring Training, especially if you like your management lessons with a spoonful of honey.

25 February 2006

Live every day as though it were your last.

This post from Seth Godin set me thinking . . . what if we lived every moment as though it might be our last? What if we engaged every challenge as though our lives depended on it?

My great-grandmother died early this morning in Georgia. She was old and full of years--she would have been 98 in two more weeks. She was a farm wife with a third-grade education, a devout Christian, mother of four, and one of the world's great cooks. Best I can tell, she watched the news every day for all the decades that she owned a television, and she had opinions about how the nation and the world was being run. She loved everybody, and everybody loved her back. We'll miss you, Ma Baines.

Not all of us will be so lucky.

Let me repeat something I quoted earlier: "Whatever you do, just make sure you throw every pitch with conviction." It's a good test: If you can do it with conviction, it's worth doing. If you can do it knowing that you're a terminal case, do it. We're going to be dead a long time; if you can't do whatever it is with a straight face while holding that thought in mind, then don't do it.

Notes on job-hunting: It’s not over until you win.

[This is part one in a series. Part two is here.]

Several friends of mine are looking for work these days. Some are without a job, some are leaving jobs, some are in jobs they hate. All have the same objective: something better than this. If this sounds familiar to you, keep reading.

The common thread among most of these job-seekers is that they don’t have a bone in their body oriented toward sales. They’re writers, artists, thinkers--damn smart ones, too--but they are not self-promoters, or at least not natural self-promoters. One of the toughest things about the process of finding a new job is that it asks people like this to turn into super-sellers for as long as it takes to land something new. In and of itself, this stinks. It’s one of those tough realities of life that you just have to face and surmount as serenely as you can. The good news, though, is that you’re selling something great: you!

Starting with this post, I’m going to offer some guidelines about how to find better work. These tips are not hypothetical. I have used them, and they work. In fact, they are working for me now--even though I have no plans to leave my company--because they are helping me redefine my working role. I hope they are helpful to you. Please share your own best career-improvement tips in the comments section.

Rule #1. It’s not over until you win. This is the cardinal rule, the unbreakable rule for successful career change. Finding a new job or reaching a level of enduring satisfaction in your career is not something you snap your fingers to achieve. The biggest mistake that I’ve made in my own job searches, and by far the biggest mistake that I’ve seen others make, is to form in advance some sort of mental picture about a “reasonable” amount of time and effort to put into the search. Abandon that illusion! There is no “reasonable” amount of time. If you have to temp for six months while you find or create the right position, so be it. If it’s year, it’s a year. It all depends on who you are, where you are in your career, and what you’re trying to do now.

Note that seemingly long delays in finding the right job may have nothing to do with you. The job market is notorious for the friction it contains. Information doesn’t flow freely. Employers seeking new workers and workers seeking new employers often aren’t able to find each other. There might be a great job waiting for you in a great department at a great company . . . except that the company’s H.R. department can’t get its act together. The list could go on, but my point is this: Don’t beat yourself up over the market or the opportunities that fail to materialize for you. Don’t indulge your fantasies of how the market should work. Just deal with it as it is, frictions and all.

So how do you push ahead to winning? Above all, define your outcomes in advance: Are you just looking to pay the rent for now? Do you want a great job that pays at least $N per year? Do you seek to exercise benevolent global hegemony? Or maybe you just want an honorable, low-stress, decent day job so you can write poetry evenings and weekends? Any one of these goals is fine. In fact, you ought to have more than one: the immediate need to fill now (sanity, rent money), a bigger goal for a year from now ($N per year, maybe a promotion), and a long-term ideal for where you’re headed in the future (making a living writing poetry, becoming a partner in your firm, retiring at age 50). But whatever you do, write down your goals in advance of your job search. If you don’t know what winning looks like, you can’t figure out what to do to get there.

Now comes the hard part: Acknowledge the reality that your efforts must be open-ended until you reach your goal. It’s not a matter of sending out a hundred resumes (not a great strategy anyway, according to many experts) and waiting. It’s not a matter of looking really hard for a week and then waiting. It’s not a matter of contacting ten friends and then waiting. There is no waiting. You work full-time until you achieve your goal--at which point, you’ll switch over to working full-time at your new job. The point is that the amount of your work doesn’t change just because you don’t have an employer right now: you keep putting in full days. In fact, you may have to work overtime if you’re hunting for a new job at the same time that you’re working at an old one. Don’t complain to me about it: I’m just describing the weather of the working world.

This is going to mean more work than you want to do. It's going to mean more grief than you think is reasonable to sustain. It could mean dozens or scores or hundreds of e-mails, resumes, and so on that don't go anywhere. Get Zen with it: it's just so. But you don't have to do it alone! Because you're going to . . .

Rule #2. Get help. You need skillz, baby. Many people stumble through job-hunting because they think they know what’s involved with it: you send out resumes, you fill out applications, you wait for a call. But this conventional wisdom for job hunting is actually no wisdom at all. In fact, the traditional way of job-hunting is a pretty lousy way to land a job you want.

Fortunately, what with this new “Internet” thing to go along with the old “public library” thing, help is close at hand. A great place to start is David Lorenzo’s Career Intensity blog, which is connected to his forthcoming book of the same title. Even though I’m not looking for a job, I check it out every day for great tips on how to create better situations for myself in the working world. Even if you don’t share the level of emotional “intensity” Lorenzo is talking about, you can benefit from his posts, which blend his own rich experience with a lot of sound common sense. Best of all, he’s full of energy and often posts several times per day.

Lorenzo and I are both regular readers of Keith Ferrazzi, the go-to guy for business networking. Ferrazzi (whom I’ve written about before) hates the kind of backslapping that gives “networking” a bad name; he’s all about building real human relationships in a business context. His blog and book are well worth your time.

Finally, there’s a good reason What Color is Your Parachute? has sold so many copies: it works. Dick Bolles offers gentle advice--sometimes abstract, sometimes quite specific--for those seeking change in their careers. You won’t get the intensity or drive embodied in Lorenzo’s or Ferrazzi’s work, but you will find much of value on his site.

In the next installment of this series, I’ll address cynicism--the biggest enemy of any effective job search.

24 February 2006

Heist Pictures: Inside Man.

Folks, I need some help. Prompted by the imminent arrival of the Spike Lee / Denzel Washington / Clive Owen / Jodie Foster project "Inside Man," I'm working on an essay about heist pictures generally.

How you can help? Please answer these questions for me:
--Just because I use the term doesn't mean it's ubiquitous, so . . . When I say "heist picture," do you know what I mean right away, or do you need some definition?
--What's your favorite heist picture? Why?
--Why do you like heist pictures? Or, if you don't, why not?

As for "Inside Man": I saw the trailer when I went to see Jackson's "King Kong." It caught my attention instantly with the closeup headshot of Owen talking. It looks well-plotted and tense. It debuts in the middle of March.

The official "Inside Man" site, with links to the trailer and to podcasts from Spike Lee.
"Inside Man" IMDB entry.

Thank you for your help.

Very much worth your time: William Germano

Yesterday I had the good fortune to attend a seminar given by William Germano, the author of Getting It Published and From Dissertation to Book. Germano has been editing scholarly books for more than 25 years, and has much to say about the business, the philosophy, and the psychology of academic publishing. His presentation was low-tech but highly personal and humane.

Germano was speaking to an audience of Ph.D. students drawn from across the disciplines. He took great pains to spell out for us the differences between doctoral dissertations and publishable book manuscripts--two beasts very often confused for one another by writers of the former. Many dissertations, Germano said, are actually “big book reports,” written for an audience of five (the dissertation committee) and afflicted with the “aphonia”--the “willed voicelessness”--of the academy. Books, meanwhile, must be narratives with a voice that tell a story around a particular “through-line”--a central thread that ties together all the parts into a whole.

In the past I’ve read Getting It Published and enjoyed Germano’s essays for the Chronicle of Higher Education. It was a pleasure to find out that he is so thoughtful, funny, and engaging in person. If you’re in the business of writing for scholars, do yourself a favor by reading Germano’s books, and by all means take the opportunity to hear him speak if you can.

Things I love: Pepys's diary

One of my favorite things to read is the diary of Samuel Pepys. (His name, by the way, is pronounced “peeps”.) For most of the 1660s, Pepys recorded his life in minute and bracingly honest detail. Anyone who could write as directly as he did would make for an entertaining read, but Pepys also had the advantage of living a very interesting life: during the time he kept the diary, he was swiftly climbing the career ladder as an administrator for the Royal Navy. As such, he had access to many high officials--especially his patron, Lord Sandwich--and was privy to the goings-on of the royal court and the diplomatic corps. The 1660s, you’ll recall, was a time of great drama in London: the diary begins during the confusion of the Restoration, and later covers the Plague and the Great Fire. We are fortunate that an observer so acute as Pepys recorded his thoughts during this period.

Reading day by day through Pepys’s diary creates the illusion of living in another time. In its pages we confront the essential continuity of human experience across the centuries: joy, sorrow, confusion, rivalry, glee, love, death. Yet we also come to understand some of the strangeness that makes the past into “another country.”

One example of this juxtaposition comes in the entry for 6 February 1663, when Pepys hired a coachman to carry him home:
So home, and being called by a coachman who had a fare in him, he carried me beyond the Old Exchange, and there set down his fare, who would not pay him what was his due, because he carried a stranger with him, and so after wrangling he was fain to be content with 6d., and being vexed the coachman would not carry me home a great while, but set me down there for the other 6d., but with fair words he was willing to it, and so I came home and to my office, setting business in order, and so to supper and to bed, my mind being in disorder as to the greatness of this day’s business that I have done, but yet glad that my trouble therein is like to be over.
In reading this, we touch on the life of an anonymous coachman of seventeenth-century London--someone who would have been lost to posterity had not Pepys jotted down his notation. At the same time, we come to know Pepys a little better. We grasp immediately the ambivalence he feels: his mind was in disorder over the day's business (for which you'll have to read the whole entry), yet he was also glad to have it behind him.

Thinking of Pepys and the coachman reminds me of a comment I once read--from Harold Bloom, I think-- about the reader’s desire to experience as much of life as possible. Bloom said that he reads so much because he is hungry to experience many human lives within the span of his own. The diary of Pepys allows us to do this in fine style.

Pepys has been popular reading since his diaries were discovered in the nineteenth century. We today are doubly fortunate to have two wonderful ways to read it. The University of California Press hardcover edition is a beautiful example of the bookmaker’s craft. If you love books that are well-wrought physical objects, you will love these books: the typeface, the proportions of each volume and the words on the page, the system of annotations--all are delightful. Buying the whole diary would run to several hundred dollars, but any good university library will have a set.

Thanks to the tireless labors of Phil Gyford, we can also enjoy the diary (albeit in an earlier, less-perfect edition than the California one) online. Since it is set up in blog style, you can sip from the diary instead of trying to gulp it, and you can leave comments or annotations of your own.

Why not inject a tidbit of history into your daily reading diet? It's the only blog you'll find that was written in the seventeenth century!

Op-ed: Supplies for GIs.

This piece originally appeared on the Commentary page of the Austin American-Statesman on 8 June 2005.

Our Troops Should Not Be Lacking Clean Socks

Last weekend, my wife and I spent $70 for supplies, mostly medicine-cabinet basics, to send to U.S. troops in Iraq.

Like many opponents of President Bush's Iraq policy, I have attacked the policy while crowing about my support for the troops. Our shopping expedition was a small way for me to put my money where my mouth is.

The supplies are headed to Iraq through the efforts of a charity organization called Any Soldier, which was started by an Army sergeant who has served in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. Through its Web site (www.anysoldier.com), donors select a contact name from among thousands of male and female service members. Donors send packages directly to these contacts, who then distribute the supplies among the members of their units.

My office started a collection drive for Any Soldier because it is a simple, well-organized effort to put a care package, or even just a personal letter, into the hands of someone in uniform who might not get one otherwise.

The Any Soldier site expresses the same well-earned pride I have encountered again and again from the members of our military. Two of my brothers-in-law have been on active duty since 9/11, one in the Coast Guard and one in the Marines.

Their willingness to serve reminds me of what a boon this country has in its fighting forces. But the confusion my relatives faced over stop-loss orders and exit dates reminds me of the human costs of the administration's confused policies. Sending a care package may be a simplistic way to address those costs, but at least it's something.

As for what to send, I focused on a few of the basic hygiene items on the list supplied by Any Soldier: deodorant, toothpaste, soap, acetaminophen, razors and antiseptic ointment. I also threw in a couple of packages of crew socks, which I was surprised to see listed. The one "luxury" item I included was reading material -- a few paperback novels from a used bookstore and some recent back issues of National Geographic and Sports Illustrated.

When my wife first read the Any Soldier shopping list, she teared up. My own reaction was anger. The Web site downplays the suggestion that the military is shorting its troops in any way, pointing out that most office workers do not expect employers to buy them a briefcase, a day planner and so on.

Baloney, I say. I can quit my job if I want, and anyway I don't work there 24 hours per day for a year at a time. Mind you, by no means do I expect Uncle Sam to supply our troops with a lending library or a cache of gummy bears, but since we're spending a billion dollars a month in Iraq, you would think that we could keep the troops in Tylenol and fresh socks.

But maybe not.

Now I am confronted with the spectacle of an office charity drive like we hold for poor families at Christmas, except that we're extending our charity to the front-line troops of the richest military in the world. Those service members deserve the support of citizens everywhere, but they also deserve better support from an administration that seems unwilling to count human costs in its grand strategic formula.

Too much of our talk about Iraq -- pro and con -- is cheap. For two years, I have sworn up and down that I support our troops but oppose their deployment in Iraq, but this shopping trip was the first time I put my sentiments into action. And plenty of Bush supporters succumb to the easy jingoism of a yellow-ribbon bumper sticker, thinking that "God Bless America" somehow answers the administration's gross failures in executing its Iraq policy.

We need action. Our troops will appreciate the cases and cases of supplies the folks in my office are sending over, but they deserve better support from the top. Sending enough troops to do the job in Iraq would be a start. I won't even insist that Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld fess up that they have been wrong for two years in their claims that we have adequate forces there.

Given this White House's track record, that simple, wise change of policy looks to be a long time coming. So I suggest you head to the store and pick up a few items that any soldier can use right away.

23 February 2006

Jon Stewart's got skillz.

Jon Stewart is hosting this year's Academy Awards. This interesting article from the L.A. Times looks back over some of the highs and lows of former emcees.

Stewart should be up to it. If he can give pause in debate to Christopher Hitchens (second entry on page), he can handle the Oscars.

Commonplace: Balzac

"To pass from conception to execution, to produce, to bring the idea to birth, to raise the child laboriously from infancy, to put it nightly to sleep surfeited, to kiss it in the mornings with the hungry heart of a mother, to clean it, to clothe it fifty times over in new garments which it tears and casts away, and yet not revolt against the trials of this agitated life--this unwearying maternal love, this habit of creation--this is execution and its toils."

Prolificity: Turn it off.

Want to get more written? Here’s a simple step to take: Disconnect yourself from the Internet.

Radical stuff, I know. I work in front of a computer all day, so I have plenty of time to poke around in the Realm of Mystery and Wonder that is the online world. But it gets to be such a habit--interrupting what I'm doing to look something up, to check e-mail, etc.--that I do it all the time. Maybe you’re the same? Yes?

My best writing time is early in the morning, when my kids are still asleep. Me, my thoughts, and my cup of coffee, we all commune at my kitchen table, and when things are going right, the words flow quite well. But for things to go right, I have to unplug from the Realm of Mystery and Wonder. Sure, I always have some fact to check or detail to find online, but I can jot down my question on a piece of scratch paper (handy stuff, that) and then look it up after my sacred writing time is over. Hitting Wikipedia for a name or a date is a great thing to do while my kids are chomping down breakfast across from me. That setting is not the likeliest one for deep thinking.

For a while I was very good about unhooking myself from the Realm during my writing time. My wireless router is next to my wife’s desk in our bedroom; it’s the simplest thing in the world to unplug it at night before I go to bed or first thing in the morning. After that, I could go back in to hook it up before my wife wakes up, but one doesn’t want to run the risk of awaking the peacefully sleeping spouse--or at least, this particular spouse--before the appointed time.

Lately, though, I have profaned the sacred temple of my writing time. Why? Laziness of mind, probably. Fear of what I might write, maybe? I’m not sure I have a good answer for that.

Anyway, I’m thinking about this right now because it’s 6 a.m. and I’ve spent a frustrating time this morning trying to download a piece of software, trying to check my blog-traffic stats (thanks for the business, folks!), and wondering why Gmail has been loading so slowly the past couple of mornings. In other words, I’ve been farting around with things online that in theory should take “just a minute” but in fact have eaten through much of my holy two-hour block of time. Meanwhile, I have no less than five partially-done essays burning a hole in my pocket; I was sure I was going to get through one of them and post it here this morning. But instead I entered the Realm, I didn’t even get to enjoy the Mystery and Wonder part of it, and I didn't finish that essay. So to recover some value from my misdirected time, I wrote this instead, as a reminder to you and to me: The Realm is a wonderful place to visit, but not when it keeps you from your real work.

Tomorrow morning, the router stays off.

22 February 2006

Things I love: Good Morning Silicon Valley

So often we take a wonderful thing in life for granted, enjoying it without a care until it comes to our attention that not everyone knows about the wonderful thing.

It occurs to me that some of you, my gentle readers, won't be familiar with Good Morning Silicon Valley, the greatest newsletter I've ever experienced. Because of my job covering developments in high-tech business, I've been reading it for years; at this point, though, I read it even without regard to my day job. GMSV is consistently among my most enjoyable routines.

Read it, get into it, come to love its humor as I do. Then drop John Paczkowski a line and tell him that Tim from Hoover's in Austin sent you. Send him my compliments.

My grand unifying theory of business.

There is a place in every subject for complexity. As a graduate student, I'm reminded of this all the time. It might seem a bit silly that someone really smart would spend years and years writing a monograph on, say, a California beef empire, until someone does it brilliantly or until you, as a scholar, need to know more on that particular subject for your own work.

This is as true of business writing as of anything else. There are blockbuster works that redefine the way a whole generation thinks about some aspect of commerce. There are the fountains that gush forth a constant stream of provocative new thinking on different aspects of commerce. And then there's . . . the rest, much of which doesn't deserve the paper it's printed on.

But here, in summary form, is what I've learned about business so far, at least in terms of how any enterprise, from a shoe-repair shop to General Electric, interacts with customers:

There are Bad Things in the world. Dragons. Beasties. Hangnails. Missed flights. Whatever in the world it is that your (potential) customers fear. The savvy business will figure out how to keep these Bad Things far away from the customer. Just one example for now: Maybe your customer's Bad Thing is even a millisecond of server downtime, in which case your customer needs a bunch of weird obsessives who will monitor and ensure server uptime as though the fate of civilization hinged upon it . . . in which case, you are Rackspace. Rackspace offers its customers, more or less, a legion of ninjas sworn by horrible oaths to oppose server downtime at all costs, everywhere, forever.

If you want to succeed in business, figure out who your customers are, what their Bad Things are, and how you're going to keep those Bad Things beyond their far border. Figure out how you can demonstrate the prowess of your employee/application/product, the gigantic, magical, immortal Paladin with the flaming sword who will guard that border forever, keeping those Bad Things at bay.

And then there are Good Things. Wealth. Health. Peace of mind. Cool stuff that makes people's lives easier. Smart companies will figure out how to deliver these things, on a plate, at the very moment when a customer wants them, and in exactly the way that the customer wants them. The plate itself may be beautiful, or historically significant, or sentient, or just really, really cool. The Good Thing and its delivery mechanism will, in fact, be so sweet that it becomes easier to use them than not to use them. Your customer might just be able to imagine living without them . . . but why would they want to?

Thus are thunderlizard customers cultivated. The rest is details.

That's the fruit of my experience, so far.

Wanna get smarter?

Another gem from Kathy Sierra: Working in an interesting environment stimulates neurogenesis.

After reading Kathy's post, I rearranged all the tchotchkes in my work cubicle. It was time for my monthly purge of useless paper files anyway, so I allowed myself a little housekeeping tizzy, pulled old toys out of drawers, rearranged the pictures of my kids, and so on. Now that I think of it, I did basically the same thing last week when I completely renovated the file structure on my laptop--clean up, dejunk, renovate your head. As I've mentioned before, I use little things like my screensaver to keep my brain stocked with images and ideas.

This is the same idea as an experienced runner changing routes every so often, to put more emphasis on speed, or distance, or hills. Jack LaLanne has said that he changes up his whole workout every two weeks. Given the discussion in Sierra's post, this might help to account not only for LaLanne's physical vigor, but also his mental sharpness so far into his advanced age.

What do you do to keep your mind sharp?

21 February 2006

How to blow a chunk of your day.

After posting all kinds of things on how to make the most of your time and be all super-productive, I thought I'd give you something you could use to really, really just waste time:


Perhaps even more addictive is this one, with which my mother has developed a love/hate relationship


And, just for fun, here's one more -- a game with a meditative quality:


My gifts to you: use them wisely . . .

Yushchenko's poisoning.

A year later, the dioxin poisoning of then-candidate, now-president of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko remains bizarre. This article from Seed sheds only a bit more light on the subject, since the source of the poison remains unknown.

The Poisoning of Ukraine's President

20 February 2006

Commonplace: Francis Bacon

"A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds."
--Francis Bacon

Clueless, but in a good way.

A great post from Kathy Sierra on ignoring the artificial constraints around us.

The Clueless Manifesto.
Often, by the time you learn you can't do it, your response might be "Oops! You mean this thing I just did?"
All of the most frustrated people I know are really, really certain about how the deck is stacked against them, or how their efforts will come to naught. Me, I'd rather be "clueless," happy, and creative.

19 February 2006

If you've got a fever . . .

. . . and the only prescription is more prose from yours truly, may I suggest my contributor's index page at the Austin Chronicle? Although it's been a couple of years since I've done anything for them, the Chronicle was a great place for me to break into newsprint. Good times.

Op-ed: TV in public places.

This little piece appeared in the Commentary section of the Austin American-Statesman on July 5, 2004:

TV in Public Places: Can We at Least Lower the Volume?

May I make a modest proposal? Here it is: If you're in charge of a television that broadcasts in a public space, turn it off -- or at least turn it down.

I suggest this because last week I spent a couple of hours subjected to a noisy television in a doctor's waiting room. There was a newspaper on the coffee table, and a few magazines were scattered around, but the dominant force in the room was the television. Judging from the reactions of the patrons in my corner of the room, the programs being shown were not of wide interest.

The practice where I waited performs outpatient procedures that require an hour or two, and all patients must have "a responsible adult driver" standing by to ferry them home. The woman sitting next to me, there in our corner farthest from the TV, made good headway into the novel she brought. Lucky her. My wife would have brought her knitting and passed the time enjoyably.

I myself brought a magazine and a book, but I'm one of those people who can't read with a television on, especially a loud one. I would have asked to lower the volume, but a couple of folks sitting near it seemed to be watching. I've noticed, also, that once a TV is up and blaring, asking to turn it down or change the channel becomes awkward. It is as though the TV projects an aura of reversed etiquette: Even though it is the thing making the disturbance, the burden is placed on you to find a polite way to minimize it. Arguing that the volume disturbs your reading? It seems unlikely.

This reminds me to think of a way to raise this issue with my children's dentist. His waiting room is littered with interesting toys and books, but the TV is always on at full volume, so of course that's what draws the kids' attention. Kids have better things to do with their rapidly forming brains. Let them do those things -- play, read, look at picture books, imagine -- rather than plant them in front of the box that does the imagining for them.

Or that keeps them from eating their lunch. Recently we took a car trip to Dallas to visit my parents. On the way we stopped to eat at a Dairy Queen. Inside, someone had parked a television on the first booth by the door -- aimed so that the staff could see it, I guess. "The Simpsons" were on at high volume. I have spent many hours enjoying "The Simpsons," but it's not an appropriate show for my little ones. Instead of a welcome break from the hours on the highway, lunchtime was a struggle. We were happy to get back to the quiet of the car.

The intrusion of television is something like the intrusion of smoking. TV doesn't tear down your health like smoking does, but the noise pollution from the one reminds me of the air pollution from the other. Thoughtful smokers don't light up in nonsmokers' houses or cars; they are courteous enough to step into the yard or to wait until the trip is over.

Why don't we treat televisions the same way? If you go to a sports bar, of course you expect some smoke, and of course the TV will be turned up loud. It's a sports bar. But in a doctor's waiting room? The last thing I want is some new ordinance forbidding it, but I would like common courtesy to take over, so that we defer to non-TV watchers as we defer to nonsmokers.

After sitting for a while, I realized that the waiting-room TV was tuned to the E! network. A little homework reveals that the local cable package including E! costs about $46 per month, roughly $550 a year. I came up with a list of popular magazines the medical practice could subscribe to for the same amount. Ready? AARP The Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, Better Homes & Gardens, Cosmopolitan, Entertainment Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, Field & Stream, Forbes, Fortune, Golf Digest, Good Housekeeping, Money, National Geographic, Newsweek, Parents, People, Prevention, Reader's Digest, Runner's World, Scientific American, Shape, Smithsonian, Southern Living, Sports Illustrated and Time. Those should offer plenty of diversion for the practice's patrons.

One popular weekly is notably missing from my list. If it puts away the television, the doctors' practice won't need the No. 3 magazine in the country -- TV Guide.

Housekeeping: Please help me take over the world.

You may notice, gentle readers, that I have finally installed a hits counter in the sidebar to the right. I neglected to do this in my first few weeks of blogging, figuring it would be technically involved. In the event, it took one visit to StatCounter and a mere ten minutes of my time--and I work slowly with HTML.

So, as I write this, I can see seven--count 'em, seven--unique visitors have graced TWOB with their presence in the past 26 hours or so. Talkin' 'bout some site traffic, is all I'm sayin'.

When I installed the counter, I had a choice of how many digits to include. The default is eight, so I stuck with that. This means I'm all set until I hit my hundred-millionth site visitor.

Well, I don't expect you to go round up a hundred million, or even one million, unique visitors for me. But I can see from my StatCounter chart thingy that I've had 38 page views (including one since I started this post!) since yesterday. A quick visit to Instapundit reveals that it has received, oh 153-million-odd page views. (It got an extra 450 in the time it took me to type this paragraph.) Anything you can do to help me along in that direction would be appreciated.

What's useful or interesting to you about this blog? Would you be willing to tell two friends about it? If so, please do! If not, please tell me why!

Thank you, friends known and unknown. Enjoy your reading.


"I'm ridiculously overbooked." This is what I tell people when they ask me if I'm "busy". I stopped using the word "busy" a while back after talking it over with a friend. You ask someone how they're doing. "Oh, I'm soooo busy," they tell you--often with a tone of voice that implies that the world has visited this condition upon them without their say-so. It's a lie I've told myself many times: "If I weren't so busy, THEN I could . . ." Fill in the blank your own way: ". . . follow my dreams," ". . . write that play," ". . . get a social life," ". . . go to church," or whatever it is.

As I said, it's a lie. In the context of a free country and a free job market, we make most of our own conditions. What we have may not be great. We do face limiting conditions. If you have six kids and no high school diploma, then yes, you'll probably stay pretty busy just trying to make ends meet. But for most of us? No way. You are where you've put yourself. I preach this to you not because I've mastered it, but because it's a message I need to hear every day.

This effort to confront reality as it is explains the title of this post: We have 168 hours in the week, and we're always living in one of them.

Where were you a week ago? What did you have in mind then for the week to come? What has happened in your world since then? How much control did you try to exercise over it?

In an earlier post I talked about coming up with a "civilizational BHAG" (big, hairy audacious goal). Despite my brave talk, I still haven't found one--and in fact I've shirked looking. But some of the pieces of my week are working better. I'm trying to keep it in mind that this hour--the one in which I'm typing this message and looking ahead to the book review I have to write and the stack of papers I have to grade today--this is as weighty a fraction of my week as anything else, noble or petty.

There are no minor hours. They all count.

What are you doing to nudge civilization in a better direction? Or if not civilization, your own life?

18 February 2006

Prolificity: Stock your head.

[Note the later addendum to this piece.]

Like most people, I am confronted with enforced periods of physical idleness--in the car, in meetings, or what have you. Lately I have made a concerted effort to use this time to improve my writing. How? Besides reinforcing my long-time habit of always having something to take notes in, I have stocked my head in advance with particular subjects for reflection, namely, the subjects I about which I am currently composing essays, articles, and stories.

I think it was Anthony Trollope who talked about how much he interacted with the characters of his novels during the odd moments of his day. When he had the chance to daydream, he did not do it randomly: he thought about the novel he was writing. Sustained attention to the characters in his current book led to a deep understanding of them, so that when he sat down to write in his famous early-morning sessions, he knew intimately the people he was writing about.

In a fictional world, you make up the settings, the scenarios, and the actors. But this process need not all be programmatic. In fact, if you plan it out too strenuously, you run the risk of making it all too tidy, or too pat for the purposes of your story. At least some of your cogitating time ought to be given over to open-ended reflection, during which you can, as Stephen King describes, unearth the pre-existing parts of your story that are waiting for you to find them.

The same holds true, though, for nonfiction. You don't make up the details, but you figure out how to tell the story, what the important parts of it are, what comes first and what comes next, how to characterize particular individuals and events, and on and on. There are hundreds of little decisions to make even for a short magazine feature; you can make some of them while you're sitting through the most boring part of your weekly staff meeting--but only if you've stocked your head with your key facts and problems ahead of time.

As a psychological or spiritual discipline, I am trying to inculcate the notion that there is no wasted time. I am so overbooked these days, I have the tendency to think that if I'm not getting something done right-now-this-instant, I am wasting time. But it need not be so. I am living my life. I am breathing in and out, experiencing the world, and I can spare the foresight and effort to do it a little better each day.

Practically speaking, this also means that you can spend more than just one hour per day or whatever on your writing--even if you're as overbooked professionally as I am. This helps to explain how Trollope got so much done: He had the remarkable discipline to get up and write every single morning. He had the wiring to write well on his first draft, and to press ahead with his story no matter what. But he also multiplied his time by using odd moments throughout his days to converse with the characters and the scenes of his mythical Barsetshire.

My marching orders for myself: Lay out your course of work. Then stock your head with the provisions to accomplish that work at all hours of the day and night, regardless of circumstances.

Presentations: Control your environment.

My subject line here could be boiled down to one word: Prepare.

When you give a presentation, take responsibility for everything in your audience's environment. Are the lights right? Can people see the screen clearly? Are your handouts legible? Is the room freezing, or broiling? Can you hear too much racket from the meeting room/corridor/kitchen next door? Can you be heard by your listeners?

I'm thinking about all of this because of a two-hour seminar I sat through a couple of days ago. I hadn't had enough sleep the night before (all too common for me) and I had been fighting off a headache all day (very uncommon for me). The seminar was scheduled from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. (mistake #1) and when I got into the room the environment was anything but friendly to a person fighting off a headache. The meeting room in question is the largest one in my company--the one where we hold our all-hands meetings. It has many banks of lights that can operate independently to provide you with whatever pattern of lighting you need. But in this case, only the area lights were on, and they had been dimmed partway. This created three problems:
1. The entire room was lit at the same level, which didn't work given the type of stand-and-deliver seminar it was.
2. The light was too dim for audience members to read the handouts clearly.
3. This particular bank of lights emits an awful buzzing hum when it is dimmed partway.
On top of this, no one had shut the big door at the back of the room that leads to the break room outside, so conversations and other racket from outside rattled into our room. (We finally did shut the door, but belatedly.)

So, in short, it was too dark and too noisy, and there was a headache-promoting background buzz throughout TWO HOURS of a presentation. It's not just that this was bad--it was completely avoidable. A minute or two of experimentation with the lights combined with the simple foresight to shut all the doors all the way would have made life easier for everybody. I know this because I've been in a hundred other meetings in the same room where the lights and noise were no trouble.

The good news, in this case, is that the room has a deluxe built-in projection system, so there were no technical troubles on that end. The two presenters were quite polished, and clearly used to working off of each other in a back-and-forth presentation mode. But some of their slides featured dark-colored graphics that looked dramatic on the screen . . . but washed out to black on the handouts. Again, a simple lack of foresight undermined their presentation. This was more annoying because the date printed at the bottom of each handout page made it clear that they were working from a template they had prepared three years ago. They've had tons of time to get these handouts right, or simply to prepare a version of the handouts with the fancy graphics removed . . . but they never thought of it, I guess.

These shortcomings hit home for me all the more because earlier in the week I had listened to Guy Kawasaki's podcast on "The Art of Pitching," which is full of savvy advice on how to give killer presentations when it counts--that is, when you're asking for a lot of money. In one section, Kawasaki puts the burden on presenters to take responsibility for everything that goes into the presentation. I don't have his text in front of me (the podcast is a chapter of G.K.'s book The Art of the Start), but in paraphrase:
--If the projector doesn't work, it's your fault.
--If the projector won't cooperate with your laptop, it's your fault.
--If the projector bulb goes out, it's your fault.
Kawasaki encourages you to bring your own projector, not one but two laptops loaded with your presentation, a USB key loaded with another copy of the presentation, and then printouts of your whole presentation in case all Hell breaks loose with the technology.

I love this because it means taking full responsibility for all parts of the communication process, which I think is what distinguishes great communicators from lesser ones.

Two modest examples in this vein from my own little speaking career: I can remember a slide show I gave to the Rotary Club in Perth (Scotland) when I was on a Rotary scholarship. The old-fashioned slide projector got jammed partway through my presentation, but fortunately I had drilled on the material so thoroughly that I could ad lib and keep the audience's attention for the minute it took to untangle the machine. Then recently I gave a presentation on short notice in an office that didn't have a room with a projector: it gave me the chance to revise my whole presentation in a way that made sense as a handout. The talk was fresher than it would be, because the process of revising it made me rethink it for the new audience and the new format.

The two ladies who gave the seminar at my office this week were very nice and generally well prepared. Clearly they knew their material, and when the seminar turned interactive (only after 80 minutes of sit-and-listen) it was really valuable. But it would have been ten times better more effective if they had showed more commitment to taking charge of their environment on behalf of their audience.

For presenters, there is no such thing as being overprepared.

Commonplace: Poor Richard

Benjamin Franklin alone could provide me with enough commonplaces to populate this blog for another ten years. These pages offer the text of various editions of Poor Richard's Almanack.

Prefaces and maxims from Poor Richard's Almanack 1733-1758.
Page images of the 1753 edition of the Almanack.

The 1758 preface includes Franklin's famous tract "The Way to Wealth," the advice in which seems as good today as ever. When our contemporary debates on taxation get heated, I always remember this part, voiced by "Father Abraham":
Friends, says he, and Neighbours, the Taxes are indeed very heavy, and if those laid on by the Government were the only Ones we had to pay, we might more easily discharge them; but we have many others, and much more grievous to some of us. We are taxed twice as much by our Idleness, three times as much by our Pride, and four times as much by our Folly, and from these Taxes the Commissioners cannot ease or deliver us by allowing an Abatement. However let us hearken to good Advice, and something may be done for us; God helps them that help themselves, as Poor Richard says, in his Almanack of 1733.
The next paragraph has even harder advice for all of us who waste too much time:
It would be thought a hard Government that should tax its People one tenth Part of their Time, to be employed in its Service. But Idleness taxes many of us much more, if we reckon all that is spent in absolute Sloth, or doing of nothing, with that which is spent in idle Employments or Amusements, that amount to nothing. Sloth, by bringing on Diseases, absolutely shortens Life. Sloth, like Rust, consumes faster than Labour wears, while the used Key is always bright, as Poor Richard says. But dost thou love Life, then do not squander Time, for that's the Stuff Life is made of, as Poor Richard says.--How much more than is necessary do we spend in Sleep! forgetting that The sleeping Fox catches no Poultry, and that there will be sleeping enough in the Grave, as Poor Richard says. If Time be of all Things the most precious, wasting Time must be, as Poor Richard says, the greatest Prodigality, since, as he else where tells us, Lost Time is never found again; and what we call Time-enough, always proves little enough: Let us then up and be doing, and doing to the Purpose; so by Diligence shall we do more with less Perplexity. Sloth makes all Things difficult, but Industry all easy, as Poor Richard says; and He that riseth late, must trot all Day, and shall scarce overtake his Business at Night. While Laziness travels so slowly, that Poverty soon over- takes him, as we read in Poor Richard, who adds, Drive thy Business, let not that drive thee; and Early to Bed, and early to rise, makes a Man healthy, wealthy and wise.
I've taken this snippet and taped it onto my laptop where I can't miss seeing it:
"Lost Time is never found again."

16 February 2006

Multiply yourself: Ask for help.

David Lorenzo's blog is a fount of encouragement and good sense, not just for those seeking "career intensity" in a business setting, but for anyone who wants to do more and do better what they love to do most. Lorenzo's own energy is obvious -- he often posts several times a day, and he talks sense.

"Asking for Help is Smart" is a great reminder that not only is there no reason to go it alone in this life, but also that going it alone is silly. Two great quotes jump out at me from Lorenzo's post: 1. "I would rather be thought of as a needy success than as a brilliant failure." 2. "If you don’t swallow your pride and you try to 'tough it out' in an area where you lack skill, knowledge or experience, you exponentially increase the likelihood you will fail."

This matches my personal experience and the events I've seen around me. How many times in my life have I wasted my time, energy, and serenity by trying to do something that I simply wasn't up to doing? It could be a lack of training, or experience, or aptitude, or motivation, but whatever the case, even the most omnicompetent people have something that they ought to farm out to others. This is why I no longer change the oil in my cars myself: the guys at the garage do it all day, every day; they do it much faster and better than I can; they dispose of the used oil with no effort; they might spot important problems with the car that I never would; and so on. Yes, I know how to change the oil if I absolutely must, but at this point there's no reason for me to do it myself. I'd rather spend that time doing something that only I can do, or that at least will build toward my bigger goals in life.

What do you insist on doing for yourself that, really, you should be letting someone else do for you? Why don't you ask for help?

Why do we do what we do?

As he often does, Seth Godin provides great food for thought here: "The Reason".

We all do things--and we all accept things--for rationales that don't hold up to scrutiny. There's a practice in business called "zero base budgeting" (ZBB). The idea of it . . . (any MBAs in the room should cover their ears while I butcher this) . . . is that you write next year's budget starting with a zero for every line item. In other words, you must justify every single thing you put into the budget--salaries, photocopiers, styrofoam cups, big projects, little projects, you name it.

How often do we do any such thing for our own lives? What if applied ZBB to our bank statements? Or to our calendars? (Tom Peters: "You are your calendar.") As I think about the prospect of this, it's all I can do not to run screaming from the room. This suggests to me that it's probably a tack worth pursuing.

What do you think?

Creator: Patricia Madson Ryan

I liked this interview with drama coach and author Patricia Madson Ryan. She has interesting things to say about the creative process, and especially about how to give full attention in the current, creative moment. It's worth a read.

Two things I especially liked:
1. Ryan's opposition to multitasking. Multitasking is a vice of mine, but I find that I'm happier--and I get more done--when I stick with one thing until it's finished.
2. The advice to "Be average." What you are is good enough. You have a lifetime of preparation behind you: now step up and let 'er rip.

Dubai, "Mushroom City"

This is a fascinating article about the explosive, all-but-unimaginable growth of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Along with all the prosperity come many problems, not least of them the routine exploitation of laborers. In my day job I see more news all the time on world-class commercial doings coming out of the UAE.

If anyone here can comment on first-hand experiences in Dubai, I'm all ears.

Commonplace: Chris Smith

It's not every day that a member of Congress says something in a committee hearing that's worth being etched in stone, but Chris Smith, Republican of New Jersey, pulled off that trick yesterday when he said this:

"Cooperation with tyranny should not be embraced for the sake of profits."

He said this in the context of hearings on the business dealings of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Cisco in China. It's important to remember that, while China has made great strides in many areas -- its economic strength above all -- it is still far from free.

Summary at Good Morning Silicon Valley.
Rep. Smith's opening statement at his committee's hearing.

Intake and output.

During my first few weeks of regular blogging, I hewed pretty closely to my personal standard of three posts per day. I figure that not all of my posts have to be the mini-essays I love so well; they can be a mix of long and short, of musings, links, and commonplaces. But over the past week, my output has been haphazard at best. Meanwhile, though, I've been reading--from blogs, books, magazines, you name it--at a pace even more frenetic than usual. I use "frenetic" advisedly, because there's a certain pointlessness to my reading when I get this way: instead of working my way through a particular idea, I flash through a hundred ideas without arriving at any sort of conclusion or application for my own life.

So now I'm back on the bandwagon of regular posting. My point in doing this isn't only to give you something new to ponder each day, gentle reader, but also to reinforce my own sense of chutzpah: It's the idea that what I have to say is more important--to me--than what someone else has to say. This is a tricky balancing act to pull off, since I believe that my own life is about interacting with others. This does imply listening--more and deeper listening than I usually pull off. But my real mission is to contribute to others. And while listening and absorbing is a key part of that, I can't use my own talents to contribute to the lives of others unless I produce.

As evidence of my own struggles to pull off this balancing act, I can look at both the million half-consumed, one-fifth-digested ideas I've encountered from others over the years, and even more so to the million unborn or stillborn ideas of my own that I've never put into the world. Plenty of my ideas aren't very consequential to anyone but me--which is fine. That's the nature of ideas. But all of those that have gone undeveloped or unexpressed, they're open loops that weigh on my mind.

My goal: improve the ratio between the many ideas I have and the ones I turn into something useful to share with others.

In other words: brace yourself for an onslaught of bloggery! :)

15 February 2006

Terminal patients.

Let's consider something heavy for a minute: Every last one of us is a terminal patient. Each of us will check out of this life someday. Fine. But what if we put a sharper edge on this? What if you knew you had only 18 months before your appointment with the Reaper? What would you try to accomplish between now and then?

Would you do schlub-work? Busy-work? Cubicle-work?

Or something major?

There is nothing wrong per se with working in a cubicle. I do, and it helps my family to live comfortably. But how many of us are--when we're honest with ourselves--defined by the fact that we work in a cubicle? I certainly have been in the past, and it's an easy rut to return to.

As much as I can, I now guide myself toward doing big things. My own challenge now is to maintain that 18-months focus: what can I accomplish in the next year and a half that will change the world in some way that's meaningful to me? What can I do today that will help me get there?

Consider the example of David Lorenzo's friend, who used a cancer diagnosis to change his life for the better.

Friend, don't wait until it's too late.

Commonplace: Drucker

There are probably a thousand quotations I could list from the late, great Peter Drucker. This one, though, may be my all-time favorite, above all because it speaks to one of my own biggest weaknesses: great planning, weak follow-through.

"Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work."


I've been catching up on my Esquire reading, which reminds me (1) how very, very good Esquire is right now, and (2) how very removed I am from the world of high fashion in which the Prada and Dolce & Gabbana ads make any sense.

This article on speed-skater Apolo Ohno from the February issue set off a train of thought. Here's the key quote:
He does it because he's one of the lucky ones in this life, having found something he's monstrous at. Unlike most of the rest of us, he wakes up each morning with the chance to be perfect. "There's not one day I don't want to be on the ice," he says, and that's because for two minutes at a time, he is as good as it gets.
That word--"monstrous"--stuck in my head because of a conversation I once had with my good buddy Paul. We were talking about the famous 1978 playoff game in Fenway Park between the visiting Yankees and Paul's beloved Red Sox. That game is best known for Bucky Dent's three-run homer, which put the Yankees on top in the seventh inning.

What's less remembered is the home run that Reggie Jackson hit in the eighth inning--a solo shot that provided the Yankees their ultimate one-run margin of victory. Paul was watching the game as it unfolded, and he remembers the Jackson hit as a "monstrous" shot to centerfield. (Paul and I had this conversation a couple of years ago, and I can still see the way he rolled his eyes to the heavens as he said this.) It was incongruity that made Dent's homer famous, because Dent was such a light hitter. Jackson's blast was to be expected because he was, in a word, monstrous as a hitter.

Most of us never find our "chance to be perfect." This is another way of saying that we never put ourselves in a Category of One. Apolo Ohno has found his, and once the Torino Olympics are over, he'll have to figure out what else to do with his life. Reggie Jackson became wealthy and famous because he lived out his chance to be perfect for so many years on such a big stage.

Most of us certainly won't ever find fame and fortune in athletics, but somewhere, lurking in the shadows or staring us in the face, is our chance to be monstrous. Let's find all commit to find it.

12 February 2006

Ethan Casey: The World at Large

I've long taken it as an axiom that one thing the world needs more of is Ethan Casey's journalism. Ethan's an old friend and colleague; I was for several years a proud participant in his brainchild, Blue Ear, which helped me develop my writing chops as much as anything in my life. The good news is that Ethan's now online with a blog that's more than just a blog. It bears the hallmarks of his international experience and, above all, his thought. The man actually thinks. Even if he weren't such a mensch, even it he hadn't been such a good friend and mentor to me personally, that quality alone would make him worth reading. So, gentle reader, do yourself a favor and add Ethan to your regular reading list.

Ethan Casey: The World at Large

11 February 2006

"Making meaning" and Mercedes-Benz.

Guy Kawasaki has talked about "making meaning" as one of the major foundations of good branding. (See his typically insightful post here.) I think he's right.

The folks at Mercedes think so, too, apparently. They're running advertisements that feature the tagline, "You're Not Buying A Car. You're Buying a Belief." You can find details on the campaign here, or a bigger image of the specific ad here. The related press release is here.

(Let me just digress to say that enthusiast sites like eMercedesBenz are one of the greatest arguments for the existence of the Internet. Before right now, I didn't know where to look, should I ever become engrossed in the doings of Mercedes. Now I know.)

The text of the ad makes the connection to Guy K.'s point for me: "The notion of building a Mercedes-Benz has always been an exceptionally meaningful endeavor. More than making a machine, we are upholding an ideal. . . ." Immediately I think of my father's colleague who crashed in a Mercedes back in the 1960s. The car flipped a time or two, landed on its roof, and was damaged beyond repair. My father's friend unbuckled his seatbelt, let himself out through the window, and walked away. This set of positive associations erodes any idea I might have that the Mercedes stands for acquisitive lust, and builds up the idea that "Mercedes" is a synonym for "excellence".

That's what making meaning is about.

Creator: Michael Chabon

Lately I've been on a jag of Michael Chabon reading. To me, he's as good as any novelist working today, plus his essays are consistently engaging. I just finished reading McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, which Chabon edited and to which he contributed both the introduction and the final story.

He posted a copy of his introduction on his Web site. This piece alone is well worth reading by anyone who cares about the current state of American fiction. (His site is filled with other tasty morsels as well.)

I also heartily recommend The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Final Solution.

Uma Thurman on Failure.

There is an interesting interview with Uma Thurman in the February issue of Esquire. (Can't find a link to the article itself.) Here's the last paragraph of it:
So I guess I recommend being a student. It's not like it's some sort of written policy that I carry around in my back pocket. It just comes back to being present and having a tremendous work ethic and accepting failure as a necessity for learning. None of it's final anyway. When it works, it's not final, and when it fails, it's not final. There's always another move.
Emphasis added.

10 February 2006

"All of the biggest hurdles are internal."

I enjoyed this BusinessWeek interview, "Failure Is Part of Success," with serial entrepreneur Nicholas Hall. My favorite part was this:
Q: What's the biggest lesson you learned from failing?
A: How costly it is if you take yourself out of the game. It's like what they say about the stock market -- that you don't know when the gains will come, but you get luckier often if you stay in the game vs. trying to figure out when to get in the game. If you fail, you have to bounce back.
Are you like me? How much time in your life have you wasted wondering when you should step onto the dance floor? Just get up and dance!

Commonplace: Becalmed seas.

Today my friend Z. told me this old Latin proverb.

"If there is no wind, row."

The beautiful thing is that Z. first heard it from the mouth of Mel Brooks. Looking over Brooks's filmography, I'd say the man's followed that advice to a T.

More on John Boyd and O.O.D.A.

Tom Peters is running an interview + PowerPoint featuring Robert Coram, who wrote a book about Col. John Boyd's career and thought. Worth a look.

08 February 2006

The Pareto Principle and Good Procrastination

A hundred years ago, the social scientist Vilfredo Pareto observed the basic asymmetry between inputs and outputs in many areas of life. He began by noticing that one-fifth of all Italians owned four-fifths of Italian property, but the principle named after him has been generalized in many directions. It’s often called the “80/20 Rule,” since the generic form of it posits that 80% of outputs derive from 20% of inputs. This could mean 80% of sales coming from 20% of salespeople, 80% of profits coming from 20% of products, 80% of books written by 20% of authors, or what have you. It also works for Bad Things: 80% of complaints come from the whiniest 20% of customers, 80% of errors arise in 20% of processes, and so on.

(Note: It is coincidence that the two numbers add up to 100. The relationship could just as easily be 75/15 or 90/25.)

In personal and business productivity, the Pareto principle is used to prioritize work. All else being equal, it’s much better to focus on the 20% of activities that generate 80% of revenue, for example, than on the 80% of activities that generate just 20% of revenues. Smart workers and smart business take the principle further, of course, by repeating the high-output 20% over and over. In other words, if 20 hours of high-quality work yield $8,000 in sales, then 60 hours of the same work will yield $24,000 in sales. Even better, there’s sometimes a solid-gold 20% within the high-yield 20%--the 4% of super-premium inputs that yield the most disproportionate outputs. This is where Warren Buffett lives.

The other term in my title comes from Paul Graham’s recent essay, “Good and Bad Procrastination.” The relevant quote is this:
There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I'd argue, is good procrastination.
The good procrastination he’s talking about is essentially an application of the Pareto principle. Fiddling with Gridgame is fun, but those who diligently seek wealth don’t play Gridgame during working hours because, absorbing though it is to watch the little circles whirl around, Gridgame isn’t among the 20% most effective revenue-generating activities that lead to 80% of revenue. The most lucrative 20% of inputs include “making customers’ problems go away” and “giving customers good reasons to be happy to part with their money in return for what you sell.”

The top-4% principle applies here, too. Those who really seek wealth do things like start technology companies, practice tax law or nuclear medicine, or work in private equity. These people put off watching the big game; they put off vacations; they put off sleep; they may put off having a family or, if they already have one, may put off interacting with it. The point, in this case, isn’t to find out whether they are happy, but just to note that they are value-maximizing.

Graham has the right idea. Figure out what you’re after--what’s important to you. Figure out what’s more or less relevant to making that thing happen. Do the things that are more relevant, and put off the things that are less relevant. If you do the most relevant, most important things with the bulk of your time, you’re likely to get the important outputs you’re looking for in far more abundance than would typically be the norm. Instead of the 20 strong inputs yielding 80 outputs, and 80 weak inputs yielding 20 outputs, you could have 90 strong inputs yielding 360 outputs and 10 weak inputs yielding . . . well, who cares, once you have 360 outputs of what’s important to you?


The Bureau of Reclamation site has a very stripped-down introduction to the Pareto principle.

This page provides a more detailed basic approach to carrying out Pareto analysis.

Creator: Christopher Lloyd ("Hurrah for vulgarity!")

If I could read only one thing out of The Economist each week, it would be the obituary. The best news magazine in English has long held up the model of what an obituary can be. Like the writing of English cricket commentators, Economist obituaries remind us why the the British have been so indispensable in the history of journalism.

A-a-anyway, this week's obituary (which you should read soon, if you want to avoid looking at an advertisement in order to see it) discusses the life of the recently departed Christopher Lloyd, the dean of English gardeners. Lloyd found his One Thing--gardening--early in life, and he wrote about it eloquently. He was so popular in no small part because he was so shocking. But he was shocking in the service of deriving pleasure from the garden, which is as it should be.

Some of the rules for your own One Thing are there for good reasons; others aren't. Find out which are which, and flout the meaningless ones with abandon. Share your joy in your One Thing with the rest of the world. Amen.

Networking: It doesn't have to be a dirty word.

"Networking" gets a bad name because of the shallow back-slappers who engage in it. But if we take "networking" to mean "the process of building human relationships with lots of people who share interests with us," then it becomes something wonderful. As I've indicated before, my favorite writer on this subject is Keith Ferrazzi. His book, Never Eat Alone sits on my nightstand so I can dig new ideas out of it before I nod off at night; similarly, his blog is on my daily RSS rounds. Here are links to some of his best columns from Inc. magazine's site:

"Lessons from the Green"
"Do Your Homework (Really)"
"Finding Your Currency"

Another favorite writer of mine, Guy Kawasaki covered some of the same ground in short format with his recent blog post/essay, "The Art of Schmoozing".

This piece from David Lorenzo addresses the ways you can mobilize your friends, family, and other contacts to help you as you look for a new job or new customers in your career. Lorenzo encapsulates something great: "Friendships are valuable. The people you know should be your greatest asset as you develop your career. Give them every opportunity to help you. As long as you are providing great value, don't be afraid to leverage your social network for the benefits it can provide." Too many people, in my experience, hesitate to tell others what they're doing, what is most meaningful to them, and what they'd like to get out of life. (My blog represents part of my personal antidote to this.)

Even though a lot of ought to be common wisdom--much of this ground was covered decades ago in Dale Carnegie's best-known book--it still needs saying. Much of the value we derive from life comes from either (a) objectives we pursue and attain, or (b) relationships we build. Doing both at once--which is the good kind of networking--is a double blessing.

07 February 2006

Decision: Taking versus making.

Usually we talk about making decisions; lately I've been talking about taking them. We all do make decisions all the time, but we still make them even when the process is passive and unthinking. I use "taking" to indicate the level of active engagement that I think marks a truly effective process of decision.

Taking a decision implies taking action and taking responsibility for what you do and the outcomes of what you do. Exercising your faculty of decision in this way means taking on life actively as it comes to you, not operating by default.

Take decisions and take charge. It's the only way to really live.

Memory Lane: Middlebury

I spent a summer in the 1990s at the Middlebury German School. To my mind, Middlebury has the quintessential appearance of a New England town, and Middlebury College has the quintessential appearance of a New England liberals arts school. I learned loads of German there and had a wonderful time: it planted the dream in my mind of someday living -- or at least summering -- in rural New England.

The college has an outstanding art museum.

I can't find good photos of the campus on the school's site, but this campus map (PDF!) suggests the flavor of it in watercolors.

More information about the town and surroundings.