Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

One front closes in the OS wars

Ah, remember the day when people debated hotly over the virtues of Windows versus the Macintosh operating system? Well, those days never really went away, but most of us forgot about it completely, because the only people who were buying Macs were graphic designers, academics, and consumers who liked the pretty white boxes. There is hardly anything left of the original MacOS, since it was scrapped for a GUI shell on top of FreeBSD. But the Brand that is Apple has lived on, and found rebirth in a new generation of devices, not the least of which was the iPod.

The iPod has taught Apple (and the rest of the world, in the process) that you can survive if you have a great brand, and that brands are mostly about image. The Mac faithful did not particularly care that their OS was quietly replaced -- it still looked like the same thing to them. Especially that gleaming white hardware and playful colors. There is nothing particularly hard about making a good MP3 player, either -- but that sleek white box, with the simplest interface imaginable, has been a killer look.

Now, the transformation of Apple from an OS company to a naked brand is complete, because now you can run Windows on a Mac. Apple released a free program that lets you set up a Windows partition on a Mac. Walter Mossberg (of course) gave it a huge spread, and Apple's stock jumped 10% on the news. It's as if Apple was saying: "Ok, fine, we'll give up trying to convince you our software is better. Because all you really want is that pretty box and a the smug, self-righteous brand, right?"

Friday, April 07, 2006

Have a Coke and a . . . paycheck

Coca-Cola recently announced that the pay it provided to its board of directors was going to be completely depended on the company reaching specific earnings goals. It the company reaches the benchmarks for 2007, the directors get a nice slice of cash -- about $150,000 -- based on the stock price. If they don't make the goals, they get a big fat slice of nothing.

I find this remarkably refreshing. I always found it appalling that a person could be an absolutely terrible CEO -- not even show up for work, really -- and still make tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. And then even collect a fat severence just for the privilege of being fired. How wonderful that a corporate officer can be told, "Well, you suck, the company is doing terribly, so no money for you." Warren Buffet, a huge investor in Coke and long-time member of the board, says it's "the best structure I've ever seen."

When I first started working for my current company, I worked as a contractor. I made a flat percentage of the total hours of work that we billed to the customer. It was a situation that was blissfully simple: the more money I made for the company, the more money I made. I never had to argue with my boss whether I deserved a raise or not; everything depended on the results. It kept me absolutely focused doing work that was making money, and not doing things that didn't make money.

I have a very close relationship with my employer, and a relationship based almost entirely on trust. We never signed any kind of contract. Even when we finally drew up a contract to formalize our arrangement, I didn't bother to sign it and he didn't bother to keep it. But I think that high level of trust was fundamentally based on the fact that always carefully structured our relationship so that our interests were closely aligned. It's not that I wouldn't do the right thing by my employer, regardless . . . but it's so much easier to do the right thing when it's also the most beneficial thing for me. What better way to make people care about the right things?

I'd like to teach the world to sing that tune.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Death of a Consultant

I keep finding myself running into situations where the "experts" that one turns to for advice turn out to be shadow-salesmen -- that is, salesmen disguised as advisors, who have all kinds of conflicts of interest built into their trade. The biggest offenders are the finanical advisors -- brokers, insurance agents, etc. What they fail to tell you (usually) is that they will recommend whatever they have to sell, and that they will probably sell you whatever is most profitable to themselves, not what is most suitable to your situation. Doctors are not much better. It's quite rare to find a doctor who will tell you that you don't need another test or another medication; after all, they make money by selling you procedures and tests.

I find this especially troubling because . . . I'm one of them. I am a consultant who also happens to profit from the software and services I sell. How do I make sure I am not succumbing to the conflicts of interest that abound in so many other fields?

Actually, there are some really good ways to keep things honest:
  1. Offer the customer choices. You can make your recommendation for what you think will be best for the customer, but you should also tell them about other options available to them, including options that don't involve paying you money. This requires having a lot of confidence in the value of your products and services; you have to really believe that you have to best solution, to put yourself side-by-side with competing solutions. It also requires letting some work go; sometimes, the customer really is better off going somewhere else with a job, and you have to be willing to let that go.
  2. Talk about price up-front. Many salesmen, worried about losing customers from sticker-shock before selling them on the value of their solution, will be evasive or even outright dishonest about the ultimate costs. If you have to hide the costs, odds are good you're not offering the right solution for the customer.
  3. Never surprise the customer -- especially with the bill. If there's going to be extra cost, you need to let them know ahead of time, and give them the choice to pay it or not. If the end-product is going to be less than what you promised, you need to tell them that, too.
  4. Never hide information from the customer. If the transaction requires that the customer not know something, then odds are good it's an unfair transaction. (Besides, in the age of Google, there are very few secrets. Even your margins on your products and materials can be known . . . )

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Your stand on Race? I'm against it.

The Wall Street Journal ran a story this past weekend about a music teacher in Colorado who excluded all Christian Christmas carols from the school's holiday pageant, but who later showed her students excerpts of the opera Faust. Terry Teachout's analysis of the situation was penetrating: it seems that both sides of the argument, the cultural elite and the religious conservatives, are doomed to misunderstand each other.

The other day I was trying to email a file of teacher demographic data to a local school system. The message didn't make it there, because the censuring software on their server detected the words "Race" and "Sex" in the file. The very efforts the school was making to avoid discrimination based on gender or ethnicity was itself deemed unsuitable by the sensitivity police.

Human beings, alas, seem to display an equivalent level of total ignorance to context. This gets back to what I was writing about last night -- a reflexive antipathy to religion is about as equally unsubtle as a reflexive antipathy to the broader popular culture. Most culturally literate people know that objecting to Faust because of the presence of the Devil in it, or objecting to Huckleberry Finn because it uses the n-word (and I dare not even repeat it here, for fear some brainless robot will impound my blog), is the height of ignorance. Likewise, presuming that the mere presence of a Christmas carol is, by definition, offensive to non-Christians is about as ill-informed about both sets of believers as you can get.

I don't think we need an ounce more of sensitivity to overcome such misunderstandings. I think we need subtlety, which requires a brain as well as a heart.


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Why we believe

The New Yorker ran a review of Daniel Dennett's new book, Break the Spell. I read this with some interest, since Dennett is one of my fallen idols. I was completely taken with The Mind's Eye, which he co-wrote with Douglas Hofstadter, and I was perfectly prepared to love the guy after that. But every exposure other exposure I had to him only diminished my regard, until he seemed nothing but a snooty intellectual with more regard for himself and his ideas than either deserved. When I was student I once called Dennett to try to book him for a public lecture, and he was extremely curt to the point of rudeness; he made me feel like a bug, and unschooled cretin of a bug at that. (By contrast, Hofstadter was warm and understanding on the phone, and a great guy, even when he was telling me he couldn't accept my invitation.)

Breaking the Spell is supposed to be a "natural history of religion" -- an objective study of the phenomena of religion, and theories as to why religion came to exist. Dennett does a little soft-shoe in the book to try to pursuade the reader that such a study of religion is not inherently anti-religion, though you can tell just by the title that he is. The book reviews various theories for the origin of religion, many from others and some from Dennett himself, mostly focused on how religion might have conveyed some kind of evolutionary advantage on the species.

I admit, I'm a little torn here, intellectually. As a thinking person constantly running afoul of people's narrow-minded understanding of religion, I can respect the attempt to take a look at religion objectively. Many religious people are afraid to look at their beliefs objectively, knowing that their faith might be shaken if they think to hard about these things. I don't think it's possible to develop a subtle understanding of such things without asking some questions that may seem taboo.

At the same time, I am so sick and freaking tired of intellectuals like Dennett (or pseudo-intellectuals, in the case of Scott Adams) making out religion to be the root of all evil. Those who see religion as merely delusional pathologies have less subtlety than the fundamentalists they despise so much. The reviewer in the New Yorker sees very clearly that Dennett has his own unquestioning faith in science, based on assumptions that even his own science cannot confirm. Ultimately, we believe what we believe for reasons beyond reason. Rationality might help you understand and refine it, but it can't show you the truth.

Monday, April 03, 2006

For quality control, your call may be ignored

I had a Cranky Consumer moment the other day. I was paying bills, and suddenly realized that I was paying the same bill I had paid a couple months ago, for a life insurance premium. I ran a report from Quicken and, sure enough, I was paying two annual premiums for a policy. I dig a little deeper into my files and discover that when I switched from a ten-year-term policy to a twenty-year-term policy, they just wrote a new 20-year policy and kept charging me for both a ten and a twenty year policy. WTF?

I called the insurance company directly, where I patiently wait on hold. The prevalance of speaker-phones have probably not helped hold times, because now companies figure they can make people wait longer because they are not really standing there holding a phone to their ear. So I wait . . . and wait . . . and wait . . . and wait. Even though I'm trying to work while I'm on hold, I'm still waiting long enough to realize that this is an awfully long time to wait. Long enough that I get to thinking: how can they afford to keep customers waiting so long?

Then I realize that this is the perfect storm of long customer service hold time. This is life insurance. People only call life insurance companies approximately once in their lives: to cancel a policy. They don't call to set up policies -- they have independent agents who do that, and send them the business. And, of course, people call to collect on an insurance policy -- but that wouldn't be during your lifetime, would it? ;-}

Either way, when the phone rings at an insurance company, it's not good news for them. So what's the rush? Why hire two people to answer the phone when one can do the job? It's not like you need to worry about those people who want to cancel their policy; eventually they'll just give up and stop paying the premium anyway. And it's not like you're worried about making the beneficiaries of a policy wait: if we're going to give them a million bucks for their dead husband, they can damn well wait thirty minutes, can't they? And it's not like their going to hang up in a huff and take their business elsewhere, because who wants to go through all that hassle of getting a policy again? Who wants to have to talk to a life insurance salesman more than once?

So, if you want to find the absolute world-record holder for time on hold with customer service, you need to find a company that:
  1. Has very, very few transactions with customers.
  2. Doesn't sell directly to customers, but rather has someone else do the selling for them.
  3. Has absolutely no reason to actually want to talk to you
  4. Is in a field where the cost and/or hassle of changing vendors is prohibitively high

So, who would you predict would have the longest hold time?

If it's not life insurance companies, my next guess would be . . .


Live by the sword

The Michigan fellow who went "on strike" to protest his wife co-sleeping with the kids has suddenly gone down in flames. Someone who didn't care for his antics did some determined googling and found that he was listed in the states registry of sex offenders. After his foes repeatedly posting this information to the comments section of his blog, he finally had to shut down the comments section of his site. The same news media that garnered him instant national attention turned on this new bit of gossipy news, and suddenly being a celebrity wasn't quite so much fun.

I will ignore the opportunity to gloat, since once an opponent is disarmed and humilitated it's a lot easier to begin feeling sorry for them. But I was interested in the whole question of whether people deserve "second chances." This guy, and his wife, have the usual protestations: that crime was in past, I was a different person then, I've moved on with my life, I've got religion, let's just judge me for who I am now.

So . . . should we judge him on who he is now? Well . . . no, not really. I mean, if you have a good feeling about the guy and trust that he is reformed, you are welcome to take a chance on him. But that's a privilege, to be humbly accepted. No one has a right to a second chance. Especially when they are trying to seize the moral highground.

Lots of people have overcome their past sins to become prominent figures. Heck, it seems like most celebrities have some dark spots in their past. But if you want to be redeemed in the court of public opinion, you have to pay the price. The price is, among other things, admit your sins, accept the blame, demonstrate your change of being, and move on to do great things worthy of admiration. (When you think about it, it's not that much different from getting divine redemption.) People love a redemption story almost as much as they love to pull people down from high places. But redemption takes time and merit, and someone who's fame is based on a cheap gimmick should not be surprised that they are not instantly forgiven.