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, January 06, 2007

"I'll show you fear in a handful of dust" -- T.S. Eliot

I read all of The Absolute Sandman, Vol I over the holidays. It was exactly the sort of thing you're supposed to read over the holidays -- enjoyable pop culture, not deep enough to trouble your heart, but not so shallow that you'd be ashamed of it.

I was not a real comic reader when I was younger; like most people with literary pretentions, I viewed them with a certain amused disdain. The whole super-hero genre was filled with such naked escapism -- it allowed the geeky, awkward, and unfit to project themselves into dreams of wealth, power, and beauty, while still preserving their identity as misunderstood outsiders.

But to all rules there are exceptions. I think it was my older brother who introduced me to The Sandman, back in his med school days. I can't remember exactly what he said about it, but it was something to the effect of, "Not all comics are vacuous. This one has something on its mind." I read few issues, and I enjoyed them. So when Wired gave a thumbs up to a bound collection, I put it on my wish list.

The Sandman is the King of Dreams, the personification of dreaming, one of seven Eternal ones. (His older sister, Death, makes some regular appearances.) In the dreamworld, Dream (or Morpheus, or Oineros, or whatever mythological sobriquet prevails in a given issue) is nearly omnipotent, but occasionally this god-like being gets entangled in the affairs of the real world, and that's when things gets interesting. The series begins when a secret occult society attempts to trap Death, so they might live forever. Instead of catching Death they get Dream instead. As the occultists attempt, over generations, to extort power from their captive, things start to go haywire in the dreamworld . . . and much of the story arc of Sandman is Morpheus' continuous efforts to set things aright after escaping his seventy-year imprisonment.

What makes the stories interesting, from a story-telling point of view, is how little of the main character we actually see. Most of the stories revolve around the mortals and their all-too-human dramas, in which Morpheus plays brief but significant roles. He remains (as he ought) a mysterious figure, never fully explicated, and never completely understood. He is god-like in more than his power, too -- while often aloof and indifferent to mortal struggles, he is occasionally moved by love, by anger, by pride, or by quiet curiousity. The stories were originally categorized under the "Horror" genre, which I suppose makes sense, in the same way that you could call "The Twilight Zone" horror. In most of the tales we see human suffering, evil, despair, and glimmers of hope, all from a god's-eye point of view -- what Sartre might call "the brotherly indifference of the universe."

If you enjoy Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- that is, a mash-up of fantasy, horror, humor, and heroics -- then you might enjoy Sandman. Just expect less humor and heroics, and more dark nights of the soul. If you, like the writer Neil Gaiman, have a wardrobe of black clothes and solitary ways, then the Sandman may be your patron saint.


Friday, January 05, 2007

Everyday low respect for human dignity

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that Wal-mart will begin rolling out to all its stores a new computerized scheduling system. Rather than working predictable shifts, the workers will now have to list the times when they will be "available" to work, and then they will be called in to work based on whether the computer predicts they are needed. Wal-mart asserts (probably correctly) that the new system will allow for faster checkout times and a better customer experience, because the stores will always have the right number of associates available to help. The workers, and all the anti-Wal-mart organizations shilling for the unions, are pointing out that the change will create vast disruptions in workers' lives, because they will never be able to predict their schedules or their income.

After having read The Wal-Mart Effect, I can see how this system is a classic Wal-mart move. Wal-mart, of course, is always looking for inefficiencies to wring out of their business and the businesses of their vendors. Sometimes they remove inefficiencies that are true inefficiencies -- for instance, telling all the deoderant makers to stop packing their products in little cardboard boxes. In cases like that, everyone wins: Wal-Mart gets more product on the shelves, the vendors save money on packaging, millions of acres of forest are saved from being turned into paper, and the customer ultimately gets a cheaper product. (The company that printed and produced the little cardboard boxes probably wasn't happy, but we can hardly blame Wal-Mart for that.)

However, there is another way for Wal-Mart to remove inefficiencies from their business: make them someone else's problem. For instance, Wal-Mart saves money on sending orders to its vendors . . . by making the vendor pay for the overnight delivery. Wal-Mart gets free market research for its products . . . again, by making the vendors do all the work. Of course, in a free market, all those vendor companies doing business with Wal-Mart are entering the business relationship freely, and, as one executive put it, "we're all big boys." The vendors might not like Wal-Mart wringing the nickels out of their hides, but they accept it in order to have the volume that Wal-Mart can provide.

Now Wal-Mart is turning that same "make-it-someone-else's-problem" approach on their single largest fixed cost: labor. Wal-Mart has been staunchly anti-union because their margins simply don't allow for expensive labor. With a computerized system handling scheduling, Wal-mart liberates an army of middle managers from tedious scheduling, and they also turn a fixed cost into a variable cost. The guys in Bentonville must be rubbing their hands together . . . what a spectacular way to bring new efficiency to the very center of their operations.

But the employees are not exactly the free agents that the vendors are. Most of the vendors have other channels besides Wal-Mart that carry at least two-thirds of their volume. The workers at Wal-Mart are . . . well, they wouldn't be working at Wal-Mart if they had anywhere else to work. And Wal-Mart can't lean on them much harder on wages -- those are already about as low as they can go -- so they are taking away what they can take away: their lives. Under the new regime, the worker could never (efficiently) schedule childcare, because they never know if they will be working or not. One could argue that the employees do have a choice: they can decide for themselves when to make themselves available. But the very efficiency that Wal-Mart aims for with the system guarantees they will not be working as many hours as they were before. They will only be able to get the hours they need if they make themselves available for night and weekend work, and management has strongly recommended they make themselves available for a weekend shift "if at all possible." And it's not likely they could fill those gaps in their work week with some other part-time job.

I am not a knee-jerk Wal-Mart basher. I like efficiencies. I like free markets, and occasionally I even like Wal-Mart low prices. But this system feels like a naked attempt by a corporation to steal away every vestige of human dignity from its employees. There is absolutely no way someone could even conceive of such a system and consider themselves to be "pro-family." The very nature of the system is geared to wring an efficiency directly out of the personal lives of the workers.

I am especially not a knee-jerk "let's-regulate-an-industry" kind of guy, either. I don't think one can outlaw what Wal-Mart is doing. It may be that the net effect is that Wal-mart runs its stores entirely with part-time employees, because no one will be able to afford to work full-time for Wal-mart without sacrificing their entire lives on the altar of low prices. The unions, in fact, see this as the entire point of the new system. And I haven't made up my mind yet as to whether that goal is morally wrong, or just morally repugnant. Either way, I am inclined to vote with my dollars . . . and hope that more people, those more fortunate than the Wal-Mart workforce, will do the same.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Easy credit, uneasy me

I downloaded my credit card transactions yesterday, getting ready to reconcile about three months worth of stuff. I generally like to do the books -- it feels like accomplishing something while being generally light work, something I can do while listening to music. So I was chugging right along with a good rhythm: Accept, Accept, Accept, type a note here and there, Accept, Accept, look up a receipt, Accept, Accept. . .

And then I begin to see charges like this:
12/14/2006 Incom Jerusalem $2,678.95
12/14/2006 Currency Conversion Fee/SHEKELS 10000 $0.00
12/16/2006 Jerusalem City Hall $1,453.20
12/16/2006 Currency Conversion Fee/SHEKELS 5000 $0.00
12/20/2006 Haozor Jerusalem $2,543.03
12/20/2006 Currency Conversion Fee/SHEKELS 10000 $0.00

And they keep on going, line after line like that.

Hoooooly shIT!
I ripped out the credit card from my wallet and dialed the number on the back, my heart pounding. "Hello," says an automated phone system on quaaludes, "welcome to U.S. Bank's automated service center. What can we do for you today? You can . . . Get your account balance . . . Get interest rates . . . Get transaction information . . . "

"Where's the freakin' option to report fraud?!?!"

"...I'm sorry, I couldn't understand what you just said. You can . . . Get your account balance . . . Get interest rates . . . Get trans--"


"...It sounds like I better get a customer service representative to help you," she/it coos. They must have an algorithm to hear distress.

So, I explain what I'm seeing, and the live human being sounds very competent but rushed. "Ok, I'm going to put a hold on your account right now . . . there's a six minute wait to talk to the Fraud department, can you hold?" The Fraud department is equally competent and only slightly less rushed: "Ok, we've locked that account and we're sending you a new card and we'll credit your account for those transactions and we'll send you some paperwork you have to sign and do you have any more questions?"

A number of questions do come to mind, like:
  1. How can a credit card account that has maybe $500 a month in charges for the last ten years suddenly have $10,000 in charges within 14 days from a foreign country, and nobody noticed anything suspicious? Were the fraud-detection data analysis computers helping themselves to the phone system's quaaludes? "No, maaaan, he's jus' probably spending Christmas in the Holy Land, see?"
  2. Why in hell's name do I have a $20,000 line of credit anyway, when I never asked for it and never used it?
  3. If it's so freakin' easy for anyone who has ever received my credit card number to start painting Jerusalem red with my account, why hasn't it happened before? Have I been living in a bubble with a totally false sense of security all this time?

But I don't ask those questions aloud. I thank her, hang up, and begin wondering how my credit card number got stolen. I think about every online vendor, large and small, and how secure their systems might be. I think about how much worse it would be if someone had tapped my bank account, or my online investment accounts . . . in other words, I settle into a good steady funk of paranoia.

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Honey, I Shrunk the Journal

I've been a loyal reader of the Wall Street Journal for the last fifteen years. (I'm still young enough that it boggles my mind to say I've been doing anything for fifteen years.) But I'm not a stuffy old-school businessman who reads stock tables for fun, or who keeps tabs on who is merging with whom. As a (ahem) younger, hipper, more technologically savvy reader, you would think I would be the most flexible when it comes to changes in media.

And yet here is the new, redesigned Wall Street Journal in front of me. Now, I was entirely copacetic when they put a highlights banner above the masthead, and started using color, and even (gasp) put advertising on the front page of the bottom fold. It was still the Journal, it still felt like the Journal, just a more modern, younger, hipper Journal, one that was accommodating to modern business trends without selling out.

But this time they made the Journal physically smaller: it's about an inch and a half narrower. Of all the things they could do, this one is inescapably obvious and difficult to overlook. I heard an NPR story on the change, so I heard all about the rationale for having a smaller paper: saving trees, saving a lot of money, and making better use of the Web. If anything, I breathed a sigh of relief to find that they had moved the stock tables to the Web; those pages and pages of arcane listings just screamed last-century, and after all, when was the last time you looked up a stock price in a newspaper? I agree with all those changes, and it was obviously the right thing to do.

And still . . . the world is out of joint.

Take a look at the really well-made play-money that preschoolers use in their play supermarket cash registers. It might be exactly the right shade of green, and have the same visual texture, to the point where it is unmistakeably supposed to be money. And yet it is always significantly smaller than real money, and that's the queue to your subconscious: "Oh, this is play-money, not real money." Looking at such stuff is always a little jarring, with your brain quietly muttering, "money, not-money, money, not-money, money, not-money". And I swear to God, I look at the new Journal and feel like I picked it up at the preschooler checkout line with my play money. My very own play-Wall-Street-Journal.

I know that's overly harsh. I know that inside of a month I will have forgotten about the difference. But I'm fascinated with how the mind "gestalts" things, picking out essential characteristics. And one of the essential features of a newspaper has always been its size. Until now. But that shows the creativity of the publishers, I suppose, to break out of that mold. I remember the first time I saw the London Financial Times, with its eerie pink color looking exactly like rose quartz, and a similar gestalt feature exploded in my head. So someday, maybe, my kids will be reading the journal and will be amazed to see that the Journal was ever a different size.

It also gives me a clue as to where to look for really creative changes in other venues. What characteristics are a part of the subconscious gestalt, but still not essential to the character of a thing? What changes might we be overlooking, just because it defied our mental categories?


Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The end of the Little Gibbon era

About a year ago, I went on a business trip that took me through the Pittsburgh airport, and I stopped in at one of the best gift shops that ever emerged from the airport bardo. (I say "one of the best" only because it actually carried something other than the 32 kinds of Pittsburgh-themed shlock that the other 32 gift shops in the airport carried.) I was looking for the Holy Grail of business travels -- the small gift to give my kids. Evidently, no one told the Chinese manufacturers that there is a market for small, yes-it-will-fit-in-my-suitcase, no-it-will-not-hog-the-living-room toys -- everything was either huge and plush, or tiny and fragile with a Steelers logo on the side.

But here, in a gift shop forgotten by time, nestled away in a Brigadoon retail space half-way between either end of a mechanized walkway, was a palm-sized stuffed ape with magnets in his hands and love in his heart. He came home with me, along with a moose finger-puppet made a felt.

I presented the little ape to Aidan the next morning, his little head popping out of my bathrobe with a concealed nudge. Aidan was way into primates at the time, and his face lit up. The new acquisition was dubbed "Little Gibbon," and he became Aidan's best friend for the next year. He was small enough to be easily carried whereever Aidan went, and so he did. Many mornings began with Aidan screetching in dismay because he couldn't find Little Gibbon in the tangle of sheets when he woke up. Many times we warned Aidan to leave Little Gibbon at home when we went out, because we did not want him to meet the same bad end that Claire the Little Duck had met. Little Gibbon was the protagonist of most every story Aidan made up. He even had a theme song, set to the tune of Johnny Cash's "Get a Rhythm":

Get a gibbon
When you get the blues,
C'mon get a gibbon
When you get the blues,
He's a lesser ape, swingin' through the trees,
He'll brachiate wherever ya' please,
Get a gibbon,
When you . . . get . . . the blues.

Miraculously, Little Gibbon survived the vicissitudes of life as a preschooler's best buddy. He underwent surgery to restore an arm and holes in his hands, and was machine-washed to restore his coat to its original luster, but otherwise his mischeiviously wise countenance remained a fixture of our lives.

A day or two ago, after the rush of Christmas gift receipts had subsided, Aidan announced, in a voice tinged with quiet finality, "You know, I've kind of drifted away from Little Gibbon. I'm not into primates so much any more. I think I'll give him to Malcolm." And so Aidan's younger brother walked around with the house with Little Gibbon that day, the totem of coming-of-age for both of them. There were no tears, but my wife and I were in shock. It was like someone had died. "It's OK," said Aidan, "It's more fun for Little Gibbon if he's with someone who wants to play with him."


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Monday, January 01, 2007

Good Ideas for 2007

Sooo . . . .what do I want for the coming year? I don't even want to call them "resolutions" yet, until I've had a chance to mull it over . . .

  • Develop routine. The best things I accomplished in 2006 came out of working with a steady routine. Conversely, all the stress that came to was always a direct result of trying to work outside of established routine -- last-minute dashes to take care of things that could have been scheduled. The only way I can coax greater intensity and productivity out of my life is to work with greater regularity and planning.
  • Make exercise a part of the explict routine. I enjoy exercise. I get a lot out of it. I would do it more if I just committed time to it, in the same way I committed to writing. Despite the variation in my working schedule, I need to find a way to schedule work-out time. I'm pretty sure it needs to be an everyday thing, too, because I've never been able to get any momentum on a discipline that wasn't an everyday thing.
  • Complete daily faithfulness to the billing records. Another routine that made a huge difference to our business is when we started billing weekly. This past year we expanded that to billing weekly and meeting weekly to schedule work and talk over issues. I know that the discipline would work even better if I just wrote my billing records daily and didn't try to jam it in.
  • Work within the schedule. I've had a lot of work-related stress by trying to work outside of the schedule -- "oh, I didn't get much accomplished this afternoon, but I'll make up for it tonight," or some other variation of the perpetual lie. I would do a lot better if I could stay focused on work during working hours, and let it go after that. It would also remove the stress of "creative billing," making my all-night work binges look more like regular, focused work.
  • Schedule regular SKS planning time. Making plans for the group is something that has been ad hoc and frantic, usually because I'm doing it at the last moment and haven't scheduled time to do it right.
  • Back up data. I hope it's not some kind of prescience, but lately I've been feeling anxiety about whether my data is backed up. My life is on my hard drive, and I'm not doing enough to protect it, especially off-site backups.
  • Make the SKS blog happen. I did not start off with a particular direction in mind for the blog, but over time I came to realize what I really wanted to do was establish a spiritual blog on the SKS website and manage it with a stable of other SKS alumni and luminaries. Now that I have a year of consistent writing under my belt, I know it can be done; I just need to go do it.
  • Schedule time for financial stuff. I neglect financial items, letting them go for too long, because nobody besides myself (and possibly my wife) will ever ask me about them. I need to establish a routine that keeps it from being a problem.
  • Work less. I will not have time for all these things unless I actively, consciously commit to working less. The time has to come from somewhere.
  • Read and write more. I was enjoying myself a lot more in the latter part of last year, when I started reading a lot more again. I can thank Audible and my blogging routine for that. I'd like to keep that up.
  • Be present with my kids. I feel guilty for not having some burning priority that needs listing that relates to my family. Seems like there ought to be something I'm doing. But I think that's mostly because I'm already doing most everything as well as it needs to be done. I spend time with my two sons every day. We play together, read, and share meals every day. The only thing that could be a lot better is to shut off my brain while I'm with them and really pay attention.

So, what's the theme in all of this? Routine, routine, routine. Build an explicit routine that embraces all the things that are important, and stick to it.


Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Best and Worst of 2006

My life, in a year-end side-bar column on page 2:

Best Personal Accomplishment: I blogged. Since I started on January 1, I have made 361 posts in 365 days, which is 98.6% of what I intended to do. I write every day, which is a good beginning for a writing vector. Best of all: I really enjoyed it. There is hope for me yet.

Worst Personal Failure: I dragged my feet on financial matters through the entire year. It took me vastly more time than was warrented to prepare an investment plan and execute it. I still have five months of data entry to catch up on.

Worst Personal Failure Runner-up: Poor track record (no pun intended) on exercise and health. I probably ran about a third as often as I ought, often going weeks at a time without exercise. My kids confront me about not eating my fruit and vegetables and washing my hands.

Best Professional Accomplishment: Relevant added two new full-time employees, and we survived the expansion, with only a marginal ~5% drop in my personal revenue.

Best Professional Accomplishment Runner-up: I did my first Microsoft CRM project. At last, we have another CRM offering with legs.

Best Professional Accomplishment of 1993, deferred until now: Identify Software, a software start-up in which I had a substantial stake for the last seven years, finally sold to BMC Software.

Worst Professional Failure: Continued failure to manage large projects effectively. Over-promising and delivering late continues to be, while not the norm, fairly commonplace.

Worst Professional Failure Runner-up: I'm still doing my billing notes only hours before they need to be in. My life would be a lot less stressful if I could manage my billing and scheduling on a daily rather than weekly basis.

Best Spiritual Accomplishment: accepting primary responsibility for the UNC Self Knowledge Symposium. I desperately needed a renewed committment to spiritual community, and I got that in spades this fall. I'm glad I had the courage to put myself back on the front lines.

Worst Spiritual Failure: poor leadership with the UNC SKS. I came to the group with rather low expectations, and (surprise!) my expectations were met. I did not subject myself and others to enough tension when it was warrented, and business matters were handled squishily.

Overall: a good year. Things are moving.


Evaluating your year

Everyone is reflective on New Year's Eve, which is to say, everyone is mildly depressed. This is the time when we look back on the previous year and realize that our achievements are, however great, still in the past. Our more stubborn faults and tendencies, the ones that have defied our will year after year, have returned again to tweak our noses and dare us to give it another go. If we are lucky, we are thankful, and mindful of the preciousness of our passing time. If we are not so lucky, we are downright morose. No wonder everyone gets blotto.

So, how should we evaluate the year? There is a strong temptation to go back and tally up your progress in quantifiable terms: how much money did I make? How many hours did I bill? How many projects did I complete? How many books did I read? How many books did I write?

Or, you could look at things at a process level: did I do things better this year? Have I improved the way I live and work? Am I more efficient, less wasteful, kinder, gentler, less filling? Am I better off?

There are no absolute answers to those questions, so we have to settle for the relative ones. You can only tell if you're succeeding in your life if you are hitting your explicit goals. If you set out to do something, something that is worthwhile and in accordance with your deepest values, then you go do it . . . what could be better than that?

So . . . how'd you do?


Paid on the Come

"We've got a great market, and this is going to be a great product. Just do this work for us, and we'll let you have a cut of the profits when it starts to sell."

When you hear these words, run. Every bad business deal I have ever been involved with as a consultant involved getting paid on the come.

Which is extremely sad, because the whole notion of profit-sharing is so appealing to the politically conservative, free-market, entrepreneurial spirit. In a perfect world, it seems like everyone ought to be paid this way: with a fair share of the actual profits. It should give everyone an incentive to work for the good of all, since everyone is sharing in the same pie. It makes people look to both the top and bottom line, controlling costs as well as maximizing revenues. Most importantly, it makes people share in risk, which provides a level of incentive beyond the mere humdrum, work-a-day sorts of incentives and disincentives.

So if it's so philosophically ideal, why has it been a source of so much lost revenue and venomous relationships in the real world?
  • Profit-sharing relies on trust. You have to trust that you're going to get paid when the money actually comes in. It seems like this ought to be a simple thing to monitor, but it's not, because cash-flow is often a hand-to-mouth affair in entrepreneurial ventures, and absolutely everyone is hungry for the cash. "Gee, we got some money in this month, but next month might be weaker, and we still have to pay some bills, so I'm not sure we're really in the black yet . . . ". Worse yet, it is in the nature of businesses to immediately reinvest their capital, rather than cash it out. "Ummm . . . well, we've got some momentum now, and we won't be able to keep up with the competition unless we hire more salesmen now, so we still don't have the money..." In the end, you have to trust that whomever was going to cut you in "on the back end" will be able to withstand the pressures and deliver on what they promised.
  • Requests for deferred payment usually reveal weak business plans. There is, of course, a reason that someone is asking you to get paid later. It means that no one else, including the client themselves, was willing or able to come up with the cash to pay up front. There are a few perfectly justifiable reasons why a business might be in that situation; there are also hundreds of bad reasons a company finds itself needing interest-free loans from workers. No matter how you slice it, there is a weakness in the business case, and you are being asked to fill in the gap.
  • Lack of cash is the only natural check against stupid ideas. Most businesses and business ventures, even the ones that manage to get financial backing, fail in the end. Without the enforced discipline of cash management, many many more stupid business ideas are unleashed on the world. When you agree to take a back-end share of the profits, you are foregoing the most important protection against being involved in an ill-advised venture.
  • Shared risk must be evenly shared to properly incentivize a team. You should only accept a share of the risk in a venture if everyone else is taking a share of the risk, too. If not, when the going gets rough, you will find yourself putting in extra time and energy while everyone else kicks back and takes a free ride.
  • Desperation can masquerade as bold entrepreneurship. Even if the others are sharing in the risk, they may be risking so much because they have exactly nothing to lose. If a guy is 100 grand in the hole with a dead product and no business plan, he might in fact being sharing the same risk as you . . . but only because he has no choice.
  • The continued relationship must be more valuable than the individual venture at stake. Trust can only operate if all parties have more to gain from continuing the relationship than from whatever can be gained in this particular deal. You can be much more assured that everyone will do the honorable thing and keep their commitments if they still have to work with each other in the future. If it's a one-time deal, and one or more of the parties has no interest in continuing on in the future, then the incentives to cooperate drop of drastically, and it becomes much more tempting to leave the other guy holding the bag.

If, after all the warnings and caveats, you still feel like you want to forgo up-front payment for a cut of the profits, here are some simple guidelines:

  • Never take all your compensation on the back end.
  • Never get so involved in a venture that you can't afford to walk away from it completely, unless it's your own business.
  • Always make deferred compensation an explicit part of a written contract. Even if Accounts Payable asks if they can pay you a month or two later, get an explicit agreement of what they are going to pay and when they are going to pay it.
  • From the beginning, demand an audit trail be regularly provided of profits, so you know whether you're getting your fair share.
  • The moment the audit trail stops coming to you, or the moment you don't get your fair share of the profits, stop all work immediately. Don't move a muscle until you get what's coming to you. Even your best friends will put of paying you if they think they can get away with it.
  • Only work with people who are as honorable as yourself.