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, March 31, 2007

Thou Shalt Not . . . Um . . . Wait a minute . . .

I did another SKS meeting at NCSU with the religious traditions quiz: write down as many of the Ten Commandments, Five Pillars of Islam, and Four Noble Truths that you can remember. (They actually did a little better on the Commandments than the UNC kids, but they totally wiped out on Islam and Buddhism.) Things I noticed:
  • On more than one occasion, I've had students put "Love thy neighbor as thyself" with absolute confidence on their list of the Ten Commandments. I suppose Jesus would be glad that his summation of the Law is sticking in their heads better than the nitty-gritty details of the actual Commandments, but it also shows that they have no idea how revolutionary Jesus was in his universalist approach.
  • We had an argument early on about how to divide up the commandments: some people thought "No god before me" and "No graven images" were one commandment, and broke out "Thou shalt not covet" into two pieces, while others did the opposite. It turns out that we were replicating an old argument: whole churches have disagreed on that point. Some people started to get a little heated on the point, until it became clear that everyone was merely repeating what they had gathered from what they assumed to be an unquestioned authority. It only served to emphasize the point that even when you've talking about the same set of rules, differences of opinion will erupt immediately.
  • We talked a lot about the nature of the positive versus negative framing of the commandments. Lots of people have carped about the Law being a bunch of "thou shalt nots," just authoritarian dictums instead of real wisdom. But the more we talked about it, the more apparent it became that you need to avoid a lot of evil in order to make room for the good. Most of the commandments could be seen as just the beginning of the spiritual work, the establishment of a life and society within which the real work could begin.
  • One of the students had a good spin on the Tenth Commandment. "Not coveting" is something most people can understand, but he went on to reframe it in an affirmative statement: "Be content." I had always thought of simplicity, contentment and gratitude to be spiritually wholesome states, but I had never considered them as Biblical commandments.
  • We did have the usual argument about generalities versus specifics. Most people wanted to believe that it was more important to have internalized the core message or attitude of the law (love God, love thy neighbor) and to let that manifest in the specifics, rather than adhering to a very specific set of rules. But at the end of the meeting, they reported in on how they were doing on their "Zen Challenges" (an SKS tradition of making public resolutions to improve oneself), and many people reported missing their goals, largely because they had defined their goals somewhat vaguely and then started rationalizing about it. (E.g. "I said I would exercise every day; gee, I walked to class really fast, that counts.") They found out through experience that you need hard-and-fast, detailed rules in order to live according to your abstract ideals.


Friday, March 30, 2007

But this is how I really talk

I rarely exercise the blogger's perogative to bitch about things that are merely personal irritants. But today I'll let myself go:

What the hell is going on in the heads of people who use fake accents in regular conversation?

I run into one of these people every year or two. They are usually college students (but sometimes not), often geeky (but sometimes not), who are sporting some kind of vaguely British accent. And I'm not talking about the linguistic phenomena of "code-switching," in which people sometimes unintentionally adopt the accents of the people with whom they are speaking. This is the exact opposite: trying to adopt an accent different from everyone else, presumably to sound exotic. It happens often enough that I'm sure everyone else has known one of these people.

It's clear to me they must have no friends, because surely someone who really cared about them would slap them across the face and tell them they are acting like an idiot. First of all, accents are exceedingly difficult to fake, and actors study diligently to be able to pull it off. (I remember the first time I heard James Marsters ("Spike" on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) speak in his native American accent, instead of the street Cockney of his character, and my jaw dropped. Now that was a professional accent.) So what makes anyone think that an unhealthy number of hours watching Doctor Who qualifies them to begin faking an accent?

Also consider that anyone who dares to fake an accent in public life is heaped with ridicule. If you Google "fake accent," the list is topped by bloggers savaging Hilary Clinton for attempting a Southern drawl, or the withering contempt for Madonna's assumed accent. Nobody is fooled, everyone is annoyed. A fake accent screams to the world: "I'm a phony! I'm a BIG FAT PHONY! And I'm either too stupid to realize it or too self-absorbed to care!"

So why do they keep doing it? I have to chalk it up to adolescent attempts to create an identity. I suppose everybody tries to conform to their ideals and alters their dress, speech and manners to fit an constructed identity. It's just not so freakin' obvious most of the time. And the reason it's so disconcerting to listen to is that, deep down, we wonder whether our own mask is slipping . . . "Jesus Christ, I hope I never sound like that . . . "


Thursday, March 29, 2007

Even more see-through

I wrote yesterday about the current business craze for "transparency," and as folks wrote in their comments I found the need to clarify:
  • Both the Wired articles and some of you did make the point that many processes require secrecy. Industry mavens suggested that Steve Jobs and Apple did such a good job on the iPhone because they didn't seek input from everyone. Kenny pointed out that George Washington insisted on absolute secrecy during the first Constitutional Convention, presumably so the Founding Fathers could stay focused on building a lasting framework for a government and not get bogged down in the political influences of the day. I didn't mean to suggest that every aspect of business or life be made glaringly public. I just think that openness is generally more constructive than secretiveness, and that we could afford to let the pendulum swing the other way for a while.
  • In my own personal work, I found that writing about transparency actually helped me be a little more transparent. That morning I shared a lot more of my current problems with my co-workers, and as a result I got extra help that I needed to deal with an emerging crisis with a customer. All too often, people hide their problems from the very people who can help them. (Ok, ok, I hide my problems from the people who can help me. Some people have no trouble complaining about all their problems to anyone who will listen.)
  • The biggest surprise in greater transparency is how little people actually care to look. I remember in my teenage years when I was angsting about how I looked or acted, and my mom said, "Don't worry; everyone else is too busy worrying about themselves to notice." It was true then, and its still true in business. Nobody has time to ogle your calendar or read your notes. A lot of it is pretty boring. This is one of the great liberating insights of greater self-knowledge: there's an awful lot that you're hiding that you don't need to hide.
  • As Montaigne wrote: "No man is a hero to his own valet." Some things need not be shared, not because their secret or important, but because they are mundane or boring or gross. As Ernest Becker emphasized in The Denial of Death, most of our social taboos revolve around hiding the fact that we are animals, and I see no reason why the notion of radical transparency needs to cross those lines. We don't need webcams in bedrooms or bathrooms.


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

See-through top

This month's cover of Wired declares that "radical transparency" is the future of business. (It probably wasn't just an excuse to put a naked Jenna Fischer of Office fame on the cover, either.) In a world of democratized instant communication, secrets are hard to keep, lies are quickly exposed, and jaded consumers are a rapt audience for under-the-covers views of what's going on. So why not embrace the reality and just "let it all hang out?" Ironically, the usually button-downed and secretive Microsoft is leading the way, encouraging its engineers to blog about all their projects, while the media darling Apple retains its super-secretive, always-on-message glossy image.

Really, none of this is new. I was fortunate to learn about transparency in a small software start-up, Raleigh Group International. RGI had an intensely sales-driven culture, and salesmen with quotas are used to having a big board with their numbers visible for all to see. Augie took that same sales-board transparency and applied it to the entire company. Not only were sales numbers on the board: company AR and cash in the bank were also up there. A lot of small-business owners would not be comfortable with their financials so exposed, but it actually quelled a lot of internal strife. Any time someone complained about having to take out the trash, or why didn't we do more marketing, or whatever, Augie always just pointed at the white board. Most of the time he didn't even have to say anything else. Occasionally he would say, "When that number hits x dollars, then we can have a cleaning service." Such exposure went a long way to dispelling the image of the business as a paternalistic power, and that the CEO has infinite control. People started looking at the company the way the CEO looked at it. They realized, very tangibly, that the good of the company really was their own good as well.

As a CRM consultant, I preach the same sort of visibility to my customers. Even the executives and managers who hired me to integrate all their data together in one collaborative system eventually get nervous: "You mean Joe is going to be able to see what accounts Bob is calling on? You mean the West Coast team can see what the East Coast team is selling? Ummmm . . . " Some people have spent their entire professional lives hiding behind trumped-up status reports, dealing with salesmen individually rather than collectively, and trying to enhance their aura of infinite power rather than sharing their pain. Take away all the secrecy and positioning and . . . well, there's not much left to play politics with.

But transparency requires trust, and our culture is rapidly losing its capacity to trust. All our lawyers, contracts, disclaimers, pre-nups . . . it all signals a fundamental distrust of the other guy. How can we expect people to trust their co-workers, when they can't even trust their husbands and wives? Fortunately, transparency and trust is a two-way street. As soon as a system creates two-way visibility, lying becomes harder, and we have no choice but to tell the truth, and trust.


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

DIY Distance Learning

Last night the Self Knowledge Symposium hosted Sensei Fleet Maull in a live videoconference, after a showing of the documentary The Prison Sutras. It was our first foray into "virtual" events, and it was an excellent event for us. A few observations, especially for anyone else contemplating hosting a virtual speaker:
  • High-end conferencing isn't. High-end video conferencing facilities are available at many universities and at outlets like Kinkos, but the fees are astronomical and the options limited. Many systems, like the one at UNC-Chapel Hill were geared towards conferences between points in their own system, and you have to pay extra "bridge" or "conversion" fees to get connected with some other location. With fees at over $300 an hour, its hardly worth it if you're just trying to avoid the time and money costs for bringing a speaker in.
  • Do it yourself. You can get reasonably good videoconferencing with off-the-shelf internet technologies. We tried a number of video chat clients, and wound up using Skype because it was extremely firewall-friendly, easy to set up, and totally free. You do have to invest in webcams and maybe some decent microphones, but good webcams can be had for $50, and we used audio equipment we already owned (microphones, mix board, mike stand, etc.) to handle sound at the event.
  • Test, test, test. If you're going to do an event with a virtual guest, you have to test the bejeezus out of your setup. We ran tests prior to the event with connecting to Fleet Maull, and also testing making Skype calls from campus classrooms. While no technical challenge was insurmountable, there were lots of little things to check: can this laptop get on the network from this classroom? Is the lighting ok? Are the sound levels comfortable for everyone? How are we going to get the microphone to people to ask questions?
  • Have separate techie and emcee resources. For this particular event, I was being both the host of the event, and also the technical guy running the videoconferencing. In retrospect, I wish I had had someone else do one of those jobs. I was so nervous about making everything work that I couldn't pay closer attention to do doing proper introductions, monitoring the response of people in the room, etc.


Monday, March 26, 2007


Nothing makes you feel quite so old and un-hip as new media. As a professional techie who had spent most of my youth working with then-cutting edge technologies – email, desktop publishing, the Web, etc. – I thought I was immune to the normal process of technoscherosis. I never thought there would come a day when I said, “I just don’t understand young people with their (technogadget goes here)s.”

Cellphone? Check.
Smartphone? Check.
iPod? Check.
IM? Check.
Blog? C’mon.

But now I keep running into the world of web-based social networking, where I remain a hopeless dork. When we were distributing publicity for the SKS Prison Sutras event, I was told in no uncertain terms that we needed to get something up on Facebook. Not only had I not thought of that, I did not even entirely understand what that meant.

I have had similar so-square moments when SMS texting was mentioned or used. My free 25 text messages on my cell plan remain unused after the last two years. I think I tried it once, and it didn’t work for some reason, and I never felt compelled to figure out why. Jeez, I sound so much like my grandmother when I say that.

My only comfort (at least, the one that I’m clinging to) is that some of these phenomena are not really technological breakthroughs so much as youth-culture phenomena. An interview in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal with 22-year-old Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg confirmed it. The author did an informal survey of Facebook users and found that the primary, and often exclusive, use of Facebook was to keep tabs on prospective romantic partners and their current availability. Phew. It’s not that I’m square, necessarily: it’s just that I’m happily married. (Ok, let’s just assume, for the moment that the two are not inextricably linked.)

Text messaging was similarly dispelled for me once I saw people use it in its most common circumstances. “Oh, now I get it,” I said. “The only people doing lots of texting are stuck in boring classes or boring business meetings that they can’t escape. Or maybe hanging out in bars.” (While laptops are cool, laptop use in bars remains totally uncool.) And again . . . thank goodness I don’t feel the need to use those technologies.

Of course, some saavy adult user of these technologies is still going to slam me for my backwards ways and Luddite prejudices. They’ll tell me about Zaadz, or some other social network that might transcend mating applications. But those networks just don’t seem to have experienced same growth that solidly youth-oriented sites like Facebook or MySpace enjoy. There is only one niche of networking, personal-profile posting sites that has had the same growth, and it is quite honest about its intent: online matchmaking sites. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Blogger ate my homework

I just posted a lengthy post about social networking, only to be told that "a security token" error prevented my request from being fulfilled. Of, course, hitting the back button did not get me back to my text. I was happily using the Word add-in for Blogger until it was absorbed into the Google Borg, to avoid just this sort of thing.


When such things happen, I have learned to say, "Surely I'm not the only person who has this problem. Surely someone else has solved this problem." And so I went poking around for an updated Blogger add-in. It turns out there is a new Word integration . . . for Office 2007. Of course the Microsoft geeks (who are big blog users) will jump in to add value to the latest version of Office. And just as surely, they have absolutely no vested interest in supporting anything earlier than that. And the Google engineers dare not build such a thing themselves, lest they anger their partner in what must be a touchy relationship anyway. (In case you've been under a rock for the last five years, since Google inherited the earth, Microsoft and Google are the bitterest of foes.)

And, ironically, there is a glimmer of geek excitement in me when I think: Hey, I could build one! I started looking at the API documentation, visions of functions and interfaces dancing in my head, when I have to slap myself and come back to reality. Of all the things I could possibly do in my "free" time, writing software for the greater glory of Google is not one of them.