Thursday, July 05, 2012

Q: What’s the difference between software and reality?

A: A router

Recently I have come to take an interest in woodworking, specifically making musical string instruments. Good fortune has provided me with a basic woodworking shop and some cash for buying materials and hand tools.

So I designed an instrument. I used Adobe Illustrator and created a very nifty design for a cigarbox slide guitar. I planned and measured every piece down to the precise distance the tuning pegs need to be from the edge of the headstock.

An initial design

I was very proud of myself and my vivid imagination.

I watched a lot of videos made by woodworkers who had done what I was hoping to do. After a few nights of study, I bought some wood and some glue.

Things went according to the plans I made in software. I attached headstocks to necks using an impromptu mounting apparatus.

Mounting headstock to neck

I learned to use a scroll saw and drum sander to shape the headstocks.

Finished headstocks on necks

So far, so good. Then it came time to shape the curve of the necks. I figured that I’d just run the area of the neck, between headstock on one end and mounting block on the other, through a router using a  ¾” round over bit. The bit would give the neck an even round corner that I could sand down to a nice curve overall. No problem.

Well, it was a problem! Turns out that a router is not a simple mechanical beast.

Routing a guitar neck is not easy on a table router

The bit rotates but one way, thus making routing both sides of the neck, between headstock and mounting block, an excursion into advanced router technique. It was not simply a matter of running one side of the neck though the router and then doing the same for the other side. And, that I angled the headstock back away from the plane of the neck, prevented me from putting the neck flush on the router table.

Headstock mounted at a 15 degree angle to neck

In no time at all I destroyed 4 necks trying to round them out using the router.  Obviously I needed to rethink my development procedure.

No problem, right? I mean, I am a software developer. I deal with solving these sorts of problems every day. All I needed to do was give thoughtful analysis to the problem at hand and make some sort of real world utility to set the situation right. Then, it was just a matter of moving the wood through the router twice, once for each side.

So, I thought things out. I even consulted an expert. My keen analytic ability allowed me to come up with a solution. All seemed good to go.

Then my hands gave out. Twenty five years ago, before I got into this software thing, I developed Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, due to repetitive motion while painting a house. Realizing that I could not use my hands to make a living, I went into computers and software. Software has been very, very good to me.

But, today the ghost of the past haunts me.

The reason that I started woodworking is that I’ve come to think that living in cyberspace is an existence lacking in authenticity. There’s no smell of families cooking an evening meal as I troll Facebook. There’s no glean of sweat off bodies in an online game. There’s no negotiation of personal space in a crowd on Twitter. I wanted more of the real world in my day to day experiences.

I got what I wanted. Yet, I wish that Illustrator had told me when I started all this to be careful, that my hands would give out. But there is no reason it should have. In software, reality is just something to emulate, akin to a printer, a monitor, a Bluetooth device or attack target. The software running an unmanned drone knows nothing of the bloodshed and pain it will leave behind. Nor does it need to. If recent events have taught me anything at all, it is this: in the digital domain, reality is an abstraction.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Q: What is the hardest lesson to learn about business?

A: Learning to give the people what they want

Back in my early twenties, when I thought wealth meant having a lot of money, I wanted some. With an undergraduate degree in Music Composition, the only option I saw available to me was to go into business for myself. I knew two businesses well. The first was gourmet foods, which I learned during high school at an after school job I had working in a gourmet store in Greenwich Village. The other was industrial sewing machines, an experience I acquired during the year that I spent between high school and college, working for a relative in the machinery section of the Garment District of New York, over in the West Twenties, off of 6th Avenue.

When it came time to put my borrowed money where my mouth was, I did the math and realized that I did not have nearly enough to establish myself, let alone compete, in the cut-throat, enormously capital intensive business of equipment manufacturing. So I opened a gourmet store in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Now you may be asking, “isn’t opening a store selling expensive food in a blue collar town such as Somerville a bit risky?” You’d be right to ask me this. But, at the time, I had great faith in the inevitable gentrification of the planet as well as my ability to sell snow to an Eskimo.

I opened 500 sq. ft. of retail space in Union Square, Somerville. To my right was an upscale pizza restaurant. A greasy spoon diner that sold burgers and steak n’ cheese subs was located to the right of the upscale pizza restaurant. To my left was a vacant storefront.

I sold expensive baked goods, cheese, crackers, some fancy jams and mustards, and high priced deli food. Also, I manufactured gourmet sandwiches that customers took out or ate at a little counter I set up in the window.

One morning, as I was sitting at the window having a cup of coffee before the lunch rush started, I saw a truck pull up and deliver a residential Kenmore stove and refrigerator, a few KitcheAid mixers and a glass showcase into the vacant storefront to the left of my establishment. Another truck pulled up a few minutes later and unloaded about twenty cases of Duncan Hines cake mix and icing. I could tell it was Duncan Hines because that’s what was written in big letters across each box.

I went about my day’s business.

The next day, lo and behold, I had a new neighbor, an erotic cake bakery. It was run by a guy named, Paul and a woman, whose name I cannot remember. The reason I remember Paul is that when I went over to introduce myself, he showed me the .38 revolver he carried in a holster inside his pants waist. You tend to remember people like this.

Anyway, it turns out that Paul and What’s-Her-Name had a very simple business model. What’s-Her-Name used the KitchenAid mixer to mix up a box of Duncan Hines cake mix with some milk and eggs. Then, she poured the batter into a penis or breast mold and baked the mixture in the Kenmore oven. Once baking was complete, she covered her creation with Duncan Hines icing in a variety of colors. When finished, she put her ware in the showcase. If What’s-Her-Name got tired of making penis cakes, she moved over to breasts. Paul sat at the showcase taking money from customers.

Advertising? No problem. Within a month of operation, the City of Somerville tried to shut them down, citing some obscenity statute. They closed for a day. News of the closing made it to all of the major telecasts in Boston. The judge threw the case out of court and they opened for business the next day selling their wares to a line of customers that extended out of the store and down the block. The buying public was hot to get some of those erotic cakes.

Paul and What’s-Her-Name’s business boomed. They made standard erotic cakes. They made custom erotic cakes. Many a party given in Somerville, Cambridge and parts of Boston was incomplete without one of their creations.

Me? I was going broke. My baked goods were made by a guy who came from 3 generations of European pastry chefs. I had a small following for Sunday morning croissants. Otherwise, the stuff went stale in my pastry case. My sandwich business paid the rent, but paled when compared to the burgers and steak n’ cheese sales that filled the coffers of the greasy spoon down the way.

Still, I did not give up hope. My stuff was better. I could make a go of it.

One day, at about 2 PM, after the lunch rush was over, a young man walked in and asked for an Italian. “What’s an Italian?” I asked.

“You know, some salami, cheese and the works,” he replied.

I showed him the menu of my wonderfully exquisite, gourmet sandwiches. “This is what we make here,” I said.

“I just want an Italian,” he said.

“Sorry,” I said.

He left and went down the street to the greasy spoon to get his Italian and give them his money. I never saw the young man again.

Paul and What’s-Her-Name thrived. They made enough money to open a bigger store near the Cambridge Court House. Seems lawyers wanted those erotic cakes too. Also, their expansion included tables, chairs and a counter for a luncheonette within the space. Now the buying public could have an Italian, a BLT, a burger or breakfast when not in the market for an erotic cake.

The greasy spoon continued to support its owners comfortably.

Me? I closed up shop within a year and got a job working with some of the roughest kids the Boston School System had to offer.

The takeaway? Now, whenever someone asks me for an Italian, or the allegorical equivalent, I do my utmost to ignore my opinions, predispositions and desires, and give the requester what he or she wants, not what I think he or she should have. Sometimes I am successful and sometimes I’m not. Right now I am running 70% in favor of the requester, which is a pretty good considering it took only thirty five years to get here.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Q: What is the dirty little secret of unemployment?

A: Robots

OK, I’ll admit it. I have a competency issue when it comes to grammar and punctuation. Getting the quotation marks, commas and clauses to work correctly is an ongoing challenge for me. If it wasn't for the solace I find by knowing that F. Scott Fitzgerald was a less than perfect speller, I'd probably hang it up as a purveyor of words and wit.

But, F. Scott was and I will not.

Still, I do want to improve.

A few weeks ago I enlisted the help of an experienced English composition teacher to go over my work and show me the errors of my ways. Our relationship was established via my Gmail account. I wrote him an email asking if he’d like to edit and proofread some of my work. He wrote back, yes. We had a few additional email exchanges to get the ball rolling.

During the exchange of emails, I notice a littled advertisement at the top of my Gmail account telling me about a product named, Grammarly. I clicked the advertising link and went to the Grammarly site. It turns out that, for a nominal fee, Grammarly’s artificial intelligence will analyze my writing for grammar and punctuation errors, tell me the errors and suggest corrections.

I figured, what the hell and signed up for a seven-day free trial, with credit card verification. Turns out the service is useful. If I were a college student, it would be an essential tool that I’d need to stay viable in the impersonal competition that has become modern education.

Later in the evening, after a session with Grammarly, I got to thinking about Bill Joy’s article in Wired a few years back, Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us. Joy’s position is essentially this: in the future human beings will be nothing more than food for computing machines, a.k.a., robots.

So, let’s look at my recent experience through Joy’s lens. I was using Gmail, an emailing system run by robots. A robot, in complete adherence to Google's privacy policies, inspected my emails and found that I had an interest in improving my ability to write. The robot selected and inserted an advertisement about a product that acutely matched my need. The advertised product is a service run by a robot. The agent that took my money was a robot. The agent that provided my money? A robot.

A lot of the world is run by robots. In the years to come, more robots will run more of the world, not less. So, what is a human to do? Well, one thing that humans will not be doing is the work of robots. Robots work faster and are cheaper to employ than the human model, 24/7, without bathroom breaks.

As more robots are put to work, more humans will be sitting at home watching big screen TV’s and searching for a morsel of human connection via robotically controlled social media. They will not be able to make sense of a world in which they are no longer needed and can no longer make a contribution

Another group of humans will be giving robots more capabilities that were once the realm of human activity. I mean, it’s only a matter of time until Amazon makes a shipping center that is fully automated, void of human presence.

And, another group of people will be sitting in Washington arguing about how to make America productive again. Only the sad fact is that America will be plenty productive. It's just that human beings won't be doing the producing, except for babies made in between breaks from PS3 and Xbox sessions. Over time, as the idle grow, we'll come to understand that there really is a benefit in putting birth control in the water supply. At that point, a robot will have two more things to do, determining who gets to have a baby and then, delivering the pill that allows it to happen.

PS: The piece was published by a robot and has a Grammarly score of 83 out of 100.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Q: What do programmers and plumbers have in common?

A: Both make the world a better place in which to live.

I've been captivated by programming and software since I wrote my first spreadsheet formula back in the mid-eighties. Despite the complexity of languages to which I have evolved, for me, programming is a compositional act in which the lines of code are more akin to musical phrases than 'just-the-facts' morsels of an instruction set. That I can put them all together and make something that works is still pretty remarkable. That it turned out that I could make living from it is nothing short of amazing. That my code has made a difference for the better is the ultimate reward.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that coding is anesthetic. When you are in the throes of getting your stuff to work, you are completely focused on the abstract game of logical pick-up-sticks that you’ve made for yourself. Nothing else is noticed. Nothing else matters. It’s just you and the code; no food, no sleep, no kids. The state of the universe is of little concern.

Ten years ago I was of the belief that if all the coders in the world understood the awesome power we held and could unite under a common vision, we could create a place completely free of the ills that plague mankind. Turns out that our common vision is acute and episodic. It takes a lot to provoke us, but once provoked, we do act, as shown by our recent reaction to SOPA and PIPA.

Still, at the end of it all, it seemed as if we considered ourselves to be more like civilization’s plumbers rather than its guardians.  I had more than casual contempt for programmers that spent a lifetime learning the ins and outs of new techniques and products for no other purpose than to enhance one’s technical prowess in order to be the smartest person in the room. I was mad that those less versed in the complexities of the coding life, civilians -- for lack of a better term -- were articulating the Big Vision for the Planet and getting the attention due to the people that actually made the world go ‘round. My thinking was that the only action that mattered was the Big Action, that a gesture that was not big enough to get the attention of CNBC, Twitter or Slashdot, was an effort wasted.

I was wrong.

Today I understand the power of humility. Today I understand that plumbers are the true guardians of civilization. Being able to keep the sewerage from contaminating the water supply is probably a first order indicator of a civilized society.

Everyday hundreds of thousands of people sit down in a front of computers to write code that makes the world work. True, some of those people try to make the world work not-so-well. But, for the most part, those slinging the bits are good folks, with good intentions. Does it matter that many are doing so in a dream-like dance between the human mind and the artificial? Dunno. I do like to think that there is a certain advantage to being aware of one’s self and one’s situation. But, ‘so what?’, if it's otherwise.  The important thing is that the code allows the information to flow, uncontaminated and continuously to everybody, because a civilization without water and without information is no civilization at all.

Monday, January 16, 2012

In Memory of Nick Statman

My friend, Nick Statman was buried today at Hillside Memorial Park nearby in Culver City, California. He was 59 years old, two weeks short of his sixtieth birthday. My wife and I attended the memorial service and his burial.

My connection to Nick started as a commercial relationship. Nick’s and my paycheck came from the same employer. Making money was the binding theme that defined the context of our relationship, at the onset anyway.

My relationship with Nick moved beyond the commercial quickly. One day, about 6 months into my tenure at the Day Job, Nick approached me and asked would my wife and I like to join him and his family—wife, brother, in-laws and cousins, for a Sunday’s Dim Sum in downtown LA. I accepted. I was glad that I did. I enjoyed myself thoroughly in the company of Nick and his family, sharing the pleasantries of a Sunday morning get together.

Another time, when Nick learned that my wife and I would be eating solo on Thanksgiving, he invited us to dine at his brother’s rather than go to a restaurant alone for our holiday meal.

Over the three years I spent getting to know Nick, he and I, and our wives, would spend more time together, mostly eating and letting our pets, his dogs and my dog, play together.

Nick was a kind, warm, somewhat cynical, wit. I never heard him utter a bad word about anybody. He never raised his voice. Nick was a generous man, an overall nice guy.  I never left his presence feeling angry or hurt.

Nick’s brother gave a thoughtful eulogy. He ended with a simple phrase, “He was my brother and I am proud of him.”  I have found it rare for so few, loving words to describe so fully the enormity of a life.

I imagine that if you did the math, you’d find out that most of us spend about half of our lifetime with and  around others in the pursuit of making money.  The odds are that we spend more time in the “workplace” then we do at home. Yet how much do we really know about those others with whom we labor for a paycheck? And more importantly, how much do we really care about them? How much do we really want to care?

It’s been my feeling for a long time that when this plane ride we call life takes its final approach and we come in for the landing, in the final analysis, we’re all going to want the same thing--to be around those we care about and those that care about us. It’s the rare person that wants to die alone.

Thus, the paradox: few of us want to be alone, but in that place where we go to make a buck everyday, when it comes to the important things, the things that really matter, many of us are alone and, for the most part, are unknown. It doesn’t have to be this way. Nick Statman’s life was living proof that the workplace could be different. He saw that a relationship could easily go beyond the commercial. He understood community.

Nick Statman was my friend. I am proud of him and all he held dear. I will miss him in ways words cannot describe. May his soul rest in peace.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Q: What was the biggest fashion trend at CES?

A: Earphones

I just got back from two days at  CES 2012 prowling from exhibit to exhibit, looking at the newest and coolest technology that the Captains of Industry have put forth to fatten the coffers of the World Economy. I found pencil thin flat-screen TV's the size of my wall, 3D video cameras priced at consumer purchasing levels, home appliances united together in electronic, domestic bliss, cars that are more like computers on wheels than basic transportation and a plethora of other gizmos that will keep the factories of the planet churning out products of delight into the supply chains of every Big Box and online retailer from Sheboygan to Shanghai. (Whew.....)

I also saw a hell of a lot of earphones. I mean, a HELL of a lot of earphones. They were coming from everywhere. Go down an aisle, there's an earphone manufacturer. Given that I went down a lot of aisles in the 1 million plus square feet of the Las Vegas Convention Center, I am betting that there were enough earphones present in the facility to adorn the ears of every head in Nevada and Utah, maybe Arizona too.

So, it got me to me to wondering, why? I mean, the only time you put on the earphones during my pot-smoking adolescence was so that you could play Led Zep at the recommended volume and not incur the wrath of your parents yelling down from the top of the basement stairs to, "turn down that noise you call music." Otherwise, we'd get together, throw the vinyl on the turntable, light up the joint, turn up the volume and pass the album cover around for collective and individual ogling as music came roaring through the loudspeakers. We wanted to hear the music together.

A lot has changed since that time. First of all, I haven't smoked pot since the Reagan Administration, despite the fact that Ronnie provided more than enough reason for me to want to puff my way into a state of dream-like oblivion. The 12" vinyl disc, with accompanying album-art cover, has gone the way of the typewriter, leaving in its stead song based music downloads for playing on an iPod.

For all the good stuff about it, the iPod is not about listening to music together. I haven't heard of many occasions where the kids are sneaking downstairs, iPod in hand, to listen to the Devil's Music in a state of group euphoria. Parent's aren't yelling at the kids to, "turn it down", because there's nothing to turn down.Yeah, you can hook an iPod into your home theater. But the primary listening device for the iPod is not the loudspeaker. It's the earphone and its scrawny kid brother, the earbud.

Yeah, the entry point for it all is still the same two holes that Nature has put on either side of your head. But, it's fundamentally a solo experience. Yes, you can share your playlists online to those that are interested. But, sharing a playlist socially does not necessarily translate in to a society of listeners. After all, there is a certain bond to be enjoyed knowing that all your friend's parents are yelling at them too, to "turn down that noise you call music."

So, there were a lot of earphones at CES 2012, too many probably. Half of the manufacturers most likely won't be in business next year. The competition is too stiff and the product is becoming more subject to the dynamics of fashion, a dynamic in which, if you have "trendsetter" status, you get a two year ride; less, if you're marketing a style for women.

Or, maybe it hasn't changed. Maybe kids hang around the schoolyard and bond over the complaint that their parents keep coming into the basement yelling, "why don't you kids take those damn things off and listen to that noise you call music, together."

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Q: What happens when you put 1 and 1 together?

A: Depends on the type of personality you ask.

To my observation there are two types of people in the world. The first type conceptualizes that when you put 1 and 1 together, you get 2. The second type accommodates the notion that put 1 and 1 together, you get 11.

If you bang around a Meyers-Briggs lexicon of psychological types, you'll find that the first type is called a Sensing type. These folks rely upon the concrete facts to understand the world. The second type is called an Intuitive personality. For them, reality is a Big Picture in which the given experience is but an episode in a larger story.

For Sensing folks the role of language is to describe the world. For Intuitive folks the role of language is to express the world. Sensing folks ask, "How does it work?" Intuitive folks ask "Does it work?" For the Sensing folks, the beauty is in the balance sheet. For the Intuitive type, the beauty is.

When it comes to commerce, the Sensing type understands a very important fact: A business that does not make money, ain't. If the dollar amount attached to Accounts Receivable is not greater than the dollar amount of Accounts Payable, even the mightiest of businesses has a problem. And, if the problem goes on long enough, the business has a Big Problem. Profitability is acutely describable, always has been, always will be. As any Captain of Industry will tell you, profitability is best handled by Sensing folks.

Still, there is a whole world out there that cannot be described with words: explaining the color, red to a blind man or the sound of a chirping bird to one who is deaf. The only description is the experience itself. This is the world of the Intuitive. One just knows what it is.

Intuitive people experience a thing as part of a past, present and future whole. These are the people that see a ski and motorcycle and imagine a snowmobile. They see two cans tied together by a string and imagine computers talking to one another via an Ethernet cable. Give an Intuitive person a good cup of coffee, put him or her in front of sales force and you have a chain of Starbucks.

Businesses that last need both Sensing and Intuitive folks. Yet, it seems that as a business matures, the power bias moves toward the Sensing. Profitability, while essential, becomes paramount. Success is known more as a measurable quantity rather than a state of experience. Creativity, the de-facto realm of the Intuitive folk and the indescribable soul of an enterprise, becomes a transient commodity purchased from Ad Agencies that have a proven track record of staying on budget while increasing sales and market share. The transformation is not one of nefarious premeditation intent on sucking the life blood of originality from the corporate environment. Rather, to paraphrase an often used term, "it's just Sensing being Sensing."

So what's the point here? My point is this: If you are a reader that happens to have hire and fire power in your enterprise and also happens to be very good at understanding and defining profitability, when you look about your direct reports, how many people do you see that can accept that when you put 1 and 1 together, 11 is a plausible, if not useful result? If it's not half, you might be in some very real trouble.