Saturday, December 26, 2009

Humor? You be the Judge!

Looking back through my posts, I don't think readers can actually get a sense for who I am as a person. For example, my posts are pretty completely humorless. I think this is more an artifact of the act of writing than a reflection of personality. Apparently I am not a comic writer. I like to believe I'm actually pretty funny, though my humor tends toward puns, the completely stupid, and shaggy dog stories.

As a change of pace I give you two original jokes. I have told each of these numerous times (as anyone in my family will attest). The first has occasionally elicited a small smile. Even I cannot tell the second one properly and I can honestly say no one has ever laughed at it. I throw these out into the universe in the hopes they can find a small home outside my imagination.

At a small Turkish restaurant in Chicago two men often come in for lunch. This is completely unexceptional except that they insist on receiving their bill written on rocks. I mean actual stones. They are good customers and the waiters humor them. Whenever the men come in, the busboy is sent out to find rocks on which to write each of their tabs. However, in the middle of a city there is a limited supply of rocks with flat surfaces suitable for writing. One day the men come in and the busboy can only find one. Since the men pay separately, the waiter has no idea what will happen. He writes both their receipts on the single rock and presents it to the pair. To his joy, they pay without complaint. After they leave, the waiter shouts in joy. "I've done it. I've billed two Kurds with one stone."

Knowing the success of food marketing campaigns that popularize unfamiliar foods (Avocados, Filberts renamed Hazelnuts, Yogurt...) a businessman decides to move the Garbanzo Bean into the mainstream. He buys large quantities of the beans, processing facilities, and a large marketing workforce. One area of interest is the entertainment field so the businessman questions one of of his salesmen. "Do you know how Garbanzos are doing?" The response: "I don't know. Hummus, a few bars."

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Losing Contact

Like everyone else, my world view is limited and filtered by my own experience. Like everyone else, when there is no available, reliable research I form opinions based on my particular, atypical experiences.

Based on surveys, I have to accept that about twenty percent of adults in the US smoke. My personal experience says it is about five percent because the group of people I interact with day to day are generally non-smokers and the smokers tend not to smoke around me.

I bring this up because I feel a cultural change, but have only the most personal and anecdotal evidence. It strikes me that, day to day, I have less and less genuine human contact, both physical and emotional. I am sure some of this has to do with time of life, particular circumstance, and the softening effect of memory. Despite this, I feel there is a genuine cultural change for the worse in the United States.

Years ago when our family was smaller and very young, we moved to Oregon. This was to a small city. We arrived with nothing but the names of some friends of friends. During the three years we lived there, we developed a set of close friends and companions. I was trying to work as a musician and formed contacts in that community. We formed bands of convenience and played the local taverns and coffee shops. There were day jobs for money, but we spent as little time as possible there because our real lives were elsewhere. I helped people build additions, move, attended births and birthday parties and do all the other quotidian things without the thought of payment or trading labor. We were just in it together. There were parties and saunas and music and love. I don't remember censoring what I thought or said with these people. I'm sure that some folks were put off and probably pulled away, but there were enough left for a small community.

I contrast that to my current situation. My monetary work takes virtually all of my waking hours. Due perhaps to a poor choice or poor opportunity, my commute is quite long. A typical day involves getting up at 5:10am. By 5:30 I am in a spinning class at the local gym. After that I shower, dress and commute to work. At work there is no real communal area and I typically eat lunch alone at a nearby shopping mall. My day is largely spent in work meetings, large and small. Although I am constantly talking with people, it is all work related. I do not get home until about 7:00pm, quite exhausted.

At work, I do not speak freely. Some time ago I made a small, very bad, joke on an email received by everyone in our office (probably sixty people). Some people in management thought that such a joke might be construed by someone as offensive. As far as I can tell, no one actually complained, but some folks fantasized they might. I read and re-read the message and could find no basis for any rational complaint, but I complied with the request to send an apology saying that such communication had no place in our office.

I am more aloof than most people and I see friendships develop and grow in the workplace but I am guarded. I simply do not trust that the organization has my or my colleagues best interests in mind. As a manager, I try to protect the people who work for me, but the day may come where I am asked to do things that injure them. Most of my bosses seem to accept the notion that the primary purpose of our work is to monetarily advance the organization as a whole. I like the people I work with. I respect them. I think the institutions we have created force us apart rather than bringing us together.

In the past few years sending work off-shore has been a common topic of management discussion in several jobs I have had. It generally occurs as almost a spreadsheet computation: cost of labor versus inefficiencies in communication and the cost of developing requisite skills in people far away. In talks about pay we speak of being competitive. Work benefits are a way keep talented people from defecting to other jobs. There are career development programs and birthday reminders, but I feel the underlying sentiment that we are not dealing with friends or even people, but with labor units. Labor units that should be developed and trained and respected, but the basic notion is economic utility. The purpose of the organization is to earn money for the owners. In my current job, the owners want good economic results so they can cash out by selling the company to someone else.

Frankly, I do not think economics should form the basis for our work lives or any other part of our lives. We require money to live and our lives must make sense economically. Work must make money, but that does not mean that money should form the basis of work. Work can be centered around helping others. It can be centered on a common sense of purpose and making something bigger than one person. It can center on doing things no one has done before or better than anyone has ever done them before. It can provide community and a way to help each other.

My reaction to my work brings me distance rather than closeness to others. This is, of course, my reaction. Others may react differently, but I do not think my experience is uncommon.

I sometimes look at movies as a window onto different times and places. A couple of good examples are the original (1951) "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of Lost Boys of Sudan".

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" is a good story but mostly I like to contrast the everyday life that is portrayed with current life in the US. A human looking alien is loose in Washington. This apparently well educated and intelligent may chooses to live in a boarding house where he finds good middle class folks. (As a side note, Thomas Jefferson, Jon Marshall and Aaron Burr all lived in boarding houses while in Washington DC.) A single mother and her son (12 years old?) live in the boarding house as well. Within a few days the mother trusts the new boarder well enough to have him look after her son. The son has the run of Washington and is allowed to roam by himself. This setting is not the point of the movie and I do not believe that reviewers of the time commented on the lives portrayed. This was simply the texture of the time.

"God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of Lost Boys of Sudan" is the story of some remarkable Sudanese men. Due to war in Sudan, thousands of children were forced to flee, without any adults, across thousands of miles to refugee camps in Kenya. In Kenya they lived in refugee camps run by the UN where they created their own goverment and were schooled. Their lives were confined to the camps and they developed an extremely close knit society based on personal contact, trust and loyalty. The film introduces us to several of these young men given the opportunity of moving to the US. These are remarkable people. When we meet them they have not only survived their epic flight from Sudan, they are also remarkably well educated. Each speaks at least two or three languages.

For them, the US is a land of opportunity and provides a chance for more education and money that they can send to their community back in Kenya. It is not particularly mentioned in the film, but you see this group of men who completely depended on each other in Kenya become a fragmented group of individuals who share the same apartment, but spend no time together. Their communal life is simply shattered by the reality of contemporary American life. I do not believe that they would choose to go back, but as an observer the tragedy and loss are stark.

It is about time for me to change my life to bring it more closely into line with my values. More on this later.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sometimes Common Sense Doesn't Make Sense

Sometimes sensible sounding positions make little sense. Here are two radically different examples. The first is helping birds by keeping your cats inside. The second is using intensive user testing to improve products.

First let's look at bird populations and cats. Many species of birds, particularly songbirds are in trouble Disappearing Common Birds Send Environmental Wake-up Call. It is also true that cats are tremendous predators. By some estimates cats kill hundreds of millions of birds in the US each year. The conjunction of these facts leads to a call that owners should keep their cats indoors Give Birds a Break, Lock up the Cat.

There may be good reasons to keep your cat indoors (though I haven't found one that convinces me), but bird killing is not one of them. It is a sop that makes people feel better without addressing the real problems.

Almost every article that seriously looks at bird loss talks about loss of habitat as the main threat. This includes the Washington Post, the Audobon Society and even Australian scientists.

My city is about seven miles on a side. Inside this area of about fifty square miles, there are essentially no native species. Fifty square miles of prairie grassland was bulldozed and replaced with asphalt, houses, stores, Kentucky Bluegrass and non-native trees. It is a nice enough town, but it does not provide much habitat for native birds.

The range of a cat is on the order of thirty or forty hectares. That is roughly a third of a mile on a side. If my city is a square seven miles on a side, cats extend each side by a maximum of about one third of a mile. The amount of severely disturbed land goes from forty nine square miles to about fifty three square miles. This is less than a ten percent increase. Complaining about bird loss due to urban cats is like killing a deer with your car and worrying about its broken antler.

Suppose that cats were a main cause of bird disappearance. Keeping your cat indoors will still not solve the problem. About one third of all cats are feral. Cats breed prodigiously and feral cats exist because there is an ecological niche for them. Even if all owned cats were kept indoors, the birds would keep dying.

I use cats and birds as an example, but we suffer from an epidemic of glossy arguments that may not stand up to any real scrutiny. A second, less supported, example has to do with product development.

It seems sensible that if you are developing products to meet some consumer need, it would be a good idea to know what those consumers want and how they will react to you product. There are a number of established techniques for this. For example, focus groups. Software organizations, often talk about user centered design.

I have developed products using these techniques. I can honestly say that every in-depth interaction I have had with customers has changed my view of the product I was developing. Sometimes I have found out that my view of the problems and their solutions is quite different from my customer's. Sometimes I have found that users had much less tolerance of complexity than I imagined.

That said, I don't think this kind of external facing, user centered process develops better products.

To support this you need only compare Microsoft and Apple. Both these companies have the time and money to investigate, measure, and improve their product development. Microsoft has a user centered development process. Apple has a completely different, inward focused product development system.

On the whole Microsoft products are, at best, acceptable. Commonly they are a complete mess. Just look at the appalling Microsoft Project. It has done more to ruin project management than any other single tool. Everyone uses Microsoft Word, but I can't think of anyone who actually likes the program. It is larded with obscure, mostly useless, features. Nothing is easy and the resulting documents are extraordinarily difficult to re-purpose.

On the whole, Microsoft follows the market. They re-implement what others have done and often do it worse. This pattern started with the operating system extends through their software products, and includes their hardware.

Apple, in contrast, is known as an innovative company that leads the market. Their customers don't just like the products, they love them. MP3 players with much the same functionality as the iPod existed before the iPod, but the Apple developers came up with a whole ecosystem for music. When the iPhone came out, it erased and replaced peoples ideas of how to interact with a that device in their pocket that sends and receives phone calls.

The problem may be that focusing on the views of potential users directs your attention to those views. Those views are often very restricted because most folks don't really think about what they are doing and what is possible. When you talk to a lot of potential customers, the tendency is to aim for the lowest common denominator. The end result seems to be products that serve a purpose, that most people can use, but that no one really cares about.

Like keeping cats inside to protect birds, asking customers to help develop products seems to make a lot of sense, but may not be sensible.