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June 2008

On Blogging

I may have mentioned my tendency to be a curmudgeon (one of my favorite occupations, right after raconteur).  A healthy dose of skepticism helps counter-balance the breezy optimism of product-creators I encounter in my work.

That said, I try to be open to change.  So for instance, at first I thought some of the slang (OMG, BFF, etc.) associated with instant messaging was stupid, but over time have found myself beginning to use it.

I’ve been known to rail against linguistic excess:  my fight against use of “impact” and its over-eager pal, “impact on” as verbs is one example.  At the same time I’m not one of those people who feel the English language is being ruined by the introduction of various new words and phrases.

So having said that (and that), I was thinking about the possible impact of blogging on our ability to form and communicate nuanced thoughts (hell, even complete thoughts!).  I had seen a newspaper article saying that text messaging abbreviations are making their way into more formal types of communication, such as school essays.  It got me thinking about whether something similar would happen to written discourse as a result of blogging (speaking of new terms).  

Blogging is fast--nearly immediate, depending on the habits of the person writing--but is it thoughtful?  At the Twitter extreme, if all I’m saying is “I just finished peeling an orange” than don’t hold your breath for my thoughts on climate change.  But the other end of this continuum are traditional forms of written communication--essays, opinion pieces (other than "you suck"), books, theses--which can be rich in meaning. 

I’ve always enjoyed writing for the discipline it requires:  you can’t get away with half-formed thoughts in Word, the way you can in PowerPoint.  We gather thoughts, structure them into larger levels of meaning, expand upon them, and so on.  What we hope to produce is a nicely written, well-structured set of thoughts.  If you've ever used the outlining feature in Word, or developed a "mind-map", you know what I'm talking about.

Writing that expresses complete thoughts is great, but timeliness is important, too.  Anyone who’s read my Christmas newsletters knows that the process of this “construction” can sometimes take a long (long, long) time, resulting in newsletters that arrive sometime around Valentine's Day if they arrive at all (watch for The Unpublished Letters on this blog, coming soon.  Or not.)

In the hyperbolically current milieu of the Internet, immediacy counts for a lot.  People who write blogs for a living have talked about the burnout they suffer, given the pressure they’re under to produce something interesting to say at least once a day, if not more often.  Does this mean the end of essays, journal articles, and such types of communication?

Of course not, don't be ridiculous.  It just means that there's a lot more material being published.  Some of it is great, some of it is dreck.  As for how the blogging phenomenon affects me, I’ve got my work cut out for me.  I don’t want this thing to become the electronic version of the journal I had to keep in Eighth-grade English—the one where entries deteriorated to “today nothing happened”.  But I also don’t want to go so long between posts.  So we’ll see if I can find interesting stuff to talk about without going for weeks without saying something, and without feeling like I’ve contributed to the ruination of our ability to express ourselves in complete thoughts. 


Back in Mac

As part of my new job at SOMA Networks, I was asked if I would adopt a Macintosh instead of a Windows-based laptop. I was happy to do so, and settled on a Powerbook. I used to use Mac’s all the time—the Lisa, the original Macintosh, even the first Mac portable (which broke most of the blood vessels in my shoulder when I had to run with it through the Philadelphia airport to catch a plane). In fact, I was the non-conformist at Nortel when everyone else was using Mac’s and I used an IBM PS/2.

Having started with a Mac, then having moved to Windows, and now having moved back I’m finding some things that are cool and not so cool.
  • Where are the PgUp and PgDn keys? They’re not on the keyboard, and I haven’t figured out a key combination that will do that for me.
  • The DELETE key is really a BACKSPACE key. And I haven’t figured out how to delete a character ahead of the cursor. This is a problem, because I’ve gotten used to doing that all the time.
  • And where’s my right-click button? One (generally more intelligent) mouse button is the norm for Mac. I've since discovered that this has been solved in typical Apple fashion:  you hold down the lone mouse button for a while and up pops the <right button> menu.  In other words, "we'll provide the function, but we still think you're stupid for wanting to use it, so we're not going to actually create a right-mouse button, we'll just give you this unintuitive way of getting to it".  Thanks!
  • The screen display is awesome! I don’t know if it’s technically a better resolution than my Lenovo/IBM laptop, but it sure looks better. Maybe it’s due to the aspect ratio, which is slightly wider than my Lenovo. All I know is my Powerbook just barely fits into my Timbuk2 travel bag.
  • I was having problems moving through my open windows, until someone showed me that I could push the cursor into one corner and cause all the windows to separate, at which point I could choose the one I wanted.  Since then, I’ve learned to use the “spaces” utility. It creates four “virtual” desktops, so I can put my email in one, web pages in another, and so on. It makes it very easy to set up different groupings of work items and switch easily between them.  Those of you who remember the DOS batch files that temporarily put some work-looking stuff on your screen will recognize the value of being able to confine all of your at-work personal web surfing on a single, changeable screen.
  • I did get used to using Office 2007 on Windows. It’s much nicer than the previous version, which is basically what the current Mac Office is.
  • I like my choices in browsers. Safari feels about the same as Internet Explorer. I’ve tried Firefox once or twice, but it doesn’t work with some of our internal web sites. My favorite is Opera. I start it up and it comes up with all the web pages that were running when I previously shut it down. And it has a visual “speed dial” feature that’s an improvement over regular bookmarks.
  • I like the fact that the Mac will automatically adjust volume settings for speakers vs. plugged-in earpieces. I like to keep the sound off in the office and on the train, so I’m able to plug in headphones if I want to listen to something, but don’t have to be embarrassed when I unplug them in the middle of a piece from The Onion News Network.
  • The widgets are nice, but I don’t know if I prefer them over a customized web page like iGoogle. If you know of a free one that shows me the time in half a dozen cities of my choice, let me know…
As with any computer, it takes a while to line up your usage with the designer’s “intuitive” interface. But so far, I’m enjoying the journey.

Trading in Green

You’ve no doubt heard, as companies line up to be “green” (now that being green has been shown to sell products and services), about the term “carbon offsets”. The idea is that companies can trade “units” of carbon gas reduction, the way they would trade any other commodity. So if I implement changes to reduce my greenhouse gas emissions by 100 units, I can “sell” this reduction to another company that is producing 50 units. As a result of the transaction, the latter company can claim to have become more “green” by “owning” a net reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions.

I still remember my days at MIT, trying to keep up with Professor Berndt (of whom the phrase was developed, “I got burnt by Berndt” owing to his grading policy) as he demonstrated, using all of the chalkboards in the lecture hall, that creating a market for pollution offsets was more efficient than policies to reduce pollution production alone.

But I’m tired of carbon offsets. Or more to the point, I’m getting tired of companies trotting them out to show me how “green” they are. It strikes me as a very small step away from doing nothing. And it’s gotten me thinking (hmmm) about applying the concepts in other areas of modern life. So for instance…
  • Imagine caloric offsets, or trans-fat offsets. Or saturated fat offsets. Hey, I’m overweight because I eat too much crappy food and don’t work out like I should. But I’m a net-positive healthy person! That’s because I’ve arranged to buy calorie-and-fat offsets from some poor person. They get a little cash, I get to feel better, and I don’t really have to change my lifesteyle. It’s a win win!
  • And since I don’t smoke, I will sell my tobacco and second-hand-smoke offsets to others. They can puff away as always and I make some dough. I’m warming to this idea!
  • Child production offsets? Cussing offsets? Pick any vice you’d like to continue, or any social good you want to promote, and you can craft an offset for it—to appeal to those who want to continue doing what society says they shouldn’t do, or to benefit those who are already practicing the desired behavior. Marry the idea with a market-clearing mechanism like eBay and you’ve got it made!
Any investors who want in on this opportunity, call me!

Fly the Friendly Skies

I have a suggestion for United Airlines.

You’ve seen/read about airlines charging for checking a second bag. You’ve seen American Airlines (always a leader in gouging their customers) take that a step further, by charging to check any bag. No offense, but they’ve got it all wrong.  I used to fly AA all the time (when my and their center of the work universe intersected at DFW) but switched to United because I thought maybe they were slightly better (based on the fact that they served Starbucks coffee) and because my work was taking me to Asia all the time... and flying to Asia from SFO is a lot easier than connecting through Dallas or LA.

So given that United (based on miles accumulated) is my Current Best Friend, I thought I'd offer my killer idea to them first.  No need to compensate me.  OK, shucks, if you really want to...

What you should do, United, is charge for taking baggage onto the plane. We’ve all seen passengers that flaunt the “one carry on” rule and take up most of the overhead space with their life’s possessions. We all recognize that those roll-around bags, while legal-sized, actually fit only if turned sideways, two to a row, meaning the third person is out of luck. And if ever there were a group of price-insensitive passengers, it’s gotta be the people who want to carry their luggage on.

American’s policy just encourages people to bring their baggage onto the plane. After all, it’s free. And what are they going to do if you bring on a bag and there’s no room? Charge you for it? Leave it on the tarmac to be blown up by security people? Come on!

By charging for carry-on baggage, you’ll get people to check their bags. And you can price-discriminate by having different levels of carry-on allowance with different prices. Want to carry on everything from Aunt Edna’s appartnment? Want to carry on everything from you kid’s dorm room? No problem, just fork over the dough! Capitalism at its best!

Next:  buy your legroom by the inch!