29 July 2009


Yesterday, a post on Gina Trapani's Smarterware blog caught my eye - a link to a piece by Paul Graham titled "Maker's Schedule, Manager's Schedule." The crux of Graham's argument is this (with my ellipses):

"There are two types of schedule, which I'll call the manager's schedule and the maker's schedule. The manager's schedule is for bosses. It's embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you're doing every hour. ... But there's another way of using time that's common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can't write or program well in units of an hour. That's barely enough time to get started."

Initially, yesterday, I was struck by the clarity of Graham's analysis - and immediately associated myself with a "maker," because (as someone who writes a lot) I can relate to the challenge of wanting and needing uninterrupted time, and am all too familiar with the deadening impact of constant interruption.I woke up this morning and re-realized that I'm a "manager," with blocks of time diced up into neat little segments - an hour for this, a half-hour for that, 15 minutes for something else, all billed in neat 15 minute increments. But something wasn't sitting quite right with me about this; I was still feeling too connected to the frustration Graham expresses.

By this afternoon, I figured out that what was giving me pause is that I am basically a hybrid of the two types, the "maker" and the "manager." And it's probably true for most of my colleagues, too. We are managers: task managers, project managers, client relationship managers, new business-and-ideas managers, and so on. At the same time, we must also do: make calls, write plans and materials, think through how to present ideas or issues creatively and clearly, etc.

Occasionally, the frustration of this hybrid situation can become, well, frustrating; when you're trying to accomplish something that takes concentration, the things that break that concentration can look like skeet begging to be shot. Just as often, though, it's part of what makes my job exciting and engaging - not just the daily challenge of seeing tasks completed, but the dynamic nature of a job with many different facets. I'm rarely bored, and that's a lucky thing indeed.

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19 July 2009

Love the Bomb

If you read what I write here, then you may soon begin to notice a shift in this space. Methodical, not radical, but a shift nonetheless. The times, they are a changin’. What follows in the middle here is a bit of philosophizing (read: navel-gazing). Scroll down if you want to skip to the punch line. I’ll never know.
For years now, I have clung tightly to a particular perspective about the online universe—a philosophy, one might call it, born of my era, my own age, and my personality. Old enough to have gone through an adolescence that included computers but no internet; young enough (and technologically minded enough) to have embraced each piece of it as it arrived, and to have incorporated technology fully into my life. Old fashioned enough to believe that public personas matter, and that we must take care in cultivating them; young enough to see that the definition of an acceptable public persona has evolved and expanded greatly, and mostly for the better.

I started “blogging” on 17 September 2000, with this piece. Prior to that, I had done some web site dabbling here and there, but this piece, written while I worked at KPMG, was the beginning of something else entirely. I continued through that fall and early winter, twenty pieces written and made available to the world (archived here; my favorite remains this one), and it all felt slightly thrilling. The process was not without its ups and downs: I got up every day around 5am to write; and I had to convince a few people that my energy (and compulsion) in this arena was about meeting my own internal needs, and not a desire to create an endless stream of Times op-ed submissions.

I did it all using a name that is wholly, legally my own—and yet, not “me” as most people know me. I assumed the persona of my own initials in order to create a space for myself to write that felt publicly protected. I was hiding in plain sight. At the same time, I also drew a very sharp line around my writing world, and have largely stuck to it. Essentially, this meant not much writing about art or the world of my professional life. I have written and published a number of pieces about job hunting and career-related issues—almost one a year; 2008’s is here and the others are available through links at the bottom of that page—but that was about as close as I got. (Moreover, the hiding-in-plain-sight seemed to work too well: precious few of the people I have interviewed over the years ever seemed to have been aware of my perspectives on job hunting, interviewing, etc.) Indeed, it was in part because of the human resources part of my professional life that I felt even more strongly about being so careful about what I did online; I had plenty of examples gathered of what not to do.
All that said, it’s time for a change. Methodical, hardly radical, but a change. I recently did a personal “digital inventory,” and the degree to which I’m wired surprised even me. At the same time, I have resisted my own engagement in a few aspects of the digital world, even as I took advantage of what others did. I was stubborn where I should have been flexible, and I drew lines around what I was willing to do that made sense to me but were predicated on the idea that the outside world cares, when in many ways it surely did not and does not. And in hewing so tightly to certain kinds of “rules,” I may very well have missed opportunities that would have been good for me, and for others, too. (Heck, I still don’t really call my blogs “blogs”—because that word carries certain connotations, and I was always happier with the idea that I was just writing, for the web, on my own.)

What all this means is that I intend to use this space to more effectively and productively integrate a range of different aspects of my life—my professional life included. I’ve launched myself over on Twitter, after months of skepticism about that medium, to see whether that helps with this process or not. (It may not.) How all of this will play out remains to be seen; I work in the field of communications, and I want this to be strategic, thoughtful, stimulating, interesting, and not merely (self-)promotional.

Not much will change over on the TTAISI side. Almost nine years later, those initials and that persona are well and truly mine, and I intend to keep them, and to keep doing what I’ve been doing, whatever that is. Writing, mostly.

If all of this seems like a lot of internal drama over something not very dramatic, I won’t argue the point. A few years ago, I wrote about process issues, and to quote myself: “Engaging in a process of self-examination—freed from a concern about a specific end product—is not easy...” That’s what this is, an internal process that for me has not been so easy.

But the gauntlet is down, and off I go.

*Thanks to a certain colleague (and she knows who she is) for reminding me of a certain movie - apt in this instance, and from which I have taken my title.

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11 July 2009

Business As Usual

There are a variety of reasons we read books, from the sheer joy of well-constructed sentences to the knowledge that may be gained from an author. In the case of an Oulipian like Harry Mathews, those reasons hold—and more. Mathews' My Life in CIA is, in two words: pure joy.

First, the language is ripe and punchy, descriptive and often inventive, from the names of the characters to his self-deprecating descriptions of his desire for particular members of the opposite sex. The series of Tantric romps with the superbly named Marie-Claude Quintelpreaux are short and sweet, but engage the imagination with passages such as “The tip of my erection settled in her navel; this was apparently acceptable. I thought ‘There’s no place like om.’” Mathews is no Faulkner, and thank goodness. If anything, there are shades of Paul Bowles’ short stories, or the even some of the (adult) stories of Roald Dahl. (Whether Mathews would agree with this I don’t know.)

Then there's the story itself. If you are a fan of spy novels, ones constructed in the cerebral, Le Carre mold that focuses as much on psychological motivations as "action," Mathews delivers on a variety of levels. He is, after all, not a spy; at least, one doesn't think so and Mathews clearly wishes us not to believe it so, since that is the starting premise of the whole escapade. Therefore the antics of an inventive author acting like a spy—selling faked Russian spy plane parts, offering up a coded map of Siberian nuclear installations—while feeling badly for the American-supported overthrow of the Allende government in Chile, and sitting through interrogations with various Soviet and French bureaucrats, all present as hilarity. (This often reminded me of Lawrence Block’s 1966 work The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep, an underrated pulp novel if ever there was one.) You cannot help but get wrapped up in Mathews’ real-or-imagined intrigue, and feel concern for the semi-hemi-demi-hero as the story moves to its climax.

At the same time, the book helped me grasp the nature of Oulipo in a completely different way. Two simple examples of Mathews’ inventive mind and its Oulipian application. First, while addressing a group of dyslexic travelers, he proposes that one means of alleviating their (anxiety induced) disability is to choose only trains or buses that depart on a palindromic schedule, e.g., 05:50, or 13:31. Later, he proposes an automotive itinerary for an American couple that would take them on a scenic tour of France, beginning with a visit to Saint Agrève and ending with a trip to
Saint Zacharie. These work as jokes in the story, and on their own.

I recently read Mathews’ second novel, Tlooth. Together these two books make for terrific summer reading, both absolutely engaging and appropriately—necessarily—intellectual.

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26 April 2009


I did it again just yesterday: I used three little asterisks in a row, twice, in my essay. I use them copiously in my diary; unofficially, I'd say twice per typed page, though possibly more depending on the entry and what I'm trying to capture about my week. And the fiction I write is filled with them, a preferred alternative to something as pedestrian as chapter breaks.

At some point yesterday, as I typed them out, I wondered quietly to myself why I use them, and so consistently; and I wondered whether they really serve as I intend them, or if instead they're a kind of cop-out, a writer's crutch to help me navigate around an idea I cannot pin down.

Which leads to the question: what do I intend them to mean or be?

In a world of unanswerable questions, that one I can handle: I like my asterisks because they help define and delineate the continuum of my thinking. And my thinking definitely functions on a continuum. I think my argumentative, opinionated writing tends to navigate around my main point, punching in for direct connections, and then moving back out to pull together related but distinct ideas. Over the years, a few people have complained that my writing can be maddeningly oblique (as is often intended); the asterisks help with that (also as intended). They help me separate out the direct points I want to make from those that are less so, and should lead the reader around without completely breaking a train of thought. This is essential of meeting that larger goal of threading together different ideas across a spectrum of perspectives.

Admittedly, they do sometimes serve as a crutch—when an idea just won't quite come together, and something is needed to help both separate the disparate elements and tie them together, and I am running out of time (on my self-imposed deadline) and I want to wrap something up...

I suppose my final comfort factor is: no one taught me to punctuate my writing this way, I just developed it on my own. Which, as these things go, makes me feel more comfortable about doing it. I'm not mimicking anyone's style (though many other writers do much the same thing). It's just me being me. If you can’t handle that, you’ve come to the wrong website.


Lest I go for one whole posting without the asterisks, there they are, this time as a segue to four items about writing and language. The first is a brilliant poke, from McSweeney’s, at our contemporary culture (with a hat tip to Liz for pointing it out): "Writing for Nonreaders in the Postprint Era." The second and third are good pieces from the New York Times (here and here) on the 50th anniversary of Strink and White’s The Elements of Style. The fourth is a piece on Orwell from the New York Review of Books a few weeks back, and in particular the section on Orwell’s great work Why I Write. Whether you like writing, find writing frustrating or challenging, teach writing, or are mystified by how people who (seemingly) cannot write get by in the world, these are all for you.

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28 February 2009

Evernote Thanks

It's easy - too easy - to be constantly critical, in the negative sense, of what goes on around us. Therefore when something works as it should, it seems worth saying "Thank you!" And when the something that worked as it should is a small company with a good product, saying "Thank you!" publicly is even more important.

So: Thank you, Evernote!

I have been using Evernote since 2005 to track my notes and ideas, keep clips from web sites and other sources, and generally help manage my life. The early version of the program was easy to use, easy to learn, and free. Eventually, I upgraded to a low-cost paid version, which enabled a synchronization feature, so I could sync my "notes" across different computers using a USB flash drive as the go-between.

Last year, Evernote released version 3.0, an even more sophisticated version - also free - that offers the synchronization feature across Windows, Mac, iPhone, and other platforms, along with a web interface. The premium version, very reasonably priced at $45 per year, turns Evernote into a file server: drop attachments into your notes, and they also synchronize across the entire system. Open those attachments up, edit them, and the changes are saved back to the system.

All this was cool enough, but it was not until I ran into a problem that I really appreciated how great Evernote is. A note I created with multiple attachments got corrupted; first time it has happened, and I don't know what caused it, but it stopped the program from syncing. Within one hour of asking for help, I had a response asking for some more detail; within 12 hours I had an e-mail from Evernote with the solution to the problem. Everything was back to normal after that.

If you're the kind of person who likes to jot down ideas, keep track of receipts, categorize information or to-do lists across different areas of your life, take pictures or audio notes to remind yourself of different things, and more ... Evernote is the program for you. I cannot recommend it highly enough, and they deserve a public thank you for their great product, and for their great customer service.

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16 February 2009

Arguably Consummate

I have been surprised lately to notice two words popping up endlessly, each in two very different contexts.

The first appears in news stories of one kind or another. That word is “arguably.” And, arguably, the word is journalism’s mitigator-of-choice these days. Just to make sure I wasn’t kidding myself that I have been seeing the word so often, and to soothe my curiosity, I did a Google News search, which came back with more than 17,000 hits. That’s 17,000 current news articles that use the word in the text or the headline, some examples of which are:

- Tour of California arguably best field assembled in US

- In Gingrich Mold, a New Voice for Solid Republican Resistance (“The Republican Party is arguably weaker today than it was in 1993...”)

- Mortgage Subsidies: Arguably Useless, Likely Expensive

- Students paying more, arguably getting less

- A 40-Year Wish List (“... airports and clean water projects that are arguably worthwhile priorities.”)

Arguably, in a 24/7 news cycle environment, when things keep shifting and a reporter doesn’t have time to nail down whether something might really be what they think it is (or want it to be), it winds up existing in a state of arguability. Actually, I would argue that the preceding sentence is true, without a doubt.

Perhaps using “arguably” is easier than writing a correction for a mistake after the fact, or another seemingly clever way of sidestepping the phrase “I think” as a qualifier for a thought. But it is overused. It is also unhelpful for the reader, especially since the word occurs in many articles purporting to be “analysis.” While analysis should not automatically imply certainty, if one is reading a publication for its expert opinion, and even the experts are constantly hedging on their opinion, well, it devalues the whole construct. After all, opinion is, by definition, arguable.

So it just seems consummately lazy. Which leads me to my next word: consummate.

As in: so-and-so “is a consummate professional,” or a “consummate” networker, etc. The word keeps appearing in the so-called “recommendations” for other people that pass by my eyes on the business networking site LinkedIn.com. I do not object to the word per se; rather, as with “arguably,” it is the overuse of the word that gives me pause, because it simply is not realistic that everyone is the best, an expression of perfection, at what they do. Instead, it feels like a lazy word: a way of offering high praise in what feels like grandiose terms, and avoiding the nitty gritty challenge of choosing one’s words carefully. After all, one can be very professional and still have weaknesses; most of us do.

Indeed, such weaknesses are themselves arguably the consummate expression of our humanity.