Friday, October 19, 2012

The Offudio Project Begins

I spend a lot of time working, and I like to be in pleasant surrounds when I do. The trouble is that while standard issue office furniture where I work is functional enough to use, it’s still more utilitarian than artsy.

Like most people, I’ll hang posters or art around, hoping to spice up the place, but I often want more than that.

About a decade ago, I consolidated households with the woman who would become my wife. My house was too small for our needs, so I moved into hers, which was slightly larger. That still left us with two households worth of furniture, however. Some of it went into the basement, but it occurred to me at some point to haul some of the superfluous pieces over to my office in order to add a bit of personality and comfort.

The result is a room that’s both pleasant for me and inviting for others. If I want to ask a coworker to sit and chat awhile, it’s nice to be able to offer them a venue that’s not just visually appealing but also capable of leaving them genuinely comfortable and relaxed while we talk.

Of course I’m confident they’d visit anyway for the simple pleasure of engaging my sparkling personality, but somehow I feel like it doesn’t hurt to hedge my bets by giving them other reasons to want to stop by. High tech workplaces can be very fast-paced, so it’s good to keep up-to-date with what’s going on around me. Having an attractive space is one way to improve the odds that I’ll naturally arrange for that. This is how it looks as you’re walking in the door:

At my home there are some of the same issues. We live quite a ways from where I work, so I telecommute a lot. There’s a room off the garage that I’ve converted into an office where I can sequester myself while working, but here the problem isn’t getting others to visit me, it’s just keeping myself from going crazy in a place where I spend so much time.

This house is bigger than the place I had before meeting my wife, but it’s still not huge. Somehow this office ends up accumulating a lot of clutter. There’s an ebb and flow to it, so it’s worse at some times than at others. The photo at left is from one of its more crowded moments, and will give you a sense of what I’m constantly fighting.

More recently, the boxes in the middle of the room have been beaten back, but the room still contains a lot of stuff, much of it stuff that I don’t really use regularly. It just sits there taking up space and I find it to be an occasional visual distraction, but mostly I just don’t find it peaceful. That’s been weighing on me, and I’ve been trying to think of some way to overcome it, transforming this space I’ve been using now for quite a while into a calmer kind of place like I have at work and I’ve had at other places I’ve lived.

Just for reference, the photo at right, which depicts the same office space, was taken just a couple of weeks ago. If you look closely, you can see that while the boxes in the middle of the room are moved, some of them are just tucked under tables and desks, and not really gone. There’s a bit of floor space, but that just exposes an old carpet that isn’t very attractive either.

I push the elements of the room back and forth, but that never really accomplishes anything. The space needs serious work and it has never seemed to come from incremental effort.

Then, just by chance, my long-time friend Stever Robbins, whose insight I value quite a lot, tweeted a pointer to an interesting article, “The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” written by Greg McKeown and published in the Harvard Business Review.

I liked the article for a number of reasons, and I recommend reading it in its entirety. However, this part caught my attention because my office was feeling a lot like the closets he’s talking about:

First, use more extreme criteria. Think of what happens to our closets when we use the broad criteria: “Is there a chance that I will wear this someday in the future?” The closet becomes cluttered with clothes we rarely wear. If we ask, “Do I absolutely love this?” then we will be able to eliminate the clutter and have space for something better. ...

McKeown points through to an article for BBC Future titled “Why we love to hoard... and how you can overcome it,” in which the author, Tom Stafford, speaks about countering something he calls the “endowment effect” and how it contributes to clutter. Stafford offers a suggestion about how to overcome it, which I’ll quote here, but again I recommend the entire article:

... for each item I ask myself a simple question: If I didn’t have this, how much effort would I put in to obtain it? And then more often or not I throw it away, concluding that if I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t want this.

It happened at the same time that another friend was moving from one apartment to another, and we were discussing the inevitable process of boxing everything up in the old space with an eye toward how it would unpack in the new one. Suddenly my mind flashed on the possibility that I could do the same thing even within my own space—that rather than just nudge the office contents back and forth, I could just move completely out of my office and then move back in. During that process, I could heed the advice of McKeown and Stafford, unpacking only those things I absolutely love, and storing or disposing of the rest.

At this point, the plan is a work in progress. I’d like to begin by making the space as close to empty as I can make it. I’ve had such spaces in other places I’ve lived and have found them to be very calming.

The goal will be to take new paths, something that can’t happen merely by rebuilding the structure of the old. “Better implies different,” as Professor Amar Bose would say. So I need to hold the old things and the old ways at bay for a while. I want a space that invites me to be other than I am now, to reinvent myself. For example, art and music aren’t really central to what I am or do now. Maybe they will figure more prominently in the redesign. I don’t yet know.

To properly explore, as McKeown noted, it’s necessary to eliminate the clutter that’s in the way of making something better. So that’s the plan: Clear things out and rebuild somehow. That ratty carpet may become hardwood, or something like that. A lot of the furniture will move to the garage or the basement for now. I want to open the room up—and, by extension, myself.

To help me visualize where I’m going, I changed the background on my computer to a photo of a house I used to live in, the one the extra furniture in my office came from. I had done a lot to invent a new space there, and then had to give it up. Perhaps I’ll write that story in detail one day, but for now the main point is that it was a pleasant, airy space that I was sad to give up. It offered a mood I’m trying to reclaim here. Here’s a little peek into that space:

And, finally, my wife made a really cool suggestion that’s become central to the plan. If I really want it to be something else, she suggested, why not stop calling it my “office”? Why not call it something else—a “studio”? I really liked that idea and adopted it immediately, though I admit I haven’t quite retrained myself. Sometimes I still call it the office. She’ll hear me do that and regularly call me on it, and I’ll defend myself with some lame excuse about how the transition isn’t done, so it’s OK for me to still use the old word. I’ll get better at it with practice.

But we came up with a name for that, too, actually. Sometimes we just call it the “offudio”—a messy point in the transition, neither here nor there. It’s on track to become a studio at some point soon.

It took forever to empty the file cabinets, the bookcases, etc. and box everything up. I couldn’t believe how much stuff one could pack into a 10'x13' room. All that’s left now are some boxes, my computer, and the things on my desk, so I can continue to work, and to write the occasional blog.

Even now, with things boxed up for moving, there’s considerably more space and more order, so it feels already like an improvement. But stay tuned. I’ll report back when the final stage of the transition from offudio to first-class studio is done.


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The second part of this two-part series is here:
The Offudio Project Concludes

Originally published October 19, 2012 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): renovation, lifestyle, philosophy, art, change of pace, home, office, home office, office, studio, offudio, change, terminology, redecorating, interior design, transition

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Flexible Support Options

Quite some years ago, I worked at a company that has long since vanished from the technology landscape. I loved working there, but it occasionally made strange marketing and internal administration decisions that drove me nuts. To cope, I often wrote parodies of the policies, mailings, and whatnot and posted them on my office door. In retrospect, I suspect the kinds of issues I had were completely generic to the computer industry, and so I have friends who may find some of these issues are relevant even today.

Here's one of them that came up in response to a bundle of several support options the company offered for one of our products when really we only had one guy—named Dan—who was on the other end of all that support, no matter how many different ways the support was offered. In writing this, I followed the basic structure of the actual marketing press release, making adjustments as seemed necessary to make the text read in a way that I felt was more accurate. You can probably guess how it originally read:

A Broad Range of Dan Options Now Available for OurBigProduct

OurBigProduct’s Adaptable Customer Services (DAN), the Cool Technology Group’s new support program, has been expanded especially for you, the adaptable customer. These new products compound the service requirements of the increasingly sophisticated product claims made by OurBigProduct. Through the combination of enhanced service claims and promises, you have increased flexibility in your decisions about how to feed our revenue stream.

Full Dan is the complete OurBigProduct software support offering designed to ensure that you are always at the leading edge of OurBigProduct technology. Full Dan includes Dan’s phone number, Dan’s home address, and a picture of Dan so you can spot him on the street and ask him questions. Each participant in this service option is entitled to Dan’s full-time cooperation on any project you undertake.

Basic Dan is a lower priced service option designed to help chintzy OurBigProduct customers keep whatever money they can scrape up coming our way without our having to do anything specific.

Right-To-Copy (RTC) Dan, designed for sites with big bucks, gives you the opportunity to make the most of your revenue-providing capabilities by providing us with lots of bucks even if you don’t want to take personal advantage of Dan. RTC Service permits you to make unlimited copies of Dan, as well as his associated software, hardware, and documentation.

Separate Service is for experienced OurBigProduct customers who see through the above options and want an itemized bill. Available services include software updates and enhancements if they happen, subscriptions to the OurBigProduct Newsletter, telephone and on-site visits from Dan, and Dan’s training seminars.

Perhaps if he'd gotten overwhelmed, we might have added more people rather than just letting him drown, but at the time it seemed outrageous to me. Plus I was younger then, and not terribly patient with or forgiving of things that didn't work as I personally wished they would.

Also, I'd probably be safe using the real name of the company and product, but I don't want to create any embarrassment for anyone so I've changed the names to protect everyone's happy memories. If you know who this is about, please don't volunteer the information. I think it's enough just to look back and smile, perhaps even to learn, from the safety of historical distance.


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Originally published October 7, 2012 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): technology, corporate politics, internal politics, parody, satire, humor, marketing, sales, support, staffing, support options, technical support, coping, dan, history, software, support contract, pricing, support pricing, support pricing options

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Corny Economics

Sometimes we get so mired in the thick of things that we lose track of where we began and what we were about. I think economics is a lot like that. We’re all affected by it. We all have opinions. And yet we’re told it’s a vast topic about which we can have no opinion. It’s too big and complicated for us to understand if we haven’t studied it. I’m not sure I agree.

I want to begin by speaking in very blurry terms to reset the conversation. I think many of us have a problem of not being able to see the forest for the trees. So I want to zoom out to where the detailed view no longer holds us captive. Let’s talk in very broad brush strokes for now.

OK, so having zoomed our view of the Earth out to a resolution befitting an astronaut, let’s click the “Economic View” icon in the upper right corner, and see what the world looks like. I’ll interpret for you, since you may not be familiar with this view and I don’t have a handy screen image.

From this view, I see only two things: People and corn. That’s all there is in the world.

“Corn?” I hear someone in the audience asking “Why corn?”

I’ve chosen corn to metaphorically represent what we need to survive.

“What about beef? We’re not all vegetarians,” some of you are asking.

For the purposes of our conversation today, beef is a kind of corn. We’re too high up to care about the kind of detail that would distinguish beef from corn.

“Health care? Housing?”

It’s all just corn. From here, corn is enough. From here, corn represents everything we need to live.

“We must be awfully high up to think that. But it’s OK. At this altitude, I think the thinning corn is making me light-headed and it’s starting to make sense.”

Great. Now back to economics.

The first and most obvious observation is that there is either enough corn in the world, or there is not. If there is not, we have a serious problem. That would mean we are beyond the carrying capacity of the Earth.

“So that’s your model of the world? That all people do is make corn?”

Thanks for reminding me. Of course that’s silly. They also make harmonicas. Did I forget to mention that? People, corn, and harmonicas.

“I don’t know anyone that owns a harmonica.”

Well, I do. But it doesn’t matter. Harmonicas, iPods—same thing. From our vantage here, anything we make that we don’t need looks to me like a harmonica.

“Why harmonicas?”

They’re a way to pass the time between growing and eating corn. I divide life into essentials and leisure. After all, it takes only a fraction of the population to grow the corn we need. The rest of us just make—or use—harmonicas.

“Sounds like some of us are more necessary than others.”

Now you’re seeing my point. At the highest level, the problems are simpler. We don’t need everyone to grow corn because a few people can make enough for everyone. We’re an affluent species. We could just grow the corn and distribute it out and there’d be plenty for everyone.

“That would mean some wouldn’t have to work.”

Right. And that would drive some others crazy from an equity standpoint.

“So how do we solve that?”

We ask them to make harmonicas.

“But that won’t feed anyone.”

No one needed to be fed. There was already enough. Making harmonicas doesn’t make us more able to feed people, it just soothes our primitive emotions, making it seem that people aren’t getting something for nothing. If they make harmonicas, we tell them they’re entitled to food. No harmonica, no food.

“That seems a bit harsh. And does the world really need that many harmonicas?”

Well, that’s what got me thinking. I have a friend who knows someone named Joe who’s living on welfare. She thinks Joe should get a job. I started to wonder if that was really true.

I imagined Joe getting a job making drink umbrellas.

“Drink umbrellas?”

They’re a kind of harmonica. But don’t interrupt.

Mind you, as with all harmonicas, the world doesn’t really need drink umbrellas. They offer very little value, they mostly just go straight into the trash, and they add to landfill. Plus Joe will burn corn getting to and from work so that he can make this product that adds to the landfill. And someone will have to drive the product to market so that someone else can drive to the store and buy it. All of these activities threaten the corn supply. On net, I’d say, they make us poorer.

Or it might be no one even wants drink umbrellas. We might need additional people to work at a marketing firm in order to figure out how to get people to buy them anyway. Those people would have to expend fuel driving to and from work. They need heat or air conditioning while at the office. They need an internet connection. Expense is layered upon expense just to get society to create and tolerate things we don’t need. And why? Because without all this expense, we wouldn’t feel good giving Joe some corn for free.

I’m not sure any of that makes good sense. None of it will make us more able to feed Joe. It will only make us more willing to feed him.

We don’t end up caring whether the job Joe takes burns more resources to earn the corn than he would burn if we just gave him the corn. In fact, we don’t account carefully for the resources used by our society at all. We take it on faith that resources are being used well because we imagine that when everyone makes purchases that each individually make sense, the entire system will somehow, magically also make sense. But what if that’s wrong? What if there is no such emergent effect? What if being down and dirty in the details obscures our chance to create any global coherence?

We created money so we could keep track of traded value, but somehow things have gone awry. I’m not advocating an end of money, but I am advocating a hard look at the assumptions we make about its effect and about the goodness of the things it buys. I’d like an end to the blind trust in money, as it were.

There may indeed be things we could be doing in our society to make the world better, but merely looking at where there’s money to be made might not answer that. We have erected a consumer-driven society in which we incentivize the making of things. But I suspect we will not have a sustainable society until we start to incentivize the “not making” of things we don’t need.

Maybe there are other ways people can provide value, maybe not. But if there can be such gigantic questions of what’s the right thing to do in the world, can we at least agree to feed everyone in the meantime while we sort it out? And by feed, I really mean feed, clothe, house, and take care of them. I think we’d be able to do it. I think so because I think we could do it if people would just make more harmonicas.

If we’re prepared to do something important if only our people do some utterly irrelevant act, I think we’re prepared to do it regardless. Why not dispense with all the corny excuses and finally just do it.


Author's Note: Originally published May 27, 2012 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): place to live, housing, house, home, healthcare, health care, health, drink umbrellas, drink umbrella, blind trust, trust, obfuscation, excuses, excuse, extra, surplus, leisure, luxuries, luxury, non-essentials, essentials, essential, wants, needs, housing, shelter, clothing, clothes, clothe, food, feed, harmonicas, corny economics, economics, corn, corny, politics

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Forgive Me


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Originally published February 14, 2012 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): poem, poetry, art, valentine's day, valentine, card, commercialism, 800, eight hundred, florists, eflorists, flowers, love, committed, commitment, life, friendship, friend, celebrate, celebration, bauble, ardor, passion, i love you, circumscribe, circumscribed, circumscribing, circumscription, heart, negative, inverse, inverted, negative space, empty space

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Losing the War in a Quiet Room

The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement has seemed to tap into a deep-rooted sense discontent in the American populace over how capitalism has gone wrong. Criticism has not come just from the Left, but also from the right, as recently discussed on the excellent new MSNBC show Up with Chris Hayes:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

The discussion begins with a quote from Newt Gingrich asking “Is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of other people and walk off with the money, or is that somehow a little bit of a flawed system?” To which Chris Hayes cheerfully responds, “Well, yes, Newt it is.” The discussion that follows is typical of the many thoughtful exchanges that make this show such an absolute “must watch.”

Early in the discussion, Prof. Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton University, asks “What’s the opposite of ‘predatory capitalism’?” and chuckles about whether that means a kind of “kinder, gentler capitalism.” Alexis McGill Johnson of the American Values Institute frames the issue as a sort of nostalgia for something lost, and David Roberts of Grist opines that “democratic nostalgia is for a set of laws and regulations that used to restrain capitalism; the republican nostalgia seems to be for nicer corporate titans, to an era of public-spirited rich people.” Vincent Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights, questions whether the system has adequate benefit for workers, noting that the only thing workers get out of capitalism is jobs, but they don’t get economic benefits or any control of the direction companies take.

It all begs the question: What changed?

My immediate thought on that question came from having listened to the book The Betrayal of American Prosperity by Clyde Prestowitz. In the book, Prestowitz offers the following account that struck me as simply extraordinary:

Excerpt from pages 198-199 of
The Betrayal of American Prosperity by Clyde Prestowitz

THE HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL CREED

At the founding of Harvard Business School in 1908, Dean Edwin Gay said the purpose of the school was to teach business leaders how to “make a decent profit by doing decent business.” That was McCabe’s creed and what thousands of future business leaders learned at Harvard for many years. But in 1970, the University of Chicago’s Milton Friedman sounded a different note. Said he, “Few trends could so much undermine our free society as the acceptance by corporate executives of social responsibility other than to make as much money for shareholders as possible.” This tune was quickly picked up and elaborated by Harvard’s professors and especially by Michael Jensen, who became the dominant American voice on corporate architecture and the proper role of a board of directors and a CEO.

In a hugely influential 1976 paper and subsequently, Jensen propagated Friedman’s doctrine of shareholder sovereignty and of increased returns to shareholders as the sole purpose of the CEO. His argument was grounded in the view that the shareholder is the corporation’s final risk bearer and therefore also its final claimant. He added the notion that, as agents of shareholders, the corporation’s managers do not necessarily share the interests of the shareholders. Indeed, the managers and the shareholders may be at war because the way for the CEO to maximize his/her private gain may be at odds with maximizing shareholder gains. For instance, a CEO may like corporate jets or want to be part of the society scene, but the costs of such indulgence may be a burden to shareholders. Thus, the central problem is how to align the interests of managers and shareholders and to establish a monitoring mechanism that easily indicates whether the managers are acting properly on behalf of shareholders.

Jensen’s solution was to grant gobs of stock options to CEOs to evaluate their job performance by focusing on the progression of quarterly earnings. This is a single, readily available, objective number upon which a CEO can concentrate all her attention and which the shareholder can readily use to determine whether a CEO is working for him. Jensen emphatically rejected stakeholder theories on the grounds that giving a CEO multiple objectives would be confusing, distracting, and make it impossible in the end to measure performance.

In effect, Prestowitz is noting that this is a recurrence of the old joke

“If you dropped your keys over there,
   why are you looking here?”

“Because the light is better here.”

If I’m hearing him right, Prestowitz is making the bold claim that the reason we stopped caring about people other than shareholders was it was just too messy to do the accounting of worrying about other stakeholders, such as employees, customers, and community. It was administratively simpler and cleaner to only worry about stockholders, and so one day business just quietly decided to do that instead.

Or that was the stated rationale, anyway. Let’s not overlook the outside chance that those pushing for this change fancied themselves the potential later recipients of “gobs of stock options” as CEO of some company operating under the newly proposed rules. No point in mentioning that rationale out loud during the debate when they could stick to the altruistic-sounding story of how this focus on clarity of measurement would just be good for business. “Let's give them gobs of stock” sounds so much more business-like and less self-indulgent than “Let's give ourselves gobs of stock.”

Imagine if we took that “clarity” approach toward our justice system, saying it was too hard to measure justice so why not just measure, let’s say, cost? That wouldn’t fix old-fashioned Justice but it would create a form of NeoJustice that was so much easier to measure, allowing us to be sure we were being successful at it. But to what end?

Really that’s what happened, too. Not with criminal justice but with economic justice. We just let it go, without even knowing it. Without any real notice to or approval by the large community of American citizens affected by the change, American Business just quite literally stopped caring. It’s pretty obvious, at least to me, that this timeline Prestowitz mentions dovetails precisely with the downfall of American society so evident all around us.

A war was fought in a “quiet room” somewhere, without anyone firing a shot, and we’re now living in the aftermath of our unwitting capitulation. No wonder we’re confused about how we got here.


Possible Follow-up Actions

Putting things to right could begin by undoing the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, and eliminating from the law any notion of corporate personhood. Senator Bernie Sanders is pushing for a Constitutional amendment doing so. You can sign his petition supporting this amendment.

Another concrete action is to learn about stakeholder theory and start to ask questions about why it’s there and whether we could change it. It was changed before, and it seems to me it could change again. I don’t know the process by which that would happen. But I think it needs to.

Further Reading

The Betrayal of American Prosperity by Clyde Prestowitz covers additional issues, particularly those of US trade policy, in addition to the matters I’ve discussed here. In some ways, this was just a peripheral aspect of his main point. But it’s an excellent book either way and I very much recommend it. I listened to it as an audiobook from audible.com.

A basic overview of some of these issues can be obtained from Wikipedia articles titled “Stakeholder (corporate)” and “stakeholder theory.”

I also highly recommend Naomi Klein’s excellent book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, in which Milton Friedman and the Chicago School (a.k.a. the “Chicago Boys”) play a critical role. I listened to it as an audiobook from audible.com.

And, finally, my other articles Fiduciary Duty vs. The Three Laws of Robotics and Sociopaths by Proxy may also shed some additional light in why this all matters.


Author's Note: Originally published January 22, 2012 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): ows, wall street, occupy wall street, occupy, legal sociopath, naomi klein, shock doctrine, clyde prestowitz, betrayal of american prosperity, constitutional amendment, amendment, constitution, citizens united, sanders, michael jensen, harvard business school creed, creed, harvard business school, harvard, nostalgia, romney, newt gingrich, gingrich, newt, chris l hayes, christopher l hayes, christopher hayes, chris hayes, grist, david roberts, princeton, anne-marie slaughter, american values institute, alexis mcgill johnson, center for constitutional rights, vincent warren, up with chris hayes, chicago boys, chicago school, milton friedman, friedman, shareholder model, stakeholder model, shareholder theory, stakeholder theory, shareholder, stakeholder, quiet war, quiet room, economic justice, justice, war, fiduciary responsibility, fiduciary duty, corporate, corporation, finance, economics, business, politics, lose, losing, lost, society, war in a quiet room

Thursday, January 12, 2012

On Twitter


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Originally published January 12, 2012 on Twitter, as part of my background image, not a tweet. I am @KentPitman there if you'd like to follow me.

The title, added later, is a pun. The haiku is both a comment on Twitter, and a celebration of my arrival on Twitter.

I've since come to believe that expressing ideas in such a short space, what some people call micro-blogging, is a legitimate art form. Nonetheless, I still think the hashtags intrude. Their use is pragmatic, not aesthetic. —kmp 18-Jan-2016