Thursday, May 22, 2014

Too Busy for Laundry? Please. . .

For you fans of Aldous Huxley – and I think you know who you are – behold what Jessica Pressler writes in the May 21 edition of the New York Magazine, in a feature on Silicon Valley companies that want to do your laundry for you:

We are living in a time of Great Change, and also a time of Not-So-Great Change. The tidal wave of innovation that has swept out from Silicon Valley, transforming the way we communicate, read, shop, and travel, has carried along with it an epic shit-ton of digital flotsam . . . the brightest mind of a generation, the high test-scorers and mathematically inclined, have taken the knowledge acquired at our most august institutions and applied themselves to solving increasingly minor First-World problems.

I’ve written about a few of them: Vests you can wear that give you icky visceral feelings when you read a book. The ability to add sounds and background music to your ebook. The fact that ebooks even exist (though it’s likely I’ll publish one of me own in the next several months).

Pressler paints a fascinating story of young, tech-oriented people looking for ways to make a buck. That I can respect. But none of them appear to want to get their hands dirty. In this “new economy,” everyone is in management. You’ll notice, ever they got venture capital, these folks who came up with the company called Washio bout everything under the sun – a nice office, assistants, etc., -- with which to run a laundry business; everything but, you know, washing machines:

All of a sudden, Washio had $1.3 million – enough to afford a nice office in Santa Monica, spitting distance from shaving-industry disrupter Dollar Shave Club, dating-site disrupter Tinder, and Zuckerberg-disrupter Snapchat, which whom it started a soccer league. Washio did some hiring: engineers, an assistant for Metzner and drivers.

And it gets to feeling that it’s doing Good for society, you know, like this:

Washio does its part to sustain this delusion by pretending not to be a job. Every month, it throws a party for the ninjas, an open bar or a barbecue or bowling. “So they feel part of a community,” Metzner says.

Like the other enlightened start-ups it has modeled itself on, Washio would like to think of itself as making the world a better place, not just making a naked grab for market share. To that end, once a month the company brings clothing collected from customers by ninjas to a clothing drive organized by a nonprofit called Laundry Love.

“It’s really good,” says Nadler as we are driving back from a visit to the vast building where Washio gets its laundry done, largely by immigrants who are not invited to the open bars or barbecues. “It’s a bonding event for Washio-as-­culture,” he goes on. “It’s good press. And it’s useful because it makes it easier for our customers. You know, because people always have things they want to donate to Goodwill, but then you have to go, and you have to organize it, and you have this bag sitting around forever—” He catches himself and laughs. “Actually, it’s not really that big a deal.” 

It’s all very cute, I think. I wish them well. And we’ll continue doing our laundry the old-fashioned way: At home.

Pressler rightly calls what’s going on in what she describes as the cutthroat laundry-in-an-app business as the hedonistic treadmill: Why do something, some menial task, when you can pay someone else to do it? Well, aside from the fact that you can probably do it yourself cheaper, I mean, unless your time spent laundry is time you’d spend otherwise SAVING THE UNIVERSE by dressing up as a superhero to collect someone else’s laundry (read Pressler’s piece; it’s all there) or creating the NEXT BIG THING that is going to make you rich without getting your hands dirty – leave that to the immigrants who aren’t invited to your company’s feel-good events.

This is the $15 minimum wage argument all over again. Nobody’s time is worth what they think it is. While I’m at work, my time is worth what the company will pay me for. When I’m at home, my time is worth what I’ll pay for it, and if the pay I get for a half hour every night after the kids go to bed is to spend that half hour washing dishes, so be it. Unless there’s a company out there ready to swoop in to my neighborhood with a truck ready to haul my dishes to a warehouse full of immigrants who’ll wash it, sight unseen, well then, I’m all for it.

But of course I'm not. Sometimes my time is worth what I get paid as a technical writer. Sometimes it's worth nothing, as I'm doing chores at home, including washing those pesky dishes (I'm not allowed near the clothes washer).

The notion that our time, every precious second of it, is worth a set value in cold dollars is ludicrous. It's part of the overbusying of America. I only rent 40 hours a week to my job, and that's enough. What time I have outside of it is mine to spend as I will.

And it's not that I'm idling along. Between volunteering with the Boy Scouts of America and maintaining a house, I'm teaching an English class part-time and also editing a novel. I don't look at any of that time as worth a certain amount of money, nor do I look at any of the labor I do off the clock as a waste of my time because I'm not getting paid for it. That's silly.

So these little services that people think are valuable, well, they're valuable to some. But not to all, thank heaven, because there ought to be a few of us on the planet who know how to get our hands dirty.

See, there’s curbside recycling available in my town. And we recycle a lot. But we don’t pay the $5 a month for the service because once as month, as I’m driving to the credit union or Home Depot or something on another errand, I can drop the recyclables off at the city’s bins for free. I’m not so pretentious to think that my time is so valuable I have to pay someone else to come collect my plastic bottles and tin cans. I’m paying myself nothing to have a break from the time my time has value added, and that’s good enough for me.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Way too Late at the Movies: The Desolation of Smaug

Back in the late 1970s, the animation team of Rankin/bass produced a 77-minute version of JRR Tolkein's "The Hobbit" that I love to this day. So there's my foundation with Hobbit-based movies.

I loved Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring trilogy of films. Absolutely loved them. They established such a sense of awe and such a sense of place I think Tolkien would have been astonished. They were also (for the most part) faithful to character and story, with the exception of leaving out poor Tom Bombadil. So there's my foundation with Peter Jackson's films.

Way back at the dawnna time, I sorta knew when they said they were going to make a trilogy out of The Hobbit, it was gonna stink. There's just not enough story there. Then the phanbois kept telling me that Jackson and company were drawing on the Silmarillion to help fill in some bits of the story, and that gave me a bit of comfort.

Then I saw The Desolation of Smaug.

My impressions: The bits with the dragon are nice, if over long and having only a tenuous relationship with Tolkein's story.  But the rest of the film, well . . .

I am shocked at how much fluff is added to this film in the form of really dumb action/chase sequences (did we really need to see Legolas (and LEGOLAS?!) balancing on the heads of dwarves shooting at Orcs hunting the dwarves along the River Running (and ORCS?!)?

I know. They're playing to the folks who like the action. And that's fine. But they were LONG action sequences that did not stick with the story.

And then there's Beorn. My favorite part of the book, with Gandalf introducing the dwarves to the skin-changer a few at a time. Gone. Completely gone. And Beorn's character? Wooden. Why tried to make me care about him, oh, they did. But no. Nope. No care there. Even though I've read the book a thousand times and love his character. Worst mistake in this company since the elimination of Tom Bombadil.

And Mirkwood forest? No brains, no affection for this creepy forest (aside form Bilbo climbing and finding the black butterflies). Hallucinations? Don't remember that from the book. And didn't they get tracked off the path pursuing the elves? Not in the movie.

And the spiders. The spiders.

No cries of Attercop (well, you hear it muttered once, but other than that . . .) And none of the verbal taunting. NONE OF IT. Just another dumb action sequence and Bilbo fretting about the ring, which he never lost in Mirkwood. The verbal taunting by Bilbo is what sold that scene to me. Not the chasie-chasie after the ugly spiders. Phooey. Just another dumb action scene at the expense of a good part of the book they could have included (and made just as actioney) if they hadn't blown it completely.

Now we move on to the Kili/she-elf love story. I don't even remember her name BECAUSE SHE WASN'T IN THE BOOK. Nope, nope, nope. Don't cut material like the spiders and like Beorn at the expense of crapola you have to invent for the story. No, don't do it.

And what was up with Bilbo NOT wearing the ring during his interview with Smaug?

And what was up with the dwarves trying to kill the dragon in melted gold?

And what was up with . . . well, the whole movie.

Peter Jackson, I'm disappointed. You had a wonderful story to start with. Why add all the fluff? Was it studio pressure? It sure as hell wasn't pressure from Tolkien's fans, right? RIGHT?!

Now, the film has some wonderful scenes. The dragon is artfully rendered and acted. But there's no sense of awe at the abandoned dwarven kingdom, like we had in Moria. In fact, the whole of the interior of Erebor felt like an exploration of how can we get this dragon and the dwarves to interact.

Go back to the book: THEY DIDN'T INTERACT. Or very little.

The closest interaction they had was at the destruction of the secret door. Which, oopsie, they left out of the movie.

Yes, I'm a little disappointed.

Update: Round Four

So I got twelve chapters in before I noticed that in Round Three, I added a bit of foreshadowing (Chapter Twelve) that I don't really pay off as Doleful Creatures ends.

So, good thing Round Four is happening.

And it's a pretty good bit of foreshadowing which is going to require quite a bit of thinking as I continue Round Four. I've got a few rough ideas what the payoff will be, but as for placement and other ancillary bits of goop, I'm not sure yet where to put them. I'll keep working along and the proper place will present itself.

This episode is a good reminder of the following:

  1. Revise, revise, revise.
  2. Revise some more.
  3. Re-read what you write, after you've put it away for a while. Fresh eyes.
  4. Sketching out stories or doing character plots beforehand might be a good thing.
  5. They might be a bad thing, because getting too organized for a spontaneity session might reduce the number of times one feels compelled to re-read.
  6. Don't for the love of mike rely on just one author for writing advice. What works for them works for them, and it might not necessarily work for you. Read a lot of advice from a lot of different authors. Confirm a few of your biases -- because you know they work for you -- and learn something new.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

No Proxy, No Cry

Folks, I see where there's a lot of trouble out there with Firefox balking at loading scripts when one is trying to log on to Facebook. I spent a good portion of my day yesterday searching for a solution to the problem, to no avail.

Then I stumbled across a solution that nobody out there, not even the techies, were talking about. Not that them ignoring the solution is a big surprise, as I've written about earlier.

A caveat: I'm going to describe a solution that worked for me in a very specific set of circumstances. This may not work for you. If it does, and you have different circumstances than what I list here, please post a response to this entry so that others who come here might benefit from the hive mind.

First, my circumstances:

I needed to do a fresh install of Firefox due to a malware infestation (I won't go into details on that). Of course when you do a fresh install trying to clear out malware, you know you have to dump everything, including cookies, saved passwords, etc., leaving nothing of the former program on your computer.

Unfortunately when you do that, Firefox goes back to its default settings which screws things up.

First of all, the security certificate thing. After the reinstall, Firefox balked at every single webpage I went to, claiming the security certificate the pages offered were invalid. Even Google searches to find a solution were flagged. Went through that for hours.

Then I remembered a little bitty problem I'd had earlier, and remembered how to fix it.

First, go to the Firefox menu (in the version I have, current as of 5-17-2014, it's the three stacked lines in the upper right hand corner.

Next, go to Options.

Next, go to the Advanced Tab.

Under connection, there is the option to "Configure how Firefox connects to the Internet." Select the settings button. If you're on your own internet connection and ANYTHING but the "no proxy" radio button is selected, select "no proxy." Save changes, exit out, and the problems, both the security settings and the blanking out on Facebook, are solved.

For a long, boring discussion on what proxies are, go here.

Tech typically fails to explain the why to the layman; this is about typical of what I've read. Anyone else out there willing to explain things in plain English without condescending to the unwashed masses?

Part of the tech-related problem I see in this situation is that those in the know tech-wise seem to connect incorrectly to key words that those seeking help are using -- and it's not that they're using the words incorrectly. One person seeking help, for instance, mentioned that his problem seemed to crop up on sites where Flash content was present -- YouTube, etc. The problem he was describing sounded similar to mine, but his mention of Flassh sent all the techs down Flash-related rabbit holes that did nothing to solve my problem nor the problem of the original poster (as evidenced by his frustrated replies to their advice).

Problem is they're probably not techs responding -- just someone with enough knowledge to be dangerous and unhelpful in most situations. I can't imagine real techs puttering about the Internet answering questions from the unwashed souls who find themselves on the desolate shores of desperation.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Making Wood Badge Work

As much as we generally despise working in groups, there’s no way out of it. Group work, whether the group is a classroom full of students or smaller groups within a larger group (be it a class, a Scout group, a teaching group, etc.) is unavoidable. Learning how groups work, however, can help us as facilitators and group members know when to guide and when to step back to let the group work on its own. 

In Wood Badge training – adult leadership training offered by the Boy Scouts of America -- we talk a lot about the model of group development proposed by psychology professor Bruce Tuckman in 1965. He proposes teams go through four stages of group development:
  1. Forming. In this stage, the group is getting to know each other, trying to sort out roles and responsibilities. Enthusiasm is high, but productivity is relatively low.
  2. Storming. In this stage, the ideas start coming out, but as there is little unity of purpose, conflicts arise. Rival factions may form. Enthusiasm starts to drop while production slowly begins to grow.
  3. Norming. In this stage, the team’s rivalries ease. They agree upon rules and values, and know what their individual contributions will be. Enthusiasm and productivity increase.
  4. Performing. In this stage, confidence and motivation increase alongside communication, collaboration and respect. Enthusiasm is high and productivity is high.

Some groups move through the early stages (forming and storming) faster than others. Some may skip the storming phase completely. Some may never leave the storming phase. Some groups may reach the final stage and then revert to an earlier stage as conditions change. What can cause conditions to change?
  • A new member is introduced to the group.
  • The group leader is somehow unable to perform in that role any longer.

What can we do as facilitators?

The best thing to do is to talk to the groups firsthand, before any group work is needed, about Tuckman’s stages of group development. Facilitators can prepare groups for the various stages, pointing out along the way, “Okay, you’re in the storming phase right now. You’re going to have differences of opinion. Keep looking for ways to resolve your differences.” Facilitators may decide to step in to, for example, help clarify roles and responsibilities or to help the group see the good points and bad points of proposed ideas. The best thing we can do is to offer fresh perspective, and then to step back to see how the group reacts to those perspectives. We do not take over. We offer suggestions and then step back to ensure the group comes up with the solution that best fits them.

In conjunction with group development, it’s helpful for facilitators to recognize how leadership works.

In their book “The Invisible Gorilla,” psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons outline a study in which research discovers that leaders tend to be leaders not because they’re competent, but because they were the first to speak up. They say (emphasis mine): 

They became leaders by force of personality rather than strength of ability. Before starting the group task [solving a series of math problems from the GMAT test], the participants completed a short questionnaire designed to measure how “dominant” they tended to be. Those people with the more dominant personalities tended to become the leaders. How did the dominant individuals become the group leaders even though they were no better at math? Did they bully the others into obeying, shouting down the meek but intelligent group members? Did they campaign for the role, persuading others that they were the best at math, or at least the best at organizing their group? Not at all. The answer is almost absurdly simple: They spoke first. For 94 percent of the problems, the group’s final answer was the first answer anyone suggested, and people with dominant personalities just tend to speak first and more forcefully. 

So in this experiment, group leadership was determined largely by confidence. People with dominant personalities tend to exhibit greater confidence, and due to the illusion of confidence, others tend to trust and follow people who speak with confidence. If you offer your opinion early and often, people will take your confidence as an indicator of ability, even if you are actually no better than your peers. The illusion of confidence keeps the cream blended in. Only when confidence happens to be correlated with actual competence will the most able person rise to the top.

So what does this mean for us as facilitators?

Inevitably, group work leads to two basic conflicts, communicated to us most likely through a private email:

Our leader isn’t doing his/her job.
My team members aren’t doing their jobs.

The first invariably comes from team members. The second, from team leaders. Going back to what Chabris and Simons say in their study, we find the answer to each question.

The answer to both questions is this: Get to know your team members.

Recognize first of all that the leader’s competency may likely lie in their confidence and your trust in that confidence. They’re not necessarily natural leaders. They need input. But not just any kind of input. They need gentle, persuasive input. If, for example, you’re worried your team leader isn’t managing group meetings effectively, suggest to them a way to organize meetings in a way that shows you’re not taking their job, but wanting to lift a burden off their shoulders. Present a plan and then ask, “What do you think?”

For team leaders, knowing the abilities of each team member is key in getting things done. Assigning the job of contacting team members to the quietest person in the group may not be the best idea, while handing the job to a gregarious person would be better. Some team members will be self-starters and will resent constant reminders. Others will need those reminders, many more than you feel necessary. They may need verbal reminders, Or written reminders. Or a reminder to come from a different team member with whom they have a better relationship.

This is a daunting task given the rush of things we have to complete in our courses, and is why I’ve chosen this as a long-term goal as I continue teaching at BYU-Idaho. But this at least gives me a framework on which I can build.

I write more about their “Invisible Gorilla” studies here.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Round Four Begins!

While I wait for a small handful of pseudo beta readers to ply their magical trade on my novel, I start Round Four of editing myself. Because, as is said in the movie “Babe,” there are ideas that tickle and nag and refuse to go away – for in them lie the seeds of destiny.

Doleful Creatures isn’t going away. When I have an idle moment, I recall fond memories of editing in Round Three. Yes, fond memories. That sounds weird. But I take that as a good sign.

And even better, as I toil away on this book: Other books that I’ve written are crying out for attention as well. Maybe there is something to this writing thing.

The big edit so far, just a few pages in: I’m still mixing my verb tenses. That’s not a good thing. But with every edit, I’m catching more and more of these errors, and fixing them.

And maybe this time through, the story will be better.

This is all rather inspirational. Though part of me is feeling like this right now:

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

My wife sent me the following email and png image today:

I'm trying to understand the techie website, but I've landed on sites that make nooooo sense in their "great debates" over the background containers. Should I allow this change, or shouldn't I? (see attached picture)

From the get-go, the deck is stacked heavily against Joe and Jane Computer User.

First of all, tell me what any of Spybot Search and Destroy’s message means, other than that some program wants to change an important registry entry. And the challenge for the tech folks who know what this means is to do the following:

1.      Explain why this is a bad thing/good thing.
2.      Explain why in plain English.
3.      Explain how to fix things in plain English.
4.      Use plain English.

Not like this.

Or heaven forbid this.

More like this.

And this also is pretty good, though the first is better since it at least gives me a vague why (“has been known to cause problems”).

Note neither is a mirror image of the error encountered; some level of Google-fu combined with faith is required to make the leap from one item to the other.

I’m looking at this from multiple perspectives. I am first of all a computer user, and have long despaired over the technobabble that’s so prevalent in computers. I understand there is a need for jargon and verbal shortcuts in any industry, but where your industry interfaces with the non-techie public, that jargon has to be dropped and/or explained in ways that the ordinary Joe can understand what you’re going on about and, more importantly, why he or she should be concerned about this error message – if indeed it is an error – and what should be done to fix things or prevent those vague problems in the future.

That’s where my second perspective enters: I’m a technical writer, charged with making sure that technical stuff is comprehended, followed, and accurate when we get to the nuts and bolts of the jargon I have to help my users decipher.

And that’s where the problem lies – very few in the tech world are willing to take the time to explain the why. And yet they roll their eyes at folks like us who don’t know enough to know when there’s a potential problem.

Yes, we’re dumb for blindly clicking yes or OK to whatever pops up on our screen. We should err on the side of caution. But the tech world is also dumb for not taking much effort to explain their knowledge in plain English. Take the folks at Spybot, for example. Telling me that some program wants to change the registry is only the first step. Why not arm me with a little knowledge before I have to click the accept or deny buttons? And, yes, Spybot is a free program. If I want better information, I should pay for it, right? Techies don’t have the time to plug in a brief explanation, do they?

Well, they do. They just won’t do it. It’s more lucrative to guard that knowledge, to be sure. Why offer better advice for free when that better advice can be boiled down to “Just bring your computer in and I’ll fix it.”

As a technical writer I'm probably being a bit too harsh on these folks. After all, they can't anticipate their audience will include noobs as well as those with the technical expertise commensurate with the given data. However, as these things are all posted on the Internet I know as a technical writer that these individuals, by posting, have lost control of who their audience is. You never know who is going to come in to your post or forum and ask a question. Thus the hostilities among the techies and the noobs -- a noob comes in to a techie forum, asks a question, and is summarily mocked and dismissed because they didn't realize this was a technical forum. And the mockers are giving their own profession or vocation a black eye by responding poorly to the newbie question.

Yes, you deserve to make money. I know I do as a technical writer. But as a technical writer I’m willing to let you know, for free, that most of you are driving your audience to blindly ckicking OK because you won’t arm us with even a smidgen of knowledge. And the majority of the knowledge you offer is, to put it bluntly, useless.