The trouble with social networks is that there’s always people on the other end, and people are a problem.
I recently put an old jogging stroller — jogging… stroller, jogging stroller, jumbo shrimp — up on Craigslist and had a completely wonderful experience: creating the ad was fast, easy, secure, anonymous and free. I was contacted by several interested local parties over the next day. I schedule a time with the first, great, and they would stop by after work.
And that, of course, was where things went wrong. The system breaks down as soon contact with other people is required.
They poked it and prodded it and wheeled it around and put their children in it and took them out and put them back in and fretted that it was too wide and wondered if the tires were still any good despite all the poking and prodding and wheeling and took their children out. And then they started over. Twice. And then they hemmed and hawed about how their third child — yet unconceived — would fit into it. And it took them thirty freakin’ minutes to decide if they wanted a perfectly serviceable stroller for less than a third of the retail price. And then they offered $40 instead of the $50 I listed it for. And then they paid in fives and ones and a handful freakin’ Sacajawea dollars.
And come on. This was a beautiful transaction right up until it involved human contact. Is there anybody out there working to fix this problem? With something other than a gun?
The best resume I ever got, in response to an ad for a programmer, was from a guy who listed four years at the counter of a Taco Bell as his most relevant previous position. Because I was looking for “client-server experience.”
After I pulled up to the order board at the McDonald’s drive-through and listened to the perky pre-recorded greeting and gave my order to the actual surly employee and re-gave my order to the actual surly employee and clarified my order to the actual surly employee, he said, “Would you like to donate a dollar to the kids with cancer?”
Which is a tough pitch to turn down. It makes it sound like the kids with cancer are right there with him, dew-eyed and hopeful. And there I am, waiting for my five bucks worth of grease and suger, and I can’t even be bothered to toss them the change.
But it turns out he actually means, “Would you like to donate about seventy cents to McDonald’s corporate PR effort, wherein some kids with cancer are helped?” Which is somewhat less compelling.
Besides, I try to keep my cancer-curing and cancer-getting distinct, to avoid increasing the already dangerous levels of irony I’m exposed to.
When you think about it, the Rebel blockade runner did a pretty wretched job of actually running a blockade.
I recently bought a four-pack of Play-Doh — big plans for the weekend — at my local Toys R Us and received, along with my purchase, over a foot and a half of receipt. That comes out to almost an inch of paper for every dime I spent. Here it is, broken down by height in inches:
|Feedback invitation, “$200 weekly sweepstakes”||1.00|
|“See our website for complete rules”||0.50|
|Spanish with character encoding problems, “espanÂ¿ol”||0.50|
|“SAVE ALL RECEIPTS”||0.25|
|Phone and address||0.25|
|Requirement of receipt for returns||0.50|
|Inscrutable internal codes||0.75|
|Item description, cost and UPC||0.25|
|Subtotal, tax, total, tender and change||1.00|
|Bar code and receipt number||0.75|
|Thank you and URL||0.25|
|Recall information and job opportunities||0.25|
|Notice of return policy||0.25|
|Gift Receipt Portion|
|“SAVE ALL RECEIPTS”||0.25|
|Phone and address||0.25|
|Requirement of receipt for returns||0.50|
|Inscrutable internal codes||0.75|
|”**** GIFT RECIEPT ****”||0.25|
|Item description, UPC and tax rate||1.00|
|”**** GIFT RECIEPT ****”||0.25|
|Mislabeled “TOTAL” with receipt number||0.25|
|Gift receipt explanation||1.00|
|Bar code and receipt number||0.75|
|Thank you and URL||0.25|
|Recall information and job opportunities||0.25|
|Notice of return policy||0.25|
Another recent receipt from Home Depot — for a screw that cost less than a buck — was twelve and a half inches long. A weekly shopping trip to Ralphs leaves us with a couple of feet of receipt.
And all of them have that pink stripe, because the damned paper tape roll is always running out.
People — actual human beings, those fleshy things that keep trying to talk to me as I type — confuse and frighten me.
They’re complicated, these “people” things. They don’t follow the rules that I’m used to. Causality — A leads to B leads to C — is something that happens just enough to mess me up, and f(x) — where f is a person and x is any given situation — equals pretty much whatever the hell it wants to. You can play Hunt the Wumpus with the black-box of other people’s personalities all you want, but the arrow is just as likely to hit you in the ass as come out the other side. And as badly as you want to take the top of people’s heads off and root around until you find the bug, you’re only going to get arrested if you try it. Trust me.
And so I’ve spent recent years trying to come up with rules of thumb to try to explain and understand human behavior. Not algorithms — nothing so precise — but general theories to go by, pre-calculated crutches that I can lean on when I get in trouble. Which usually happens as soon as I open my mouth. Why is everybody suddenly looking awkward? What I said? It was a joke!
One rule that I use is the Value Proposition. It’s a marketing term that I’ve always dismissed as a marketing term: “Our integrated service-provider solutions offer a premium value proposition.”
But taken in a larger context, meaning can actually be squeezed out of the phrase — a first for a marketing term, as far as I know: A value proposition is the sum of what each party in a relationship brings to an exchange, enumerated to allow for a more precise evaluation than would otherwise be available.
This isn’t just a seller-buyer thing, as it’s usually used. A value proposition can be calculated — in some rough degree — between the participants in any relationship: commercial, emotional, managerial, whatever. I offer A, B and C; you offer D, E and F and if they zero-sum pretty well, hey, we’ve got a deal. Let’s get married!
(For any actual human beings reading this, that shudder that just went up your spine is called “the creeps.” But this article isn’t for you, you socially functioning whole, you. It’s for me and people like me, for whom the ability to quantify something makes it both comprehensible and comfortable. We view the world differently than you and your innate understanding of emotional trade-offs. So you can take your butt and withdraw it 1.56 meters.)
By defining relationships in terms of the value exchanged, you can (again roughly) determine their fairness. By line-iteming what’s exchanged between two parties, it’s easier to tell if that exchange is a good deal for both of you. The whole complicated array of human interaction can be broken down into smaller pieces, evaluated, and then reassembled with a greater understanding of what’s actually going on. Yes, it’s mechanical. Yes, it’s emotionally obtuse. Yes, it attempts to reduce the endless variations of how people deal with each other — in every context — to a small set of easily-digested bullet-points. But that’s why it works with brains that do that same sort of thing all day, every day. Ideally, it’s the less-messy equivalent of taking the tops off of heads. It’s certainly easier than the Sisyphean task of actually trying to figure people out.
So what can you do with a value-proposition-based view of relationships? You can evaluate them is what, and then act on that evaluation.
So, here, an example of how this nonsense can help you better understand a situation: Let’s say that you’ve got some vague notion that your relationship with your employer is unfair. What does that mean? It probably means that you’re grumpy, depressed, less than spectacularly productive. But the reasons are all tied up in the mush of spastic emotional response. How do you evaluate the cause of this feeling, in a way that can actually be used in a discussion? “Unhappy” is not a negotiating position. How do you tell if it’s something you should act on (as your gut says) or if you should shut your pie-hole and get back to your job (as your boss might offer)? How can you quantify the feeling, to do something useful with it?
Put it in terms of a value proposition. Let’s assume that when you were hired, both you and the company figured that each was getting a good deal. That’s why you hooked up in the first place. You were going to get a decent salary, a culture that looked attractive, some solid benefits and a shot at doing work you enjoyed. They were going to get a good programmer who could clean up the mess the previous clowns left and sell the result to fund their endless need for hookers or cocaine or whatever it is they do with all the money. OK, great.
Now, a couple of years later, you’re unhappy. Why? If you’re actually a programmer, the answer to that question is probably “I dunno. Emotions confuse me. I’m going to play some Team Fortress now. Maybe the problem will go away after I’m done.” It’s just a feeling. Things seem… off. Unfair, in a vague, ill-defined way. So let’s re-evaluate the value proposition that got you into this mess in the first place.
In the past couple of years, your value to the company has gone up: You now know the systems, and have been contributing solid code, shipped some good products. You’re better educated in the business, and have good relationships with various contacts in other departments. You do your job more efficiently and more intelligently than the stumbling noob who wandered in the door a while back.
The company’s value to you may have gone up as well: they’re paying you more, presumably. And. Um. What else?
Maybe the business has boomed, but your salary hasn’t. Maybe corporate culture has tightened up, and it’s a much less fun place to work. Maybe you’re now doing work that you don’t enjoy as much. Maybe by making this paragraph in the second person I can pretend that I’m not nearly as self-absorbed as I actually am.
And so maybe the company’s value to you has actually gone down. You’re giving more and getting less. Someone changed to rules while you were busy working. That vague feeling of “unfairness” stems from this now-unequal value proposition. You’ve quantified it, in admittedly crude terms, but at least now you have a list of things that explain the feeling.
This is just one example, of course. But the same rules apply to every relationship — yes, even the bodily-fluid exchanging ones. If you’re putting more into something than you’re getting out — how’s that for a seamless transition from the phrase “bodily fluids”? — at some profound level, you’re going to be unhappy. Don’t be afraid to re-evaluate. It keeps things healthy. It’s a check-up. “Is this actually worth it?” is not a bad question to ask on regular intervals.
Of course, simply re-evaluating a value proposition does nothing to actually fix the situation. It just gives you a tool for pausing and summing things up, for breaking a messy emotion down into coherent, calculable pieces and then building it back up into a course of action. But once you’ve decided that a situation is unfair, you’ve got to actually do something about it.
Ignoring the various shades of gray that are produced by such a messy, non-digital process, there are three possible outcomes of a re-evaluation of a value proposition: fair, unfair in your favor and unfair in the other side’s favor.
If you think things are fair, terrific. You’re probably not having to deal with all those sticky, unhappy emotions that everyone else is mired in, and can go back to what you really enjoy, which is ignoring those confusing and frightening “people” things. Good for you.
If things are unfair in your favor, you may be tempted just to hunker down and enjoy the spoils. But that’s short-sighted, because the other side is re-evaluating, too, in that automatic and on-going way that normal people have. They can process any number of emotional or confrontational situations without any special effort and then inevitably burp up a decision: You’re fired. You’re dumped. You’re — in an admittedly extreme case — trussed up in a burlap sack and dropped out of an airplane. If something has prompted you to re-evaluate a value proposition and you find that you’re not living up to your end of the bargain, you should seriously consider fixing the situation, if the relationship has any value to you. Do your fair share. Everybody really does end up happier that way.
If — as is most likely given that you’ve slogged this far in what’s turning out to be a very long essay — things are unfair in the other guy’s favor, you have a few options, all of which involve further human interaction and are therefore unpleasant.
You can ask the other party — your employer, your significant other, your friend, the counter guy at the deli — to raise their value proposition. It’s easiest in the case of employers because you simply walk into your boss’s office and make the case for a change — a raise, a new position in the company, whatever — but the same general principle applies to all your relationships. I want more, and here is why I think I deserve it. Simple.
If it’s your significant other you’re doing this with, do not do it by e-mail. Seriously.
If the other party isn’t willing to give more — or, more likely, isn’t willing to give enough — then you have two further options: You can either lower your value proposition in response or you can simply end the relationship. I’m not sure which is harder.
It’s tough for geeks to dial back how they work. It’s not natural. The work we do is the reason we exist and to spend the day dawdling is both counter-intuitive and may very well further lower the company’s value to you. “Work less hard, not less smart” is a pretty lame motto. I mean, you can only write so many blog posts on company time.
And so we’re left with ending it, walking away. This is the thing I personally find the hardest to do, but it is ultimately how all bad relationships end up anyway. I’ve stayed at every job I’ve ever had a year too long. I’ve clung to less than optimal personal relationships for fore more time than is healthy. I’ve made the mistake of offering more in situations where I felt I wasn’t getting enough back, and down that roads lies both madness and Dr. Phil, neither of which fits well into my life.
The exercise of breaking things down into a value proposition makes getting past the emotion-clogged hump of actually doing something about gnawing feelings of unfairness a little easier, a little more comprehensible. Sometimes that means the end of the relationship. Sometimes it means coasting a while. Sometimes it means getting more — up to and including what you actually need — back from the other side. Almost always it means moving on from being unhappy, from feeling cheated or treated unfairly, to something, well, different, anyway. Hopefully better.
When all is said and done — and I swear we’re close now — the value proposition is just a tool to help you evaluate your relationships, with your employer, with your mate, with your friends, with your family. These are some of the most important — and therefore difficult — relationships you will have in your life. Having a tool, no matter how crude, to fall back on when things get confusing is essential.
Because, God, those “people” things aren’t going to suddenly start making sense.
There is no small measure of irony in the fact that, as the American corporation — that perfectly evolved species of ravenous capitalism — grows, it resembles nothing so much as the Soviet Union circa 1954.
Last week, I spent an hour of my life in a summary meeting of the internal data security Core Team ahead of a report to the Steering Committee ahead of a report to the central Project Prioritization Committee. The PPC will then create Steering and Core teams to define the long-term plan, which will then report back to the PPC, which will then create Steering and Core teams to implement the plan.
Sometimes parenthood feels like an eighteen year Kobayashi Maru.
Driving home the other day, I was listening to one of those overly-earnest interviews they do on NPR — with someone who is spending his life doing something that doesn’t involve driving home listening to NPR — when I heard Outlook’s new-message “ding!” The interviewee was obviously sitting next to his computer and some mail had just arrived. The ding was on the radio.
But I still took my hand off the steering wheel and reached for the mouse.
This Thanksgiving, Remember: Keep American Immigrant-Free! Tancredo in ‘08!
gravel2008.us? Was the .com Already Taken? Come On!
Huckabee, Buckabee, Me Mi Mo Muckabee, Banana Fanna Fo Fu— No, Wait
KCRW, the NPR station in Santa Monica, is giving away screener tickets to a new movie to their subscribers, and the pitch ran like this:
Be among the first to see the movie that has audiences across the country cheering.
Neil Kinnock Joe Biden for President!
In “The God Delusion,” part of Richard Dawkins purpose is to do away with Stephen Jay Gould’s “Non-Overlapping Magisteria,” or the idea that science and religion are “non-overlapping” areas of study. Dawkins wants to establish that there are no questions that are outside the purview of science, or no ultimately answerable questions anyway:
It is a tedious cliche … that science concerns itself with how questions, but only theology is equipped to answer why questions.
Perhaps there are some genuinely profound and meaningful questions that are forever beyond the reach of science. … But if science cannot answer some ultimate questions, what makes anybody think that religion can? … I have yet to see any good reason to suppose that theology (as opposed to biblical history, literature, etc.) is a subject at all.
But during this passage, Dawkins also brings up a third magisteria, one that overlaps neither what is largely held to be the purview of science or religion: stupid questions.
[N]ot every English sentence beginning with the word “why” is a legitimate question. Why are unicorns hollow? Some questions simply do not deserve an answer. What is the colour of abstraction? What is the smell of hope? The fact that a question can be phrased in a grammatically correct English sentence doesn’t make it meaningful, or entitle it to our serious attention.
But given Dawkins’ disdain for the theological magisteria, and the attention it has been granted over the millennia anyway, I think that a huge opportunity presents itself here. Just because something is stupid, doesn’t mean that it can’t make lots and lots of money. Just as scientists claim dominion over their magisteria, and theologians claim dominion over theirs, a huge and empty space is left for the stupid questions. Who claims dominion over them?
Starting now, I do. I declare myself the world’s primary expert in questions so stupid that they lack any sort of meaning other than reasonably correct grammar.
I hereby also demand co-equal attention with the other magisteria. If there’s a debate to be had about evolution and both science and religion are represented, then so should stupid questions, in the person of me. If government money is to be divided between science and religious (“faith-based”) functions, then meaningless twaddle should get a share of the loot. And any news story from a supposedly objective source must now include the perspective of the ridiculously idiotic to be considered impartial. I’m available for quotes and press-shoots by request.
Why is a unicorn hollow? Since there is no such thing as a unicorn, it obviously cannot be filled with unicorn guts, because without unicorns there can be no unicorn guts. Therefore, it must be hollow.
What is the color of abstraction? A sort of mauvey shade of pinky russet.
What is the smell of hope? Like wet feet. You wouldn’t want anything to do with it. Seriously.
Like an explorer who has stumbled across a new continent, I have only managed to claim this vast wilderness for myself, not explored it yet. I can’t help but think that there are treacherous dangers and untold riches yet to be found. And if, like most continents, this one is already populated, I’ll have to get on with the business of killing everybody so I can have it all to myself.
So it is done: I hereby declare myself the single and ultimate authority on really stupid nonsense. I’m also accepting applications for acolytes and/or undergrads who want to get in on the action early.
If You Liked Ross Perot, You’ll Love Ron Paul! Oh. Wait. You Didn’t Like Ross Perot?
Will you please push your hair out of your faces? God! It’s driving me crazy. You know how when someone else coughs, you suddenly need to cough, too? Every time I see one of you drape-faced goobers, my face starts to itch, like I’ve got something brushing against my cheek.
Greetings, Earthlings! Splurn Meebzor! Dennis Kucinich for Primary Citizen!
You know those stick figures that people glue to the back windows of their cars, showing their family? Dad, Mom, Little Bobby, Scruffy and Bubbles?
They’re much less saccharine if you think of them as “kills.”
Hunter in ‘08: Because Proto-Fascists Deserve Representation, Too!
“Give up in despair” is a plan that always works.
The other night, I was in Home Depot, buying some damned thing in a futile attempt to keep the house from falling down, when I came across the flowers. Bouquets. In Home Depot. Flowers.
Someone is a genius.
Three types — small mixed, large mixed and roses — all fresh (enough) and pretty and all, sitting right there with the wall-plate screws and drills and plaster. Of course I bought one.
You see these convenience pitches more and more often — snacks in Kinkos, banks in supermarkets — where something is put somewhere it doesn’t belong, just because it’s going to trigger your feeble, deflated memory. You say, “Hey… I need that” and you pay a premium for it and everybody ends up happy. Bouquets in Home Depot. For the absent-minded jackass. Perfect.
Now if I could just buy an anniversary gift in Team Fortress 2, I’d be set.
Dodd for Presiden— Hey! What the Hell is So Funny?
It was inevitable that someone, at some point, would hand me a badly Xeroxed sheet of paper with a quote about “attitude” on it and suggest that I “really think about it.” I’m sort of surprised that it doesn’t happen more often.
Here’s what it said:
“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company… a church… a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice very day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past… we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude… I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you… we are in charge of our Attitudes.”
To which the only possible response — made more interesting by the fact that it was my boss who gave me the Xerox — is: What a steaming load of horseshit.
The logic of this quote is stunning, the same way that a metal bolt shot into the back of a cow’s head, stupefying it into unconsciousness before slaughter, is stunning. Not to go all reductio ad absurdum, but come on — if only starving children or enslaved laborers or the billions of people trapped into lives of discomfort, pettiness or simple cruelty could look on the bright side, well then, they would be so much better off! The way the sun glints off the blood of my family is particularly lovely this morning.
This “attitude” nonsense is pernicious, the unholy combination of Nietzschian will-to-power and Up with People. Of course a Christian minister like Charles Swindoll advocates ignoring the evidence of the physical world, because it’s the foundation that his entire life is built on. But for the rest of us, those who don’t make a living by convincing people that the misery they feel is their own fault, it doesn’t quite cut the mustard, epistemologically speaking.
And while I hesitate to make the jump from abject human suffering to corporate America — because of the multiple orders-of-magnitude differences in scale, and because the joke is too cheap — the latter is where I’ve had most of my contact with Attitude Fascists. And the same fundamental ground rules apply: Your unhappiness is your own fault. Accept your environment for what it is, because there’s nothing you can do about it. Get back to work, you.
But that’s wrong — massively, monumentally, fundamentally wrong. Sorry, Charles Swindoll, but you are mistaken. Perhaps your distain for the facts plays into it somewhere.
Environmental factors — from the availability of food and shelter to a corporate culture that encourages customization of work spaces — are the primary determinants of happiness: morale, satisfaction, not seeing your children eaten by alligators, whatever name you want to give it. I can’t pretend to provide a comprehensive survey of thought on the subject, but the information is everywhere — from theological humanism to Peopleware. There’s just too much out there, hardly any of it on badly Xeroxed pieces of paper.
But what strikes me as the single most significant distinction between an environmental and an attitudinal adjustment towards happiness is its moral component. Saying that my own unhappiness is a result of my attitude puts the entire burden on me to change, while placing the responsibility on the environment puts the burden on the community that creates that environment. Swindoll tries to turn the sole and stand-alone responsibility for self-actualization into a benefit when, in fact, it’s his abdication of collective responsibility that stands out: your attitude is your problem, and it’s up to you and you alone to deal with it. I don’t believe that “Get away from me, boy, you bother me” was the intended message of Christianity.
The same rules apply in the corporate setting: the company holds no responsibility for your attitude. It’s something you need to fix, and fix before your next review. But by limiting someone’s ability to control their environment — to adjust it, tweak it, correct it — you are also limiting their ability to control their attitude. Attitudinal adjustments can be made, yes, superficially, profoundly or pharmacologically, but Sindoll’s 10/90 ratio is nearly exactly backwards. Attitude is not conjured out of the ether — it’s a reaction to the physical world we inhabit, the day-to-day trials that we face, be they hunger or pain or endless meetings or broken workflows or being promoted into the wrong job.
We live in a society where it is not only our option but our obligation to correct an environment we find objectionable — “the pursuit of happiness” is perhaps the most striking phrase of our founding document. The whole idea of America is that we can define the terms of our own happiness, through community consensus and collective responsibility.
Of course, corporations are not democracies and their founding documents are more likely to contain phrases like “synergic solutions for the value-oriented consumer.” But they have perhaps an even more compelling reason to accept the fundamental role that environment plays in happiness than the pinnacle of human political achievement: profit. Study after study has shown that happy workers are productive workers and productive workers make more money for their capitalistic overlords. Is standardizing on Internet Explorer really worth more than that?
It’s not easy, of course, or cheap, but the power of collective responsibility for a collective environment is beyond question. It benefits everyone: the country, the company, citizens, stockholders. Even, yes, employees. Corporate federalism can have the same impact that political federalism has. We just need to embrace it.
How’s that for attitude?
Keyes for Insane 14th Century Despot! Or Whatever You Have That’s Close!
The other day, I passed a car that had a “What You Do With Jesus Christ Determines Where You Spend Eternity” bumper sticker and, like most bumper stickers and the philosophies that fit on them, it was distressingly short on specifics. So I did some research — man, Google is getting good — and came up with the following definitive, ecclesiastically guaranteed resolutions to various behaviors:
|Stuff and mount over fireplace||Barstow, CA|
|Get to second base||Freezer of a 7-Eleven|
|Eat (non-transmogrified version)||Bathroom|
|Hang out, maybe play some video games||Jesus’s parents’ den|
|Use as the subject of smug, morally superior bumper stickers||Hell|
|Embrace as the Savior||Dead, just like everybody else|
The other day, on “Morning Edition,” Cokie Roberts was discussing changes in poll numbers when she uttered the greatest line of Hillary Clinton-based political commentary in the history of the world:
There certainly is statistically significant shrinkage for her.
NPR is much more fun if you listen to it dirty.
I cooked dinner last night, and discovered that I don’t so much cut up a chicken as desecrate the corpse.
Edwards in ‘08: White, Male, Southern, Great Hair — What the Hell Else Do You People Want? Huh? Huh?
What I want is an anti-vaccine, something that’s finally going to get me sick. Instead of preventing illness by immunizing me, the anti-vaccine would have just enough virus to finally overwhelm my immune system and push me over the edge into the flu.
I’ve been zombie-walking through the past week, not quite sick enough to stay home and not nearly well enough to form coherent sentences or bacon spackle rudder spank. Instead of pushing through, being half-sick and addle-brained, I want to take a pill, burrow into bed, and suck it up, comfortable in the knowledge that I’m finally too goddamned ill to even try to get anything done.
I’d also settle for a pill that made me feel better, but called my boss and told him I wasn’t going to be in anyway.
Paragraph T.2.1.2 (b) of the