The Road To Hana, Southern Version

Howard on AntarcticaOn the southeast edge of the Hawaiian isle of Maui, there is a little town called Hana. It sits at the end of a road so twisting and serpentine that even drivers get carsick on the way there. The journey is said to be worth it, as Hana boasts an idyllic place called the Seven Sacred Pools.

I’ve driven the road to Hana. I never did find the Seven Sacred Pools. All I found was a grubby general store and a beach that didn’t look any different than any other municipal beach in the islands. The journey was not worth it.

In fact, I suspect that somewhere along the way, someone in Hana came up with the brilliant idea of marketing this little blip on the map as some sort of special destination, even though it’s not. They bamboozled people into visiting, but because everyone who realized that they’d been bamboozled upon arrival didn’t want to admit it, the mystique of Hana continues to spread.

I bring this up because we just got back from the southern hemisphere’s version of Hana, which is otherwise known as Antarctica.

Instead of a curvy road, to get to Antarctica, you must traverse a channel of water known as Drake’s Passage, a journey that can take far longer than driving to Hana – usually about two days. Drake’s Passage is where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Pacific Ocean, and hence is some of the roughest water in the world. Bring your Bonine, your Dramamine, your Sea-Bands, your Scopolamine patches – bring it all, and they still may not be enough.

Now, some disclosure here – we may have chosen the wrong cabin on our ship. We may have exceptionally weak constitutions. We may just be wimps. There were some people on our Antarctica journey who claimed not to use any seasickness medication at all, and I salute them. But Monica and I were flat on our backs in our cabin in two days southbound and two days northbound.

We couldn’t read. We couldn’t watch television. We couldn’t eat. We couldn’t do anything that involved being vertical or focusing on an immobile object at close or middle distance.

Admittedly, at times it felt what I imagine a magic carpet would feel like, floating over waves of air as it traverses a Middle Eastern fantasy kingdom. At other times, it felt more like a rollercoaster. More frequently, it felt like that scene at the beginning of Beverly Hills Cop where the truck is banging into cars on the streets of Detroit and thrashing them around like toys. Every time the ship hit another wave, there was another bang. We felt like the cars. It was hard to remember at that point that we had actually paid someone to let us to do this.

At this point, you probably suspect the twist. We got to Antarctica. I was finally able to say I’d been on all seven continents (see photo). It wasn’t like Hana. It was stunning. The vistas of white ice and blue sky were unlike anything we’d ever seen. The air smelled cleaner than anything we’d inhaled in our entire lives. The huts of the military and scientific outposts were hauntingly isolated. The seals were majestic. The penguins, even when they leaned forward a tad and propelled eighteen inches of liquefied shit out their butts, were irrevocably cute.

All that may have been true. The cruise may have been wholly memorable, in the way that the voyages of the Titanic, the Costa Concordia, and the Hindenburg were undeniably memorable. All I can really say without fear of contradiction is that a trip to Antarctica is indeed a once-in-a-lifetime journey … because only a moron would do it a second time.

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Not The Visionary I Thought I Was

Many years ago, Hewlett-Packard produced a promotional video on the future of computing that even then featured an astonishing gaffe. As the narrator talked about everything computers would be able to do in the 21st century, the person onscreen took out a paper agenda and updated his schedule. Really? No.

But now, as we’re actually living in the years that the video purported to envision, I’ve discovered that I’ve made similarly clunky assumptions. Several years ago, wanting to make my home office a marvel of efficiency, I bought in a friend who did both design and fine woodworking to create my dream workspace.

I took a room that had probably been designed as a child’s bedroom – it had a closet, after all – but was better suited for a playroom or a den. Don’t tell the Internal Revenue Service, but I had him create shelves for my collection of toy cars: 1:18, 1:25, and 1:43 scale replicas of the hulking, finned behemoths our parents drove in elementary school. My great-nephews think my office is a toy store.

But here’s where I went wrong: I asked him to design in plenty of space for files. Under two sides of the desk: drawers, some with racks for hanging files, some design to hold office equipment. I had him do the same in the closet: create huge file drawers. Just a smidgen into the 21st century, it is already anachronistic, every bit as much as that video.

After all, who uses paper anymore? Not me. While I still have magazines from the late 20th and early 21st century, most of my work now is online. I preserve it as PDF files, not as hard copies. And like an automobile manufacturing supply chain that extends out in circular rings, I find the office-supply drawers full of paper-related implements: paper clips, scissors, staplers, staple removers, butterfly clips, file folders, file folder labels, and more. Remember Liquid Paper? It was used with something called a typewriter. I still have some. Oh, and Post-Its. Granted, you can affix them to a computer monitor as a handy reminder, but we used to use them a lot more in the old days.

Ditto reference books. I can’t remember the last time I actually thumbed through a dictionary. Language dictionaries? Google Translate has made those obsolete. Thank goodness the thesaurus within Microsoft Word sucks, or I’d never need that reference book either.

Add to that paper cutters, scanners, and printers, not to mention pristine white paper that I bought in bulk at Costco in a different decade. If I print at all these days, it’s on the back of already used paper that finds its way into the house from a variety of sources – my father-in-law’s den or the photocopiers where my wife works. I doubt I’ll need to buy paper again before I retire. I find myself sitting with my laptop, tablet, and smartphone among an astonishing number of antediluvian remnants from a civilization that is no more and isn’t coming back. Yet it’s all still too common for anthropologists to care about, so it has no value.

Every so often, I go through the drawers, looking for articles I know I won’t need anymore, whether written by me or not. I recently threw out six copies of a humorous story from my freshman year in college. It was funny, but not that funny. Multiply that by other stuff that I never needed again, or articles I was able to find online and save digitally, and I was able to cull an awful lot of stuff.

Not long after, my woodworker friend was over with another acquaintance, and I was showing off my friend’s work. “Look at these great drawers,” I said. The woodworker deadpanned, “If they’re so great, why are they empty?”

I haven’t figured out a really good answer to that question. I’m still kind of embarrassed that I didn’t realize – even though I write about the world of tomorrow every day – that I sometimes have trouble seeing past the end of my own desk.

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Confluence and Convergence

I wasn’t supposed to be at the intersection of Foothill Expressway and Hillview Avenue in Palo Alto last Wednesday afternoon. A lot of unrelated events, occurring in a seemingly random sequence, put me there.

Nor is the intersection particularly meaningful to anyone just passing through. It is for me. On the micro level of my life, it is proximate to many parts of my life.

To the south, less than a mile away, the neighborhood I grew up in and the high school I attended.

Closer by, also to the south, visible from the intersection, the Veterans Administration hospital where I volunteered in the hematology lab the summer I was 15. (This was when I still thought I wanted to be a doctor, but hadn’t yet realized I couldn’t stand the sight of blood; how ironic to be assigned to the hematology lab.)

Just a half-block to the north, the swim and tennis club we belonged to when I was a child, where I swam competitively (sometimes – and not so competitively other times).

On the macro level of life in Silicon Valley, the intersection carries equal importance. To the west, within walking distance, are the offices of Xerox PARC, where Steve Jobs first saw the graphical user interface. To the east, the offices of Varian, founded by two brothers whose World War II contributions in radar helped lay the groundwork of Silicon Valley’s pedigree, and on the hill beyond Varian, the headquarters of Hewlett-Packard. To the south, on the far side of the hospital, the site of the R&D facility of Fairchild Semiconductor. That was the company founded by eight seminal electrical engineers, who later went on to establish manufacturers such as Intel and venture capital firms such as Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers.

People argue about where the heart of Silicon Valley lies, deservedly so, but for my money, this is one of the top contenders. Even today, many of technology’s leaders in cutting-edge technology, from virtualization to in-memory computing, have clustered together in that area.

Life is a series of collisions, of people coming together and going away, interacting upon each other like electrons and protons. I know you probably think I’m leading up to the revelation that my car got broadsided at that intersection, but this isn’t that kind of story.

No, there was a different kind of confluence going on. That afternoon, I was supposed have a meeting with IBM at 2 p.m. and then be at the Hillview Avenue office of the Stanford Blood Center at 3 p.m. The IBM meeting was postponed, so I went to the blood center early.

Like I said, I wouldn’t have been there at all, except that I had donated platelets a few weeks before. In the intervening time, an adult female patient somewhere in the region – someone I’ll never know – was not responding to antibiotics in the treatment of whatever ailed her. The Stanford Blood Center is one of the few such centers to test blood for something called granulocytes, and this particular facility of Stanford’s was the only one that had the equipment to harvest them.

Granulocytes are a type of white blood cell that – like antibiotics – fights infection. They do not last a long time, so only by testing the blood of people who had recently donated could the blood center find people like me – it needed three for this patient, to donate sequentially in three 24-hour periods – whose blood was compatible.

That’s why I was at the blood center – to pick up a dose of something called dexamethasone, a steroid that would help make my white blood cells easier to harvest. I was to pick up the dexamethasone on Wednesday, take it with dinner on Thursday, and come back on Friday morning to donate the white blood cells.

As I was turning from Foothill Expressway onto Hillview Avenue, my phone rang. I didn’t think then that I had entered some meaningful vortex. I was just a supporting player in the bigger production that is life in Silicon Valley, where lives of families and strangers, friends and colleagues alike intersect in the most improbable ways.

I pushed the “accept” button on the touchscreen in the car, and the voice of my father’s nurse came over the speakers to tell me that he had passed away. My father was just a couple of weeks shy of his 95th birthday, and the date was also, I realized later when I went to update the family genealogy, his own father’s birthday.

How strange it felt to get that news, in that place of portent for both my world and the world. How ironic it felt to have death intervene on a moment that was supposed to be about saving someone’s life. But then again, maybe it was neither strange nor ironic. Perhaps it was really just a vivid example of the way life works all the time, bringing us together and then apart again, on its seemingly random path through time and place.

 

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The Dismantling of the Tree

If decorating the tree is a Christmas tradition, then dismantling the tree is a New Year’s tradition, and one that I find unspeakably sad. I like having a colorful, glittery piece of art in the corner of the living room, especially one that looks different each year while still displaying our venerable ornaments.

We have a tradition of buying a Christmas ornament wherever we travel. That way, every time we decorate the tree, we remember all the wonderful places we’ve been. Sometimes we’re reduced to buying a generic decoration – undoubtedly made in China – with only printing on it to remind us of its origin, like the sleigh-bound Santa that reads “The Cotswolds.” But sometimes we have something a bit more appropriate, such as a kangaroo clutching a boomerang from Australia or a moose with ornaments on its antlers from Wyoming.

But there are other memory-inducing ornaments, and the thoughts they inspire may be more so when they’re going back in the storage box as opposed to going on the tree, which is a more aesthetic than reflective process. So many of them relate to friends and the inevitable bittersweet passage of time.

We have numerous decorations that are framed photographs of our cats. Hanging the picture of Bandit, whom we lost this year, was especially sad. Even the numerous UC Berkeley ornaments brought up kitty memories: our oldest, Tuxedo, managed to break several of the Cal ornaments, while leaving the Stanford ones intact. Monica thought I trained him to do this, which is ridiculous, because Tuxedo always had a mind of his own. Nevertheless, over the years I have bought extra Cal ornaments to atone for his behavior.

Christmas is such a loaded holiday, one that combines stress and happiness in fairly equal doses. Taking down the tree is just one event in this ying and yang – sadness for the holiday’s end and happiness for both its past joy and the new, blank year to come.

Sometimes, there’s too much on the sad side. At the top of the tree, we usually put two beautifully painted miniature birdhouses. These were wedding favors at the nuptials of a former co-worker; I don’t see her as often as I’d like, and the marriage has long since dissolved, but it lives on in those little birdhouses with their initials stamped on the bottom. There’s also an ornament from the Olympic Peninsula, purchased on a trip with another couple whose marriage has since ended.

At the end of the process is the removal of the skirt we put underneath the tree. Generally this is used for presents, but since we don’t give presents anymore, it’s actually a sanctuary for the cats. Throughout December, we walk into the living room and see one and maybe two pairs of eyes peering out from under the tree. It’s a safe haven that I hate taking away from them.

Once the skirt is gone, it’s traditional to discover the broken ornaments. For a few years, we tried having an “ornament-free” zone at the bottom of the tree to avoid cat-batting, but the tree always looked weird, and the cats could always reach higher than we thought. So we put the wooden ornaments at the bottom and the more fragile ones higher up. It didn’t help.

When I removed the skirt this year, I found one of the ceramic ornaments, only slightly damaged but still usable. Unfortunately, it was one of the many Cal ornaments. I put it back in the box without telling Monica, because she’ll think I’m still training the cats behind her back.

 

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Places In My Heart

Space NeedleMonica and I found ourselves in Seattle in mid-November. It rained.

The reason for our visit is too silly to relate (though I may do so someday). But we made the best of it. We rode the light rail from the airport. We ate lunch downtown at our favorite restaurant, The Brooklyn. We walked across the street to the Seattle Art Museum and saw some Chihuly glass and a display of contemporary art from India.

As I related a couple of years ago in Seattle, 1977, I went there after college for three years, and found my first love, first job, first apartment, and first (and to date, only) foray into big-city life. Even after that startup magazine closed down, I was able to return to Seattle for both business and pleasure many times over the years – for press checks, visits to Microsoft, and visits with my ex-girlfriend’s family. Her brother had introduced us, and I stayed close to both him and her parents even after we broke up; it was as if we’d gotten divorced and were awarded joint custody of her family.

In my time there, I became accustomed to the rain. I learned that if you let the rain stop you from doing something, you’ll never do anything. But in fact, New York City has a greater annual rainfall than Seattle; the latter’s bigger problem is its gray skies. The guy who hired me at that first job once told me that, growing up there, he thought the sky’s natural color was gray, rather than blue.

I also became accustomed to other things. For a city clustered around lakes and a sound, it’s remarkably well-organized. Beyond downtown, the city has six quadrants (northwest, north, northeast, southwest, south, and southeast). Most of the east-west streets are numbered, so that if you are looking for 4500 NE 65th Street, you have a general sense of where to find it. And when you get close, it’s pretty safe that NE 65th Street is going to come after NE 64th Street. And if the street had a name rather than a number, like 4500 NE Ravenna, it was pretty safe that it would be near the intersection of NE 45th Street and Ravenna. I loved that kind of clarity.

All the things that Seattle is known for now – Microsoft, Amazon, championship football teams – blossomed after I left. It’s no longer that forgotten place in the upper left corner of the United States map that connotes lumberjacks and jets; Boeing isn’t even based there anymore. Today, Neil Simon wouldn’t be able to get away with the line in The Goodbye Girl (1978) where Marsha Mason says, “Seattle? Don’t they have wolves there?”

But like someone discovering a singer in a lonely cabaret who goes on to become a superstar, I fell in love with Seattle before everybody else. I’m still in love with it. My fantasy retirement involves a wooden lodge on Puget Sound, with a dock and a kayak.

It’ll never happen, of course, because I married someone who hates rain. When Monica and I went up for the Stanford-Washington State football game last year, it rained. (Notice a pattern?) We had ducked into a coffee shop near Pike Place Market to get out of the downpour. As we sat sipping, my wife looked at me and said, “You really want to live in this?”

I pointed to a cluster of condos above the market. “Sure. A view of the sound, a good book, a fireplace. What’s not to like?”

She admits that she doesn’t have emotional attachment to the place that I do. Who wouldn’t have one after all those wonderful firsts in one’s twenties? When it comes to places to live, Seattle is – as I wrote in a farewell newspaper column when I left in 1980 – like buried treasure. Once unearthed, you can never have the thrill of discovering it again. It remains a beloved memory. I only wish that everyone could have a city like Seattle in their heart.

 

 

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The Bane of My Existence

I really don’t want this blog to become too much about me and my problems. Whoops, too late.

Let me start over. I don’t want it to be too much what we call in journalism “inside baseball” – that is, too much about a topic that resonates only with those deeply dedicated to its existence. That’s a sure way to lose the reader.

One factor in my favor is that everyone is the bane of someone’s existence, banging on their door and clamoring for attention. Physicians have drug reps. IT executives have computer salespeople. Low-lifes have bailbondsmen. Celebrities have groupies. Writers have public relations people.

To call public relations practitioners the bane of my existence may be too broad a brush, especially since some of my best friends and colleagues – and indeed, some of the most devoted readers of this blog – are indeed in that profession, and some of them provide an invaluable service to me in navigating the maze of corporate sources. (To them, I apologize.)

No, I’m really talking about people who think they’re practicing public relations, but who in reality are never going to get good at it. They’re likely to be new minted employees who neither have the experience, the technical depth, nor the critical thinking skills to push back against their bosses and clients who direct them to employ time-wasting tactics of inaccuracy and misdirection.

My favorite example: I once got a call from one of these chirpy youngsters asking me if I was familiar with her client. Since I’d been covering the company for about three years, I told her that if she had to ask me that question, I probably knew more about her client than she did. I called her boss – with whom I thought I’d had a good relationship – to ask why I was receiving such a useless call. She replied – and this still drops my jaw decades later – that she couldn’t waste her time briefing her staff on every journalist they were assigned to call. “Oh,” I said. “But it’s okay to waste my time.”

But I realize that’s still all a little too inside baseball. So I’m going to try and give you a sense of why these people are the bane of my existence by extrapolating what they do to me to situations everyone might encounter.

What PR People Do: The moment you have written about a particular topic or technology, they will write you and say, “I read your story about chicken plucking. You really should write about the way my client does chicken plucking.”

Real-World Equivalent: A car salesman calling you and saying, “I see you’ve just bought a car. Would you like to buy another one?”

What PR People Do: They seem to get so desperate to sell their client that, even though what the client does is only tangentially involved with what you write about, they think that this is the one time you’ll make an exception and write about them.

Real-World Equivalent: Your travel agent saying, “I know you always go to Hawaii, but wouldn’t you like to try Mongolia this year?”

What PR People Do: Especially in technology, they’ll pitch you on something when they’re really not quite sure what it is. Invariably, they get it wrong.

Real-World Equivalent: A waitress offering you a milkshake, except that it’s made without milk and with some non-dairy variant of ice cream.

What PR People Do: If you show even an iota of interest, they will – without asking your permission – add you to (1) the client’s mailing list, so you get every trivial press release it issues; (2) the mailing list of every other agency client, so ditto; and (3) who knows what other mailing lists.

Real-world Equivalent: Junk mail hell. Everyone has experience with this. We’ve lived in this house for 11 years, and we still get junk mail addressed to the previous owner.

What PR People Do: After they send you an e-mail that you’ve ignored because it’s so completely inappropriate, they’ll follow up with either another e-mail or, worse, a phone call to see if you got the e-mail.

Real-World Equivalent: The jerk who gets turned down when he asks you out calls back and says, “I know you said no when I asked you for a date, but I’m asking again just in case you find me less creepy this time.”

The underlying reason why this is a problem: PR people don’t get compensated for actually getting their clients publicity. They get paid for their attempts at getting their clients publicity. So it really doesn’t behoove them to focus on quality, as long as they can still get paid for quantity.  As long as they can show that they contacted a writer, that’s all that counts. You know all those awards kids get in school now for participating, rather than winning? Those were the brainchild of PR people.

The irony of all this is that I worship the PR people who bring me great story ideas. In my field, everyone’s looking for great content. It’s the same in the real world – people want to know about the latest restaurants, the coolest movies, the hottest books. But I can’t get these other folks to see that they’re wasting my time and theirs, and worst of all, making it less likely that I’m going to pay attention to their clients’ message, not more.

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Why People We Do Business With Are Driving Us Crazy

You've Got MailI had a little epiphany the other day. Or are all epiphanies big by definition?

Anyway, I was researching a blog for Forbes on big data (don’t be impressed; it’s sponsored, which means a company pays me to do it), and I ran across this wonderful blog post from about 18 months ago. The author, who doesn’t seem to be identified by anything more than the name of his blog, Squarely Rooted, and this description – “a rational radical with firm footing” – seems to be an equally cranky version of me, but even more left-wing than I have become.

SR wrote about retailers taking results of successful customer interactions and using them to provide incentives for sales people. For instance, customers are more likely to purchase something if they’ve touched it or tried it on, so employees are paid more when they hand items to customers or herd them into dressing rooms.

But SR also hits upon the one problem with this plan. Everyone has access to the same suggestions: “Each of these were measured in isolation, not in tandem. So what you and every other brick’ n’ mortar clothing retailer is collectively [doing is to] make shopping a miserable, pressure-filled, harrowing experience.” (italics original)

Suddenly it became clear to me why every time I open my e-mail, I have multiple messages from companies I’ve patronized asking me how I enjoyed the experience. Somewhere along the way, someone discovered that customers like having their opinion solicited.

That’s why my car dealer asks me how I liked getting my car serviced, and whether it was done to my liking. Well, uh – I really don’t know what you guys do when I bring it in for service – they’re your specifications – so how the heck do I know whether you did a good job or not?

That’s why United asks me after every single leg of a flight how I enjoyed being crammed into a seat barely suitable for a twelve-year-old.

That’s why Amazon asks me how I liked the way my grocery delivery was packaged. You know what? I didn’t. It was wrapped tightly in sticky bubble wrap and it took 10 minutes to get the box unwrapped and 10 more minutes to get the sticky stuff off my hands.

You know what I’ve discovered is wrong with this process? While companies clearly think their customers like having their opinion solicited, nobody took the time to tell them that customers also like having their opinions listened to (italics mine).

And that ain’t happening.

I know this because I have frequently included suggestions in these surveys, and they have all been roundly ignored. Even my complaints about the endless surveys have been roundly ignored. But because somebody came to this conclusion about surveys, everybody’s sending them out, but nobody’s reading the responses.

This is basically the corporate version of saying “how are you?” and not being interested in the response in the slightest.

I wish I could make it stop. But I’ve found that if you ignore the surveys, companies just send them out again, thus making the simple act of opening e-mail – as SR so aptly put it – a miserable, pressure-filled, harrowing experience. As if it wasn’t already.

 

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