Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Marissa Mayer's Attack on Telecommuting

Telecommuting took a big hit this week when Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, banned the perk, telling her employees that they had to work in the office or find employment elsewhere.  Yikes!  Naturally, people are all up in arms over this.

Her rationale seems sound.  To quote her:
“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side.  That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.  Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.”

It’s hard to argue that fact.  People who work from home are physically disconnected from the rest of the workforce.  Sure, with the right technology, someone can pick up a phone and dial someone else’s extension, send an email, etc.  But people never want to bother each other, and I’ll bet that most people feel that calling someone working from home is akin to calling them “at home,” meaning calling them during a time in which they would prefer to not be disturbed.

And really, telecommuting can be abused far too easily under lax supervision.  As an IT professional, I have seen with my very eyes people’s productivity levels drop.  Someone working from home typically has to remotely connect to the office’s network, and those connections appear on dashboards and reports that any network administrator readily views.  So when there is no network activity from a telecommuter for over a half hour or forty-five minutes, what exactly is that person doing?  That’s where a supervisor has to be diligent, and unfortunately that doesn’t happen enough—or perhaps even at all.

Most people would love to have a job where they could telecommute, even if it were only a couple of days a week.  Both of my siblings telecommute a few days per week with their respective jobs—and both are VERY HARD WORKERS.  My wife has on-call hours where she telecommutes a few times a month.  Technology is a wonderful thing in that regard.  You have people working from home, using their own electricity and water and toilet paper and whatnot.  Morale is improved.  Your employees can work in their pajamas or birthday suit if they so desired.  It really is a great perk from an employee perspective.

But I can’t wholly disagree with Marissa Mayer’s decision.  Yahoo is a company that is struggling, and sometimes you have to take away some of the perks as a kick in the pants to your employees—kind of like a guy my dad once knew who, working as the VP of Facilities and Maintenance, literally kicked his underling in the pants (shin) with a steel-toed boot.  That guy was promptly fired, thankfully, but sometimes employees need a metaphoric kick like that.  If you want your employees to work harder, motivate them—either by giving rewards for good behavior or punishing them for bad.

As I said, I can’t wholly disagree with Marissa Mayer, but I am troubled by her decision a little.  In my mind, if your employees aren’t being productive enough, that’s not an employee problem.  That’s a management problem.  Good employees will work hard, collaborate, and communicate whether they are working from home or not.  Not-so-good employees will find ways to abuse perks like telecommuting.  Management should be able to tell the difference between the two and be able to weed out the bad ones--or at the very least apply performance standards that would allow the best employees to have the best perks.

Blanket rules like banning telecommuting can sometimes do more harm than good.  Yes, you are being firm in what you want to see happen with the company, and yes you are delivering a message.  But sometimes your good employees will interpret that message the wrong way.  And chances are, many good employees at Yahoo have been looking or have found employment elsewhere already.  The telecommuting ban may be the straw that breaks the camel's back for them.

Allowing employees to telecommute while maintaining adequate if not outstanding levels of productivity is a matter of great supervision and great technology.  If a company is lacking in one or the other, problems will abound.  From my perspective, Yahoo is a one-dimensional company that is lacking in creativity.  When you look at Microsoft and Google and how they seem to have their hands in everything from operating systems, browsers, search engines, phones and devices, cloud services, etc., it’s no wonder those companies are flourishing.  I use Yahoo mail for a mostly junk email account.  That’s it.  And if they aren’t creating the best technology, it makes me really wonder if they are using it.

Sorry Marissa, but your problem isn’t with your workers telecommuting.  Your problem is that your company is as blasé and yesterday as Netscape and AOL.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Therapy Thursday - Can't Make This Stuff Up!

So every Thursday morning the local radio station, Hot 92 and Hot 100, holds a Therapy Thursday.  They ask people to write in with dilemmas they may be having and prompt the listening audience to chime in either by calling or posting on Facebook.

I’m always flabbergasted (love that word) by the people requesting therapy.  They always seem to be childish, inane, or else their message is lacking some integral component of the entire situation.  Most of the issues deal with relationships, which can be expected considering the amount of drama churned up by romantic conflict between sexes.

But this morning’s Therapy Thursday issue was a doozy.  I’ve posted a copy of the Facebook post below:

I have to admit that I laughed HARD when I read this.  And then I read it twice, just to make sure I wasn’t seeing things.  Oh my.  Where do I begin??

OK, first of all, this guy is so contradictory in his statement that I’ll bet he spends twenty minutes just deciding on a flavor of toothpaste in the grocery store.  “Confused?”  Yeah, you said it.  So your fiancée is intelligent, has a beautiful personality, beautiful eyes, and a phenomenal body?  Even one or two out of the four should be enough for most men, but not for this guy.  He complains about her slouchy, foot-dragging walk, feral manners, oily skin, and not-so-bad breath.  I’m sorry, but that does not describe an attractive person.  It almost sounds like he’s describing an animal!  So what’s the deal, buddy?  Are you engaged to your pet hamster?

Second, I love his descriptive details.  This guy wins first place for how insulting a person can be (BTW, first place prize is a kick to the groin from your fiancée).  I mean, he obviously has given her flaws a lot of thought to have those adjectives in mind while writing this up.  You really think that about the woman you’ve been with for FIVE YEARS?  Repulsed?  Never really attracted to her?  Did you go blind about five years ago and now suddenly had your vision restored?  I’m repulsed by raw sewage.  I don’t think I’ve ever been repulsed by a person’s mannerisms and features.  Horrified, maybe, but repulsed?  And this is the woman you sleep in the same bed with??

And so what, you think she loves every little thing about you?  The excessive hair on your back?  Your unibrow or nasty facial hair?  Your loud snoring or the way your armpits smell like a Subway restaurant after a long day’s work?

Note, ahem, I did not just describe myself…

What makes you so freakin’ special that you can point out her flaws, saying that’s why you aren’t attracted to her, and yet she has to put up with yours?  You think you don’t have any negative qualities that she overlooks?  Are you that much of a narcissist?

Third, and this is the best, he talks about cheating on her rather than breaking off the engagement and ending the relationship.  So not only is he not attracted to her, but he doesn’t respect her enough to call it quits.  And he even compares her to old bologna.  OLD BOLOGNA?!?  Wow.  Wow.

My point isn’t to beat up on this moron, although I’m enjoying it.  My point is that narcissism seems to be rampant in our society.  People are so self-centered and focused on themselves that, just like this guy, they’ll hurt even those closest to them because they are bored, disillusioned, lazy, or pick-a-reason without any thought whatsoever as to how the other person feels.  And not only that, but they'll post their attitude for the whole world to see!  This me-me-me attitude that I observe so often HAS TO STOP if the people of our nation ever want it to continue being a civilized super-power.

Maybe I’m just too old-school.  I purposely don’t rock the boat.  I don’t tailgate or drive slow as a tortoise, am overly conscious of where my cart is in the super-market so as not to block the aisle, keep my lips shut when I know my words may be hurtful, etc.  I remain low-key, mostly out of sight, allowing others to showboat around the room while I stand back, watch, listen, and evaluate.  It’s not that I’m shy or introverted or anything—it’s that I’m respectful of others in that regard.  And in all the observing and evaluating I’ve done in my life, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to treat others.

But, man, when I read garbage like this, I feel like a dying breed.

I hope this dude’s fiancée reads this and realizes her hubby-to-be was the author.  Because this dude needs to learn the hard way—still favoring that kick to the groin lesson, but simply dumping him would suffice.  And I hope this guy’s therapy request is a lesson for the rest of us.  There is more to life than what’s going on in our own little heads.  You may not like some particular thing about your significant other/friend/coworker/whatever, but those are people who are a part of your life, and it’s best to just ignore it.

Unless of course that person smells like a Subway restaurant CONSTANTLY…maybe in that case you should have a little talk with him/her.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Promoting Yourself on Twitter

As an “Indie” author, I can say that getting your name out there can be frustrating—especially if you are intent on getting recognized.  I’ve always somewhat shied away from the limelight, only because I don’t want that type of complication in my life.  Yes, I’d love to sell more books (who wouldn’t?), but that’s not why I write.  I write because I love telling stories.  If I suddenly became a world-famous author, I wouldn’t complain, but that’s not my ultimate goal.

Yes, I’ve submitted dozens of query letters to agents.  It’s amusing to me how some will be courteous enough to send you a rejection letter while others won’t even acknowledge you sent them your work.  I know that if I ever became a literary agent, I would at least respect the people who took the time to send submissions to me.  But the literary world is also changing, and ebooks are all the rage now.  You don’t need an agent to publish your book today with tools like Amazon KDP and Smashwords.  Promoting your book, on the other hand, is a different beast altogether.

Obviously I’m not an expert on promoting books.  Otherwise I’d be popping up on best seller’s lists.  But I have humbly amassed a moderately-sized Twitter following just by being a writer and following other writers.  It hasn’t been too terribly difficult to do, either.  For a while when I started I would add followers and then delete those who didn’t follow back.  And I would interact with those people who followed me by conversing and retweeting.  I did this for several months—long enough to get past the pesky 2000 following threshold, and now I have well over 6000 followers.  I don’t really follow people first now either.  Every day I’ll get ten to fifteen followers, and I’ll choose the real people (not bots and spammers), interact with them, and follow them back.  And it seems to work well.

Why is this important?  Well, when I would tweet a promotion for one of my books or a blog post prior to amassing the followers I have now, I would receive maybe 10 hits.  Now when I do it, I get between 50 and 100.  Bumping up your number of Twitter followers has its advantages, and so for anyone just starting out, I’d suggest you invest some time in Twitter.

After all, all of these SEO and book marketing people do the same thing.  They follow people in droves, then unfollow those who haven’t followed back, then try to get money from you to promote your work to all the followers they’ve amassed.  Why pay money to those people when you can just do that yourself?

One mistake I see people make all the time is that they’ll hit that 2000 following limit, then go in and indiscriminately unfollow a bunch of people so that they are only following a few hundred.  This is absolutely one of the worst Twitter moves you can do if you want to amass a ton of followers.  First of all, for those who do follow you, it’s annoying.  I took the time and effort (really just a second and a click--why am I complaining?) to follow you, so when you stop following me, that means to me that you aren’t interested in what I have to say.  I waste no time whatsoever unfollowing those who aren’t following me back.  A few times a week I’ll use one utility or another (Who Unfollowed Me, Twitter Karma when it works) to list the people that aren’t following me back, and I’ll unfollow those people.  I’m always amazed, too, at how many people show up in this list.  Smart Twitter users who actively manage their followings aren’t going to fall for it.  And the second issue with indiscriminately mass unfollowing is that if you attempt to follow more people after you’ve already unfollowed most of your followers, chances are you’ll just be following the same people again—people who are already following you in the first place.  I’ve seen at least a dozen instances of someone following me, me following back, that person then unfollowing me, me unfollowing back, and then that person following again.  Had I not unfollowed them like a smart Tweeter, they would all be wasting their time following me back a second time.  Sure, you may be able to get past that 2000 following limit by doing this, but as people start to unfollow you back, your numbers are going to dive.  Not the way to do it, folks.  Twitter isn't all about you.

If you are following 2000 people and only have 1000 followers, you need to unfollow a lot of folks.  There was a time when I would follow celebs, but that became tedious and boring.  Celebrities just don’t interest me—they are just people like you and me—people with big paychecks and cameras shoved into their faces, but who often have nothing more to offer than a hundred other people you may follow.  And celebs aren’t going to follow you back.  They aren’t going to converse with you.  Why bother?  Subscribe to their Facebook pages or an RSS celeb feed instead, because chances are if some celeb tweeted something interesting or shocking, you’ll read all about it there.

Keep your following/followers numbers roughly the same, and you’ll have no problem bypassing that 2000 following limit.  Oh, and take advantage of the bots and fake people who follow you.  Many people will report those accounts as spam, but I don’t.  I just don’t follow those accounts back—allowing them to pad my number of followers until they are eventually deleted.  I think Twitter allows you to follow only 10% more people than are following you after you reach 2000, so as long as you have over 1800 followers, you can keep on following.  Just make sure you always unfollow those who aren’t following you back.

It takes time.  I’ve been working at it for several years now.  Every day it grows a little bigger, and every day the hits to my blog and book sites go up a bit more.  Just keep at it.  Keep following back, unfollowing those who aren’t following you back, and tweeting, retweeting, and conversing with others.  The more you do, the more success you’ll see.

Oh, and don’t forget to keep writing!  For a while there I think I spent more time each evening on Twitter than I did actually writing.  Managing your Twitter followers should only take ten or fifteen minutes per day at the most.

Hope that helps!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Hitting That Writing Dream Zone

It was a dark and stormy night when the detective found the body of Mrs. Smith.  As he searched her apartment, he found a trace of blood near the bathroom sink where the killer had apparently tried to clean himself.  CSI collected the blood sample, and it turned out to be the woman’s estranged husband, who was jealous of her relationship with a new man.  The end.

What’s wrong with this story?  Yeah, it’s rather boring.  We’ve heard it a million times.  National best seller?  Hollywood Blockbuster?  I think not.

And yet the reason we’ve heard that story so many times is that it’s one of the more likely scenarios in a murder case.  Typically they happen at night.  Typically the murderer will leave evidence.  Typically it will involve a past or current lover.  Watch Investigation Discovery a few times a day and I’m certain you’ll come across a real-life story just like this.

In attempts to spice up their work, some writers will take a simple story like this, interject fancy language or controversial subject matter or something of the sort.  Others, like me, will add in plot twists to try to keep the story fresh and the reader guessing.  Some may include drama, suspense, humor, or some other kind of literary tool.

It was a dark and stormy night when the detective, an alien from the planet Bortros, found the body of the Queen of England.  As he searched the royal grounds with his extrasensory perception, he discovered a trace of the killer’s blood in the royal chambers.  Scotland Yard criminalists matched the blood to a royal guardsman, but as it turns out, the man was actually an alien from the planet Ecliptos.  Bortrosians and Ecliptosians had long been at war, and knowing the Bortrosian detective was the best lawman and fighter Bortros had, the entire investigation of the murder of the Queen on Earth had simply been an Ecliptosian distraction developed to gain a better advantage in their war on Bortros.

Ummm, yeah, OK.  Same relative story—a murder mystery—but what in the heck is going on here?  Warring alien planets, a prominent figure, and a very strange twist make this story unbelievable and just weird.  Sure, some sci fi geek out there might like it in an unabbreviated form, but it’s not going to draw in a huge reading audience.

Creativity isn’t bestowed upon everyone.  Some people couldn’t fabricate an entertaining and believable story if their lives depended on it.  Sure they could write out sixty-thousand words, but it would probably be dull, drab, uneventful or else have the entire thing be so unbelievably odd or complex or full of plot holes that the novel becomes intellectually offsetting.

My case in point, I was reading an Indie author’s work the other day, and it started out well with a cowboy in a saloon in the Old West.  The man was being harassed by other patrons, and the writer foreshadowed his  character's bad-assery very well by making the cowboy restrain himself--similar to the character of Phillip Jennings in the pilot of that new show The Americans on FX.  Regarding The Americans, Mr. Jennings has a run in with a huge bald-headed man while shopping at the mall with his daughter.  The bald man blatantly hits on Mr. Jennings' tween daughter, mocks him about it, and Mr. Jennings just walks away--only to show up at the guy's house at the very end, in disguise, and give him a whooping.  Yes, you should watch that show--it's a good one!  Anyway, this Indie author's cowboy character apparently only had one intended target, so he tolerated the harassment until his target appeared.  And then suddenly, without warning, he slaughtered the target and all of the patrons.  Good beginning, sure, but then the next few pages just threw me.  This cowboy was actually some sort of time-travelling, alien, undead-hunting super cop.  And no, I’m not kidding.  Needless to say, I got through maybe thirty pages and just had to stop before space-faring elves or steampunk vampires appeared.

A narrow, ideal, dream zone exists between writing some boring crap that nobody wants to read and writing something that is over-the-top and painful to endure.  Finding that zone can be a challenge.  Add to that bad grammar, misspellings, overused clichés and verbiage (like “it was a dark and stormy night”), and even if you find that dream zone, you still won’t have droves of people eager to read your work.

I’d bet that every writer misses that zone more often than he/she hits it.  So what’s a person to do?  Well, if you want to be a writer, you have to write.  Plain and simple.  Pound out at least a thousand words per day and strive for five-thousand.  The math is elementary—if you can manage five-thousand words per day, in less than two weeks you’ll have yourself a full-length novel.  Will it hit that zone and be a success?  Probably not.  But having others critique your work will help you fix the problems in your writing, and practice makes perfect.  Just keep at it!

And don’t hesitate to really dig in and even get help in determining your writing weaknesses.  Some people are so wonderfully creative, yet they lack direction or purpose with their writing.  Others need to brush up on their grammar and spelling.  Some need to work on their vocabulary skills.  No writer—even the most famous ones—is perfect in the craft.  That’s why writers utilize proofreaders and editors to assist them.

You’ll know whether you have talent, I think, from the constructive criticism you receive.  Acquire the aid of friends and family at first, although be prepared to receive skewed criticism.  I’ve found that if people close to you tell you that they read your book in a single day or that they couldn’t wait to find out what happened with this character or that, you’ll know it was entertaining to them.  If your mom or wife merely says it was “good” or that he/she enjoyed it, and yet that person never mention it to you again, you’ll know it probably wasn’t one of your best.  A decent story will stick with someone and have that person talking about it for months or years.  Heck, I can still remember some of the more meaningful books and stories I read even twenty years ago.

And because a writer misses that dream zone more often than not, the only way you’re going to hit it is if you keep writing.  Success in anything very rarely comes overnight.  I’m always a bit tickled by the people who spend years writing a book and then expect it to be a huge success.  Unless you have some major connections with a successful author, agent, or publisher, your work that you spent years on probably is going to spend more time on a flash drive in your desk drawer than it will on the NYT Best Seller's List.

So keep writing.  Write at least a thousand words a day—roughly the length of this post.  If you can do that, you may just be successful.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Please Ignore My Ranting

Just to forewarn you, this post is nothing more than a compilation of complaints.  If you don’t like listening or reading about someone whining over trivial matters, move on to the next tweet or Facebook post or whatever in your list.

Since my second son was born nearly three weeks ago, I’ve been driving straight to work rather than the circuitous route I previously took to drop my first-born off at school and my wife off at her job.  Yes, my wife drives, but we enjoyed spending our mornings together by carpooling, and it naturally saves on gas.  Anyway, she’s been at home with baby since mid-January, and I’ve been driving a different route straight to work.  And I don’t know if I hadn’t paid as much attention before, but these past few weeks have proven to me that people drive like idiots.  Yeah, I said it.  Idiots.

This past week alone I’ve had four people tailgate me relentlessly, watched three people blatantly run red lights, saw well over ten people run stop signs in my neighborhood, and nearly saw an accident that could have been fatal (car turned left into, of all places, a methadone clinic right in front of a huge box truck).

What’s the rush, people?  Traffic signals and speed limits are optional because you couldn't wake up five minutes earlier?

A couple of months ago, some local guy was killed while checking his mail because a driver was speeding to get to work.  I’ve almost been THAT GUY way too many times.  My house sits at the beginning of a long stretch of flat, straight road, and despite posted 25 mph signs, people will fly down it at speeds in excess of 40 or even 50 mph.  My mailbox sits along the side of the road right before a bend to the left, and often when another car is coming in the opposite direction, people will drive off the road to avoid the other car.  That is, off the road directly where I stand to check my mail.

Seriously, what’s the rush, people?  Getting to your destination is more important than the life of another human being?

For all my readers out there, please slow down.  If you hit someone who is walking or checking his/her mail, like me, that’s on you.  There’s no defense for driving too fast and striking a pedestrian.  And if you know someone that speeds, please encourage that person to slow down as well.

I’m not done with this little rant just yet.  Switching topics completely, I have a tremendous amount of respect for my wife.  In the three weeks since our baby was born, she’s been up three to four times a night feeding and changing him.  This baby is the loudest baby I’ve ever been around, grunting and passing gas and screaming when he gets hungry.  Last night I heard her say, “Please, Ben, I’ve only had an hour of sleep so far,” and I turned and looked at the clock and saw it was 3:30 AM.  I know some fathers get up during the wee hours of night to tend to newborns, but I’ll admit that I’ve never been great at doing that.  Luckily my wife has been able to take time off with the baby, and I know that when she goes back to work I’ll have to start picking up some of the slack (or else we’ll be going to bed at 8 every night).  But my wife is one heck of a great mommy.

Some women aren’t cut out for motherhood.  Some would choose to focus on their career or are frightened by the thought of raising a little one.  And I have no problem with women who personally decide not to have kids.  It’s their choice, and I have a tremendous respect for people, both men and women, who make choices and stick to them.  Parenthood isn’t for everyone.

But sometimes I am moderately annoyed over the reasoning some women use for not having kids.  One of the biggest excuses I’ve heard is that they do not want to ruin their bodies.  I’m sure we all know a woman who has said this.

Now I don’t personally know this particular unnamed lady pictured below (minus her head—I don’t want sued!), but in a conversation a year or so ago, she stated adamantly that she would not be having kids because she didn’t "need a kid ruining" her body.

Seriously?  Seriously.

I’m a bigger guy myself, and I’m not poking fun at her size, but really, lady?  You think birthing a child will ruin your body, but the excess food you consume and your lack of exercise won’t?  She’s not even that big, apparently, and perhaps this picture isn’t all that flattering, but to say a child will ruin your body when you’re obviously carrying around quite a few extra pounds seems asinine to me.  And besides, let me just set the record straight by saying that watching my wife care for my sons is one of the SEXIEST things I’ve ever seen in my life.  Yes, she may have a few stretch marks and a few pounds to lose to get back to her pre-pregnancy weight, but if you are a woman who is concerned about changes to your body due to child birth, don’t be.

BTW, that lady above could quite possibly have some other issues unrelated to children.  I know I shouldn’t judge her, but she seems to have a narcissistic personality.  For example, her husband is a very effeminate man—so much so that many people have reportedly mistaken him for being gay.  I mean absolutely no disrespect by that, just to be clear.  But continuing on with my point, she also didn’t take her husband’s last name, even in hyphenated form.  Again, no disrespect there either.  But add it all up, including her comments regarding childbirth ruining her body, and it really tells you something about her, doesn’t it?  I mean, by all observations, it would seem that she’s simply a strong-willed, slightly masculine, career-oriented woman, and that’s totally cool.  But if that’s the case, lady, don’t tell mothers-to-be that you don’t want kids because “kids will ruin your body.”  Just say you don’t want kids because that’s the choice you’ve made.  End of discussion.

I’ve also heard women say that they can barely take care of themselves, let alone kids.  This one isn’t quite so annoying, as I’ve seen a lot of women out there who should definitely NOT be mothers, but shouldn’t that be a bit of a wakeup call for them?  If they can “BARELY take care of themselves,” shouldn’t they take some steps to get their personal lives in better order?  I don’t think I’ve ever been at a point in my adult life where I could “barely take care of myself.”  Yeah, maybe you shouldn’t be having kids, but maybe you should be getting busy doing other things like creating a better life for yourself.  Just a thought.

And finally, switching subjects completely again, I don’t understand why restaurants have to use so much sodium in their meals.  I’m sure I could Google it, and my inquiring mind probably will as soon as I’m done typing this, but if you eat out anywhere in a typical day, you are likely to get two times your recommended amount of sodium.  High sodium has been proven to contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, and a number of other nasty, life threatening diseases.

I’ve been tweaking my diet the past few weeks, really trying to make a conscious effort to go from a bigger man to a, well, slightly-bigger-than-average-sized man.  I’ve been more active, trying to walk in place as often as I can and squeezing in twenty minutes or so of exercise every night.  I’ve cut out sugary sodas and have cut back tremendously on sweets.  I’ve been trying to keep my calories below 2000, and I’ve been fairly successful at that.  But, wow, my sodium levels haven’t budged.

We grab take-out probably three or four times per week for convenience.  We have always done this, and when my wife goes back to work, that trend will only continue.  We don’t get home until nearly six most nights, and by that time it takes entirely too long to make a complicated dinner.  I’ve been much more conscious of what I’m ordering on the menus of restaurants, but since I started tracking sodium, I’ve been at a total loss.  It's next to impossible to get a low-sodium meal from a restaurant.

Take, for example, Panera and their seemingly healthy food choices.  Last night I ordered a chopped Thai chicken salad, a cup of broccoli cheddar soup, and a French baguette.   Sounds like a healthy meal, right?  And really, it should have been.  In total it was 950 calories comprised of 101g of carbs, 39g of fat, and 54g of protein.  It even had 13g of fiber.  Great stuff…until I looked at the sodium content.  In all, the meal was 3080mg of sodium, the equivalent of one and a half tablespoons.  Yuck.

Aside from the above-mentioned health issues, sodium makes you retain water.  If you eat foods that, in total, contain the daily recommended allowance of sodium (typically 2500mg), you’ll be fine.  If you eat much more than that, the next time you hop on the scale you’ll find that you probably haven’t lost any weight—and quite possibly gained some.  That’s because your body is filled with water.

I looked up all of the ingredients to make the Panera meal I mentioned above, and the total sodium content I came up with was much, much less—closer to around 1200mg.  So why are they adding sodium to an otherwise healthy meal?  I’m sure it has something to do with preservatives or taste or whatnot, and I’ll be Googling it like I said, but it really makes me think that the healthy way to eat is to eat at home where you can measure out your own fresh ingredients and know EXACTLY what you are putting into the food you consume.

That’s all I have to rant about for now, I guess.  I feel better now.  Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A World Without Money

Here’s a scenario for you: your daily life revolves completely around bettering yourself and those close to you.  You have no need for work, because money is non-existent.  The value we place on material possessions is completely absent from society, thereby making the idea of working for a paycheck obsolete.  You may still go to a “job”, but you do so in order to improve yourself in areas like education, experience, physical fitness, camaraderie, or any number of reasons other than fattening your now non-existent wallet.

I’m joking, right?

It’s hard to imagine a society where money doesn’t exist.  Really, if making more moolah wasn’t important, who would wait our tables and flip our burgers?  Who would stock the shelves of grocery stores?  Money is the deciding factor in everything.  People work to make money to buy things.

Fans of Star Trek will know that the futuristic societies portrayed in those stories have evolved past the use of money.  Their drive and ambition is, instead, to further themselves and achieve more.  The idea is altruistic and refreshing, yet for us it seems millennia away.

Not so fast.  Fans of Star Trek will also recognize the term “replicator”, which is a machine that can create food and supplies out of atoms and molecules.  A person walks up to the replicator, asks for a hot cup of coffee or a slice of pepperoni pizza, and voila it appears before them ready to eat.  Again, this is the stuff of science fiction…but really, it’s not.  It's modern science and engineering.

I’ve been hearing more and more about 3D printers making their way into the public eye.  These printers can manufacture three dimensional plastic objects out of specifications supplied by the user.  In other words, if I wanted a pen to write with, I could program the printer to create a plastic casing for a pen, and it would “print” that casing.  I’d still have to acquire the ink and ballpoint features, but the bulk of my object has been created for me.

Just last week I read an article about people building the casings of assault rifles using 3D printers.  On the popular television show The Big Bang Theory, Howard and Raj create action figures of themselves using a 3D printer.  These things do exist, and they are becoming more and more prevalent.

I’ll admit that building simple plastic pieces and models is a far cry from generating a steaming cup of tea from molecules, but some engineers have gotten a lot closer than those 3D printing machines available commercially.  Below is an interesting article from a few months ago summarizing the author’s friend and his attempts to construct a replicator in his lab.

Interesting stuff.  Brings to mind the ideas I conjured up in my first novel, ProjectUtopia.

But where am I going with all of this?  Well, imagine being able to dispense food in seconds or even minutes from a machine in your home.  You would never need to go to the grocery store.  You could ask for ingredients like flour or turmeric or whatever to make your own dish, or you could just program the dish itself into the replicator.  Why ever go to a restaurant?  For the intimate, dining out experience?  Well, restaurants would have replicators as well.  You just punch in your order, it materializes on the table, and when you leave it recycles the remaining bits of food and even the dinnerware and utensils back into molecules and atoms that would be used for the next customer.

So if you are no longer paying for your food, what would you do with your money?  Buy new clothes?  Why not just replicate them as well?  Buy an 80 inch TV?  Replicate that.  Buy a car or a house?  No, just replicate them.

Suddenly the things we prize, those material possessions we all covet, are all suddenly worthless.  Your neighbor has a bigger house or a green lawn?  Replicate a new addition or new grass seed or whatever.  You want a fancy watch?  Replicate it.

We’d still need electricity and heat and utilities, right?  Well, if a replicator can create food and clothing and electronics, it surely could create photons, and it most certainly could generate energy.

So what would we do with ourselves if we had all of these things available to us at the push of a button?  I’m sure some of us would become incredibly lazy, but I also think a bit of Darwinism would set in.  Most people couldn't just sit around doing nothing forever.  Humans like to compete with one another, it’s ingrained in our DNA, and so you’d see a lot more sports and creativity in the world.  In other words, most of us would strive toward improving our minds and our bodies.

Yes, there'd still be work to do, but eventually work would become more like a hobby.  Doctors would still be necessary, but the idea of paying them with money would be silly because they could just replicate everything they'd ever need.  So why would anyone even go to medical school, you might ask?  For the challenge.  To better oneself.  To help others.

And I'm sure there would still be some mundane jobs like plowing snow or cleaning public places, but people would do those things for camaraderie.  And nobody likes messes.  Yes, you'd probably have people who would shun the new system and intentionally cause problems, but if everyone is striving to be smarter or stronger or whatever the case may be, I think you'd see a lot less crime.

I know, I know, this all seems like the far-fetched ramblings of a sci-fi geek.  And I’d agree with you, except that replicators are practically available now.  Primitive, yes, but look at the ENIAC when it was first built in the 40’s.  It took up an entire building and was a fraction of a tiny percentage as powerful as the cell phone in your pocket right now.  So just imagine where our replicators will be in 70 years?

A world without money?  It won't happen overnight, but the possibilities of it happening a few generations from now aren't quite as absurd as you might think.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Get Yourself a Cow-Catcher

Anyone who writes knows that it’s entirely too easy to find yourself off-track.  I’m not just talking about digressions within a story-line but even putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.  Distractions of all sorts surround us, and more often than not our best intentions have not been met because we’ve become sidetracked.

When a sketch artist sits down to draw, he or she will have his paper, pencils and charcoal and shading tools and erasers, proper lighting, etc.  No sketch artist who loves his work will walk over to his drawing, sketch in five or six lines, and then get up to go do something else.  Or even sketch in a few lines and then just sit there thinking about a grocery list or a project at work.  He’ll devote at least thirty minutes of uninterrupted sketching to complete at least a portion of his work.

Writers, or at least the ones I know, tend to be different.  While the overall product of writers and sketchers is similar, i.e. something has been created from nothing, writers must rely on their thoughts and ideas and memories to create.  Most sketchers will have at least a model of some sort to work from, either a photograph or an object like a bowl of fruit.  And therein lies the problem with writers.  Taking what you see and drawing a complex copy of it requires some skill, but what you see will usually never deviate much or at all during the course of a sketch.  Our thoughts, however, are never in a fixed, static state, and thus our writing and direction and focus can constantly change.

I mean no disrespect to people who sketch or paint, by the way.  I love to sketch myself, and yet I’ve always found the art elusive.  A wrong angle here or a line that’s become too long there can totally throw off the finished product, and thus drawing requires a ton of patience and a keen eye that few of us possess.

Yet my point with writing is that our models are constantly shifting.  Add in life, that is,  the time we spend doing things like work, spending time with family, running errands, etc., and our best ideas can often be lost or forgotten.  And thus some of our most compelling thoughts are never written down.

I keep telling myself, “Ryan, you need to get yourself a cow-catcher.”  What I mean by that is that I need to be able to push things aside to pursue my passion and dreams.  I first need to move out all the daily crap I deal with and allot myself the time to sit and write, rather than jotting down a few paragraphs every so often when I have a minute here or there.

And I’m not alone.  Anyone can find a free half hour in a week to set aside for accomplishing something.  I was informed of an incident a while back at a company where a boss, during the final quarter of a year when schedules were hectic, stated that year that nobody had time until the first quarter to do an important hour-long training (that had been annually conducted in the fourth quarter for numerous years prior).  That was 62 business days to work with, or 465 hours, and nobody had one hour (0.2% of the total time) to spare.  Really?  Really??  Seems a bit ludicrous to me, especially when daily people could be seen standing in the halls and chatting about personal stuff or sending emails to friends or even surfing the web for a few minutes.

Anyone who uses the excuse that he/she doesn’t have a half hour or an hour to spare in a week is kidding him/herself.  If you are telling yourself that you don’t have an hour, it sounds like you need to take a step back from your life and make some assessments about how you manage your time.  If you are a workaholic, does that project that is due three months from now really require twelve hours a day from you—in other words, you can’t even spare an hour?  If not, you’re probably overworked or need far better time management skills (and possibly even psychiatric help).  If you watch TV, can’t you pick your least favorite of your favorite shows and stop watching it—or else record the season on your DVR and watch it in the summer when reruns abound? (And if you are that glued to your TV, you may need psychiatric help as well!)  If you are a stay-at-home mom, can’t you run a load of laundry and start dinner at the same time, or maybe even get your kids to help you with mixing or stirring or setting the table?  We ALL can find an hour a week, and probably a whole lot more if we really try.

So once you find the time to write (or exercise or learn to play a musical instrument or whatever it is you are passionate about), the next step is to push aside all of the chaos swirling around in your head and focus.  One of the best ways I know to do this is to deep breathe or meditate.  Inhale 5 seconds through your nose, hold for two seconds, then exhale 5 seconds out your mouth.  Count the seconds, focus only on your breathing, and do this for five or ten minutes.  At the end of that brief time, you’ll find yourself relaxed and hopefully focused enough to begin work.  I’ve been trying to do this any time I’m about to start on something that requires a lot of thought, and I’m always surprised at how well it works.  Picture a math professor’s whiteboard filled with all the formulas from the previous lecture, and imagine if he tried to cram in new equations for your class.  You wouldn’t want that, would you?  No, you’d want a clean slate.  It’s the same principle.

And then, when your mind is free, just write.  Sounds easy enough, but I always get caught up in re-reading my last chapter and editing.  Then when I get to the bottom and should start writing new material, I want to take a break because I’m mentally fatigued from all the editing I just did.  Or else I only have twenty minutes left of the time I’ve allotted myself, and so I make the excuse that I can’t write anything meaningful in twenty minutes.  “Get yourself a cow-catcher, Ryan.”  Push that perfectionist out of the way, forget about re-reading and editing, familiarize yourself with where you left off, and then JUST WRITE.  When I manage to do that, it’s usually at that point that the words start to flow, and before long I’ll have completed a whole chapter.

But there are other obstacles that may be in my way.  I’m fortunate enough through my IT work to have developed some quick fingers.  I’ve seen and heard and read of other writers who struggle with typing.  If you can’t type, and you like to write, ditch the keyboard and pick up a pen.  Someone who types 25 words per minute will ultimately lose their ideas and thoughts because they are spending too long trying to get them out.  And if writing won’t work, get some speech recognition software like Dragon Naturally Speaking and dictate your thoughts.  It’s akin to someone who loves to exercise but has bad knees or bunions.  You can still exercise, but running may not be the best way to do it.  You can work to improve on physical or mental or emotional limitations, but don’t let them become roadblocks to your accomplishments.

We all have obstacles that prevent us from achieving greatness, like cows standing on the railroad tracks.  So get yourself a cow-catcher, push those obstacles clear of your path, and accomplish something that makes you proud!