Sunday, August 31, 2014

March of the Virgos

This weekend kicks off our Virgo birthday season, so we’re doing things that The Mother wants to do.  One thing she does not want to do is sit around while I spend a few hours coming up with ways to entertain you, persistent reader.  Which is fair, really.

If you need to refresh yourself on what a birthday weekend entails for us, go back and read about the March birthday season.  We have two birthdays in March, one at either end of the month.  Then we have two birthdays about 10 days apart, centered around Labor Day.  This year will be the eldest’s 16th, and we’ll be spending a week in Vegas.  So there’s every possibility that you won’t get a decent post next wekeend either.  We’ll see, but don’t hold your breath or anything.

Not that I thought you were going to hold your breath for an entire week.  Or any lenth of time over this crappy blog, really.  And I’m okay with that.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Format Bores

Last week I posted the latest chapter of my ongoing (some might say never-ending) novelThe Mother decided to take this opportunity to post a notice on Facebook so that my friends might be reminded that yes, I’m still writing the damn thing.  And one particularly good friend of mine asked if he could read my novel on his Kindle.  Which I suppose he could, if I turned it into a PDF.  Which of course I can.  So I did.

So, down towards the bottom of the page, you’ll find a link to a PDF representation of the novel as it stands thus far.  And hopefully I’ll be able to keep it updated on an ongoing basis so that the link will always point to however far along we currently are.  One word of caution though: the formatting ain’t pretty.

Of course, that might not be all bad.  I hope that, one day, I’ll actually finish this book.  And, when that happens, the logical thing to do would be to try to put it out in e-book format and try to get some exposure for it.  So it might occur to you, tenacious reader, that I might want to discourage people from downloading a free PDF so that I can charge money for an e-book someday.  But that’s not true.  Let me explain why.

As a software developer, I use use thousands of lines of open source code every day—undoubtely millions of lines, over the course of my career.  Without all that open source code, I’d get very little done on a day-to-day basis ... even at my paying job.  With millions of lines of free, quality software out there, any company (particularly a small company just getting started) would be foolish to ignore all that software.  Paying for something when you could get it for free (and when the free version is often of higher quality) is a pretty poor business decision.  Spending time to rewrite something from scratch when you could get it for free can sometimes make sense ... but not often.  So my entire profession is built on the concept of giving away valuable stuff for free.  It would be somewhat hypocritical of me to balk at offering a free PDF.

In fact, my intention is to keep these blog posts up as well, even after the e-book is out (assuming, of course, I ever get that far—much of this musing is just pre-hatch chicken counting, and I recognize that).  Hey, if people really want to read my book for free, on the interwebs, more power to ’em, I say.  I feel like the e-book will be a lot more convenient a format, and I hope I’m able to get some artwork (at the very least a front cover pic) that will probably be available only via the e-book, and there may even be one last editing pass for the e-book that doesn’t make it back to the blog.  So hopefully there will be some small reason to shell out some small amount of money for the “official” version, once we get that far.  (And the amount will certainly be small.  From everything I’ve been reading about e-book self-publishing, an unknown author should be pricing their e-book at under $6.  Probably well under $6.  And I’m okay with that.  I don’t need to support myself as an author—I have a day job which I love and am in no hurry to quit—and it’ll be much more about getting maximum exposure than achieving maximum profit.  At least at first.  Maybe I’ll change my mind when it comes to later books.  Assuming there are later books.  But that’s my hope.)

But, point being: I think there will be plenty of reason that many people will prefer to get the e-book version, once such a thing is available, without me adding artifical barriers to reading the thing for free on the Internet.  So why then, you may ask, is the PDF version formatted crappily?  Did I do that on purpose?

Well, yes and no.

My master copy of the novel is a Google document.  Once upon a time, Google documents looked a lot like Microsoft Word documents.  This is unsurprising, since Word has become the de facto standard for word processing docs.  There are very good reasons for this.  I hate Microsoft as much as the next self-respecting programmer, but one can’t argue that they’ve done a few things very well, and Word (and Excel) are among that small group.  I’ve used Wordstar and WordPerfect, text formats galore, HP Word and Abiword and probably many other more obscure programs that I can barely recall, but Word was the best, I have to admit.  Now, the more modern versions of Word became hideously bloated as marketing began to drive the feature set more than actual utility, but happily there are Word clones aplenty these days to fill the gap.  There’s Libre Office, for instance, which is nice if you happen to be using Linux.  But undoubtedly the best word processing solution these days is Google Docs.  It’s free, it’s available everywhere, on every operating system, and you can have multiple people edit the same file at the same time and nothing explodes.  And it works pretty much like Word.

Except for one thing.  They keep making changes to Google Docs.  Now, on the one hand, it’s free.  So you don’t really get to complain about it when they change things.  Except I’m going to anyway.  Because somewhat recently (relative to how long Docs has been around, at least), they rolled out a new “improved” version of Docs that changed the way your document looks on the screen.  It’s now paginated like it will be when it prints.  They no doubt felt this was a useful change.  Except it’s not.  This is the modern world we live in: the Internet Age.  When do we ever print anything?  This particular Google Doc gets downloaded to my laptop as HTML, which is then converted to an intermediate markup format that I typically write blog posts in, which is then converted to the pseudo-HTML that Blogspot understands, which is then posted back to the Internet.  And, now, I’m going to be converting the Google Doc directly to PDF, which people will then suck into their Kindle or Nook or what-have-you.  At no point in any of these processes does anything ever get printed.  And yet Google thinks it’s a good idea to do the knockoff-Word equivalent of locking me into print preview mode.

Now, the fact that this is useless and pointless is philosophically annoying, to be sure, but that’s not why I’m pissed off about it.  If that’s all it was, I might have an inner mini-rant and call it a day.  But the fact of the matter is that this moronic decision on the part of the Google team screws me in a far more concrete fashion.  Because, you see, in the old days my text went from the left side of my screen to the right side of my screen.  But now it does not.  Now it goes from the left side of the “page” to the right side of the “page” ... and not even all the way there, because of the margins.  So there’s huge, unused portions of whitespace (well, technically, grayspace) on either side of my text.  Which is visually annoying, but that’s still not the actual problem—if that were all it was, I could just increase the size of the font and be done with it.  No, the real problem is, I don’t have as much text on the screen as I used to.  I’m a writer: all I care about is the words.  I don’t give a crap what the “page” looks like, especially when there is no real page.  I want to see as many words as I can, all the time, with a minimum of scrolling.  The more I have to scroll, the more work it is.  And there’s just no good reason.

Now, I have tried to figure out how to turn off this “page mode.”  So far I’ve come up empty (if anyone here knows how, my eternal gratitude awaits if you will kindly leave me a comment explaining how to do it).  So I do the next best thing I’ve been able to figure out.  I go into “page setup,” and I find the paper size that is the hugest there is (I just recently discovered a new one called “tabloid,” which is 11” x 17”).  Then, since paper is always longer than it is wide, I put it in landscape mode (i.e. turn the “paper” sideways).  Then I set my left and right margins to be miniscule: just enough to keep the letters from physically touching the fake page borders.  This, believe it or not, still doesn’t eliminate all the wasted space on my screen ... but it’s much better.  Unfortunately, when I download as PDF, those settings are retained.  Now, I suppose I could reformat it every time I wanted to download the PDF and then reformat it again afterwards so I could go back to writing.  But, let’s face it: I’m lazy.  I’m not going to do that.

So, yes, it’s formatted crappily on purpose in the sense that I could make it not so crappy if I wanted to.  But, no, it’s not formatted crappily on purpose so that you’ll be more likely to get the e-book version once that’s available.  It’s just me not wanting to bother.  Or, if you’d like a more you-focussed reason, I feel that whatever time I might spend reformatting my document constantly is likely much better spent writing more fiction for you to read.  Or, to combine the two: there ain’t a nickel’s worth of difference between lazy and efficient.  Somebody famous probably said that.  If not, they really should have.

So, as promised, your link:

        The Diamond Flame (PDF version)

I may also add a link to this post on all the chapters.  But that’s a lot of work, so I also might not.  I’m terribly efficient.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Chapter 20

Travel with Welly Banks

Welly’s clothes were dripping, but not sodden.  Which made no sense, as he had only recently emerged from the water.  But perhaps that was a small thing among greater impossibilities, Johnny reflected.  The blue-skinned youth (if youth he was) put on a professorial air as he continued his speech to Roger.

“Let’s get the contractual stuff out of the way first, shall we?”  Welly started the drywashing thing again.  “I am an opener, not a pathfinder.  I open where I’m told, and am not responsible if the way opens into the heart of a supernova or the jaws of a tyrannosaurus rex.”  Roger nodded impatiently; Johnny turned to Aidan to ask him if this was likely to occur, but the water priest shushed him.  Welly continued.  “I will accompany you wherever you wish to go within the confines of Breen Lagoon, as long as your journey takes no longer than 7,919 minutes.”  (Johnny looked at Larissa; “one minute short of five and a half days,” she supplied under her breath.)  “But I cannot accompany you wheresoever you travel beyond the borders of the Lagoon.  You agree that you will not attempt to compel me to do so?”

Roger spat in her hand and thrust it out to Welly.  “Square deal,” she said.

Welly glanced at her hand with some trepidation.  “Er, yes,” he said, clutching his hands to his chest.  “I’m happy to take your word.  No need to exchange, um ... bodily fluids.”  He sniffed again.

Roger clapped him hard on the shoulder.  “Excellent, me boyo!”  She turned back to her crew.  “Aidan!  Can I get me clothes back now?”

section break

Inside of an hour, The Sylph was back on the open ocean—or open lagoon, as the case might be—and moving along at a decent clip.  Johnny had given Roger a general direction and was feeling ahead of them every now and again to make sure they stayed on track.  Currently Johnny and Larissa were leaning on the railing, watching the gentle waves flash by.  The little blue snake around Larissa’s wrist uncoiled itself, scampered up her arm, circled her neck once, slithered down the other arm, and recoiled itself around her other wrist.  Johnny heard someone pacing behind them and turned around; it was Welly.

“I’m Johnny,” Johnny said, putting out his hand.  Welly kept his hands clasped together and sniffed again.  Johnny was beginning to get the impression that sniffing and sighing were Welly’s two major modes of communication.  Johnny lowered his hand.

“So ... you’re Welly, right?”  Welly just stared back.  “You’re the ... opener?  What exactly does that entail?”

Welly sniffed.  “I open, of course.”

Johnny felt the lunatic grin returning to his face.  “Of course.  And how does one go about ‘opening’?”

Welly sighed.  “One merely reaches out and ...”  He shrugged.  “Opens.”  His webbed hands gave a little flourish, as if to say: just so.

“So I could learn to do it, then?” Johnny asked.

Another sniff.  “You don’t learn to open.  You either can, or you cannot.  Given where you’re from, I would suppose that you cannot.”

Johnny’s eyebrows lifted in surprise.  “You know where we’re from?”

Welly glanced over at Larissa briefly, almost furtively.  “I know where you’re from,” he said.  It was obvious he was excluding Larissa from his declaration.

Johnny decided to let that slide.  “How do you know?”

A sniff.  “I’ve been there, of course.”

Johnny was puzzled.  After a week or so with Roger and a few years with Larissa, this conversation should have been old hat, but still he was feeling a bit lost.  Did Welly mean he’d been to DC?  “You’ve been where?” he asked.

“Some call it the Terrable Way,” Welly said.

“The Terrible Way?”  Johnny frowned.

Welly sighed.  “You said ‘Terrible Way,’ didn’t you?”

Johnny was confused.  “Isn’t that what you said?”

“No, not Terrible Way, Terrable Way.”

Johnny looked towards Larissa for help.  “Those both sound the same to me ...”  He shrugged.

Larissa gave the tiniest shake of her head, but said nothing.

Another sigh.  “Not ‘terrible,’ with an I,” he said.  “’Terrable,’ with an A.  Isn’t your world called ‘Terra’?”

Johnny blinked.  “Well, I guess ...”

“There you go.”

“So it’s just a coincidence that it sounds like ‘terrible’?” Johnny asked.

Welly’s sardonic half-smile flickered on the left side of his face.  “Oh, I wouldn’t go that far.”

Larissa finally spoke up.  “That pun would only work in English,” she pointed out.

“Hey, yeah,” Johnny said, feeling a light bulb go on over his head.  “How come you speak English?”

Back to sniffing.  “Are we speaking English now?”

Johnny looked baffled for a second, but Larrissa replied instantly: “Yes.”

Another sniff.  “Yes, I suppose we are, right this second.  I learned it when I visited the Terrable Way.  How else could I have studied your great comics?”

“Comic books?”  Johnny was confused.

Welly gave him a haughty look.  “No, comics.  Performers.”

This was getting weirder and weirder.  “You came to our world? to watch comedians?” Johnny asked.

“Yes, and I studied the great masters.  Henny Youngman, and Jack Benny, and Jackie Mason, and Bob Hope.  Also, some of the younger crowd: Bill Cosby, and Bob Newhart, and Rodney Dangerfield.”

Larissa intervened.  “Rodney Dangerfield has been popular for over 35 years, and performing, off and on, for 61.”

Welly shook his head sadly.  “Has it been so long?  I lose track of the time ...”

Johnny said, “You don’t look that old.”

“The secret to staying young is to eat slowly and lie about your age.”

Larissa frowned.  “Lucille Ball,” she said.  “But she also advised that one live honestly.”

Welly seemed to grow wistful.  “Lucille Ball, yeah, she was one of the greats too.”  Another sigh.  “That honest living thing was never for me though.”  Then he turned and shuffled off.

section break

The days went back to melting together as they lapsed back into everyone sleeping and eating whenever they felt like it.  The open expanse of water never changed significantly—there was always mist off in the distance, although they never seemd to get closer to it, and an occasional island would appear, very far away, but mostly it was just open, calm water.  Apparently the light never changed in the Lagoon any more than it did in the swamp, so it became impossible to keep track of how much time had passed.  Or, at least, it was impossible for Johnny.  He had a feeling that Welly knew exactly how much time was passing, down to the minute.  And when his internal counter reached 7,919, Johnny knew somehow that he would just jump overboard and swim back to the hideous mermaid creatures.

“Why do you suppose it’s 7,919?” he asked Larissa at one point.

Larissa shrugged.  “Perhaps because that’s the one thousandth prime number.”

Johnny grinned.  “Sure,” he said.  “I’m sure that’s exactly why.”  Then he laughed raucously, startling a passing Bones.

At another point, he asked Welly why he worked for the mermaid creatures.  “The scalae?” Welly sniffed.  “Well, I suppose you have to work for someone, eh?  My employment options are somewhat limited around here.”  His pale ghost of a smile came back.  “You know the secret to success, don’t you?  Get up early, work late ... and strike oil.”  He looked at Johnny expectantly.

Johnny cast about for a suitable reply and came up with: “Um, Benjamin Franklin?”

Welly sighed.

“Joey Adams,” Larissa supplied.

Johnny blinked.  “I don’t know ...”

Larissa spoke up immediately.  “Joey Adams, born Joseph Abramowitz, January 6, 1911.  Humor columnist for the New York Post, author of The Borscht Belt, ...”

Johnny knew better than to let her really get rolling.  “Right, sorry.  A bit before my time, I think.  But, you were saying? about the scalas? or, scalae, or whatever?”

Welly shrugged.  “What’s to say?  They need an opener, and I open.  It’s not much of a gig, but it’s what I do.  Keeps me in fishes while I hammer out the act.”

“Fishes?” Johnny asked.  “Is that what they pay you?”

Welly arched an eyebrow and waved out at the unbroken expanse of water.  “Common currency around these parts, as you might guess.  What do you think we eat around here?”

Talking to Welly made Johnny feel a bit dim.  “Uh, sure, that makes sense.  But couldn’t you just catch your own fish?”

Welly sighed.  “I know I must cut a dashing figure in this outfit”—he gestured at his yellow-trimmed jacket, which was still dripping on the deck, although it must have been days since he’d come on board by this point—“but the fact of the matter is, I have a lethargic nature.  That is, I’m somewhat leisurely in my approach to piscine acquisition.”  Johnny blinked at him, and Welly sighed again.  “I’m like this horse I bet on one time: it was so slow, the jockey kept a diary of his trip.”

Johnny turned back to Larissa for help.  “Henny Youngman,” she put in.

Pretty much all the conversations with Welly went like that.  Which is why Johnny almost felt relieved when, after what he guessed was three or four days of travel, Roger called out from the flying bridge: “Oy! sea monster ahead!”

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Guides: Benny Millares

[This is one post in a series about people who have had a great impact on my life.  You may wish to read the introduction to the series.]

I moved to southern California in 2007.  While The Mother had lived in this area before, I was in a strange new place where I knew no one and recognized nothing.  Little things were different: when I ordered chow mein I got chop suey, and when I referred to interstates by their numbers alone, I got funny looks from the natives for leaving off the definite article.  And of course I was starting a new job where I knew no one except the few people I’d met during my interview.

I started on the 2nd day of July (because the 1st was a Sunday).  Another person started on the same day as I did—someone who had also migrated from the East Coast, who also had long hair and a scruffy beard, whose name differed from mine by a single vowel and one doubled consonant.  Oh, he was significantly taller and far more Cuban than I, but we were doomed to be confused with each other for my entire six-year tenure there.  This was how I met Benny Millares.

Independence Day was during our first week of work.  Both of us had left our families back on the East Coast to work on the move, so we were both alone in corporate housing.  Had it been up to me, I probably just would have sat at home and maybe watched some fireworks on televsion.  But Benny convinced me we should go out.  We drove around the Hollywood Hills, window-shopped the ritzy houses in Bel Air, cruised up and down the Sunset Strip for a while.  We ended up in Venice Beach, just wandering around, stopping to chat with random strangers, watching fireworks when we could get to a place we could see them.  I’d like to say this is the sort of thing I’d done in my twenties, but the honest truth is I was never the sort to do that sort of thing on my own.  Oh, I’d tag along if my friends suggested it, but I was never the instigator.  This incident, on my third day of knowing him, became a metaphor for our relationship: he constantly forces me out of my comfort zone, pushes me to try new things, think outside the box, do more, be better.

When I ran my own business, I was usually the thinker and my employees were the doers.  But I could never think big enough to have that relationship with Benny.  It was always he who had the grand ideas and I who followed along, implementing as hard as I could and trying to keep up.  This was one of many role reversals we went through at work: first he despaired of ever seeing any change in the status quo but I was optimistic, then I lost hope while he found it; for a while, I was his boss, then he became mine.  But it was our respective roles as designer vs programmer that most defined us.  He’d think ’em up, and I’d code ’em down.

Benny stayed on after I left that job, but only for about six more months.  At that point he’d squirreled away enough money to afford to move to his Florida compound with his wife, mother, stepfather, daughter, son-in-law, and grandson.  A couple of months ago, I was able to parlay a work conference to Orlando into a bit of a family vacation—myself, the eldest, and the Smaller Animal went, while the girls stayed home.  Since Orlando is only two hours away from Benny’s new place, we knew we had to at least drop in for a visit.  But Benny, on top of being the deep thinker, hard worker, and gregarious extrovert, is also a generous soul, so we ended up staying there for several days.  I knew his wife, of course, having spent many meals and a few nights in their company in California, and I’d met his daughter a couple of times, but I didn’t know the rest of the family yet.  But I believe it really is true that good people attract other good people into their spheres, and all of Benny’s family are good people.  His stepfather welcomed us, his mother cooked breakfast for us, his wife cooked dinner for us, his daughter and son-in-law sat with us, watching movies and drinking beers.  And his grandson and the Smaller Animal spent nearly every waking minute togther.  All three of us had an excellent time and we hope we can go back again someday.

This just further illustrates why I’m pleased to know Benny.  He’s taught me, he’s managed me, he’s challenged me, he’s given to me and been willing to accept from me as well: the very definition of friendship, as far as I’m concerned.  Without Benny, my time at that job would have been quite different, and possibly much shorter.  He introduced me to Android phones, Cuban food, and e-cigarettes.  He’s traveled with me, eaten with me, and entertained me time and again with stories of his many jobs prior to his software career.  He’s been there when I needed him, and he continues to be available even though he lives on the other side of the continent.  I can easily say I’m a better—and more well-rounded—person for knowing him.

[For this exercise, I also asked my two boys to contribute their thoughts about our hosts.  The eldest gave me the following few paragraphs.  The Smaller Animal provided a few disconnected sentences at the very end, but it was like pulling teeth.  That’s more due to his shy nature than any lack of enthusiasm though.  Basically, he only talks when you’d rather he were quiet.  But I know that he really enjoyed hanging out with Anthony and considers him a new friend.]

section break

Hey, how’s it going.  It’s me, the blog owner’s kid.  He posted my story about a bard one time? remember? no?  Well, good.  That story really kinda sucked.  Totally pulled the ending out of my ass.  Regardless, I’m pretty sure about five people are going to read this: my dad, my mom, Benny, and whoever else reads this blog for fun (the weirdos).  Anyways, enough grilling on my dad’s blog, let’s get to the meat and bones here.

Let me start off by saying: I’m still a minor.  If I walked up to some random 35 year old man, and tried to strike up a conversation, he’d brush me off.  Comparatively, if I walked up to some 14 year old person, and tried to strike up a conversation with them, they’d probably at least tolerate me.  It’s an unfortunate aspect of our society, that we think kids are stupider or less wise or whatever than adults (which is total BS, by the way).  But thankfully, there’s a lot of people who consider that opinion to be the stupidest thing possible.  And I’m friends with people like that.  I’m friends with Benny.

So, I’m guessing my dad is gonna shove this in the middle of his blog post, so I won’t try to explain who Benny is, I’ll just tell you why I like him.  He’s amenable, happy, and actually pretty fun to debate psychology and the future of life and immortality with.  Seriously, we talked about all that.  Again, he’s a fairly old guy with a fully grown daughter with a child of her own.  And he discussed philosophy with me.  Maybe that’s not super impressive to some people, but to me that really speaks to a level of understanding, that just because there’s a huge generation gap between us doesn’t mean we can’t chat and debate and argue.

So, earlier, I said I considered Benny to be my friend, and I can say that with complete sincerity.  Not only for all those reasons up there, but also because he’s an amazingly gracious host.  He accommodated us, even after we showed up at like 5 or 6 in the morning, gave us directions to his house in the middle of buttfuck nowhere, paid for things that he really didn’t need to ... I mean, come on.  Tell me right now you wouldn’t at least talk to the guy.

Anyways, I’ve fulfilled my obligations.  Goodbye, five people reading this, and if you’re among those five people, Benny: hey.  How ya’ doin’?

section break

One thing that I liked about Benny’s house was the cats.  They are like Fred and George, but they have collars ... I can’t remember what their names were, but the one that looked like Fred was named either Tiger or Lion—I think it’s Tiger, actually.  I liked the pool, and I liked how there’s a waterfall at the pool.  I liked the drums that were in the shed place, too. 

I liked playing with Anthony because he’s cool.  He’s fun to play with.  He likes the same stuff I do, I think.  I’d like to go visit him again sometime.

section break

So there you have it.  Thanks again for having us Benny.  And thanks for being such an awesome guy.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Showdown at the Corporate Corral

This week I had one of those moments at work where I realized I was fighting battles on several fronts and I felt like everyone was attacking me.  I hasten to stress that it only felt this way: after taking a few moments to step back and contemplate, I realized that everyone was just trying to get things done in what they thought would be the best, most productive way.  Not that any of us could agree on what the best, most productive way was, of course.  But, the point is, we weren’t in it to try to tear the other person down.  Coming to that realization enabled me to calm down and leap back into the fray with a little more gentility than my initial reaction.  Being able to step back and reassess is a valuable skill, by the way, although one that only came with experience in my case.  But that’s not the main topic I want to explore today.

The primary thing that this incident set me to pondering is why we bother to fight these battles at all.  Hey, we’re getting paid either way, right?  Why not just shut up and do whatever people want, even if you know it’s doomed to failure?  Well, the most altruistic viewpoint on this is that that’s a pretty apathetic stance to take: if you do that, aren’t you really saying you don’t care about the company you work for?  If you cared, you’d want the company to succeed by doing things properly, and not to waste time having to recover from failures.  By taking a stand and fighting for what you believe is right, you’re saying that you love your company and want to save it time (and therefore money) by increasing efficiency and aiming for victory.  Cue patriotic music here.

Now, I’m not saying there’s not an element of that in most of us who find ourselves embroiled in an argument over the “right” way to do something at work.  In my line of work, I think a lot of people really do care about whether their company succeeds or not, and, when they stop bothering to insert themselves into every discussion, it generally means they’ve checked out and they’re just daydreaming about job interviews.  But, let’s face it: enlightened self-interest only gets you so far.  At our cores, we’re generally motivated by things which have a more personal bent—we work to bring ourselves pleasure, and avoid ourselves pain.

My friend and former boss Benny believes that there’s simply a joy in being passionate about something.  That there’s an intellectual thrill in concentrated debate, and that this is how you grow and expand your knowledge.  If you can manage to defend your position with intensity but without dogma, you can either convert others to your point of view, or you can become converted yourself, and that’s a win-win proposition.  Either way someone leaves the conversation more enlightened than when they went in, and that’s a laudable goal.

I think it’s more complex than that, because I think people are more complex.  I’m not saying Benny’s wrong, of course ... just that he’s only right for Benny.  Everyone is going to have slightly different motivations for why they’re holding on to their viewpoints like a starving dog with a bone, and I think it’s worthwhile for each person to figure out why for themselves.  When we understand our own drives and ambitions, we can manage them better, and recognize when they’re about to lead us astray.  Which they do sometimes.

Now, let me take a brief detour here to point out that self-analysis is inherently flawed.  That topic could fill its own blog post, but for now suffice it to say that I firmly believe that when someone starts a sentence with “I’m the sort of person who ...” it’s time to put your skeptical glasses on.  So take what I’m saying here with a grain of salt; I try to do the same myself.

To understand why I can’t seem to help getting embroiled in these work debates, I need to tell you a story, and before I can tell you a story, I need to tell you about my dad.

My father is an interesting man with whom I have a complicated relationship, but we don’t need to go into too many details.  For the purposes of this particular story, what you need to know is that he’s a self-made man.  He went to work in a paper mill as a scalesman, a job that requires no education whatsoever, and worked his way up to being an industrial engineer, a job that typically requires a college degree.  In fact, he often said he was one of only three people in the history of his company to be given the IE title without a degree.  All that I knew about corporate culture in America before I got my own first job as a programmer, I learned from my father.

People share war stories and frustrations with their families, so it should come as no surprise that I knew some of the more egregious sins of middle management before I’d ever experienced them myself.  Here’s one so pervasive it’s almost cliché: the manager asks the employee to do something which the employee knows damn well can’t possibly work.  This situation arises because middle managers don’t actually know anything about how the business works, but they always think they do.  (To be fair, there are exceptions to this rule.  Just very rare exceptions.)  The employees know, because they’re the ones who have to do all the work.  But somehow the managers never seem to want to listen to them.  (I have theories on why this is too, but that will have to wait for another blog post.)  This is the sort of thing Scott Adams and Mike Judge are thankful for, but the rest of us just despise.  From listening to my dad, it seemed like this sort of thing happened all the time.  And, I have to say: my experience in the corporate world doesn’t contradict that impression.

So, how did my father handle these situations?  Very simple.  First, he pointed out why the project was not going to work.  He talked to as many people as possible about it.  If the manager persisted, he would put his objections in writing (memo, email, whatever).  If the manager told him to do it anyway (in writing), he just went ahead and did it.  Then, when the project inevitably failed, my father got to say “I told you so” ... with supporting documentation, even.

Now you have enough background to hear the story of the first time this ever happened to me.  I hadn’t been working at my first corporate job for even a year yet.  I tried to talk my boss out of the disastrous plan, then I put it all in writing (trying not to be a dick about it), then I went ahead and did it.  When it failed, I went to him with email in hand and said “I told you so.”  I don’t remember the exact words, but basically my boss looked at me and said, “Yeah, you were right.  Now go fix it.”

And this is when I discovered that the “satisfaction” of saying “I told you so” is vastly overrated.  Perhaps for my dad it’s enough to sustain him.  But, for me, it pales in comparison to the teeth-grinding frustration of having to do the work twice when you knew goddamn well it wasn’t going to work the first time.  In the years since then, I’ve developed an almost pathological aversion to doing things I know are going to fail.  Which brings us full circle to those heated arguments at work.

Look, I try to pick my battles.  If I feel like you have more knowledge or (more importantly) more experience than I do on a given topic, I try not to put up too much of a fight even if I’m pretty sure you’re wrong.  And of course one has to be congnizant that, if you go up against someone who’s already volunteered to do some quantity of work and you actually do manage to convince everyone that they’re going to do it the wrong way, it’s almost certain you’re going to be volunteered to do it “right.”  Which is not always desireable, either from the time aspect or the responsibility aspect.  But, if we’re talking about something I have experience with, and we’re talking about going down a road that I’ve been down before, and if I know damn well that when my team or my company did it this way last time (or the last two times, or the last three times) it was an abysmal failure ... well, then, I’m going to be practically psychotic in my opposition to that plan.  It’s partially because I want to save the company money and time, sure, and it’s partially because I want what’s best and most efficient and most productive for the team and for the business, no doubt, but, if I’m being honest, it’s probably mostly because I just hate to make the same mistake twice, and I positively despise making it thrice.  I don’t even like to watch people doing work I know is doomed to failure.  Makes me feel dirty.  Like watching a car accident unfold when you know you could do something about it but are afraid to get involved.  I feel like a bad person for letting it happen.

Although ... it seems to me like the fact that my motives may not be pure does not preclude them being a benefit to others.  I hope that people will take my passion—as annoying and frustrating as it may be sometimes—for the advantage it can be, and use it to its fullest.  Don’t look my gift anger in the mouth.  Just because my intentions are somewhat selfish doesn’t mean they can’t save you some heartache down the line.  And that’s worth a little ranting ... isn’t it?