Monthly Archive: April 2010

Apr 25 2010

I’m Not Dead Yet!

So, I know I haven’t posted much in the last little while.  I’ve not been in much of a blogging mood.

There are a few things which aren’t going particularly well in my world right now, but they’re the kind of things that you can’t talk about on your blog.  So, I’m not really in the mood to be all witty and funny.

I’ve also been in the studio finishing up the final touches on my latest audiobook creation, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.  It’s completely recorded, mixed, and mastered.  I spent the weekend finishing up the music, burning the discs, doing the cover art, etc.  All I’ve got left to do is give it one final listen-through for QC purposes, fix any errors I find, and then I’ll be ready to release it to the world.  And, even if I say so myself, this is, by far, the best audiobook I’ve done yet.  The sound quality is excellent, I am really pleased with my performance, and Frankenstein really is a great book–nothing like any of the movies I’ve ever seen by the same name.

What else?  I’ve started trying to run 30 minutes every couple of nights to help get back into shape.  I’ve stopped buying my lunch at work every day, choosing instead to bring in leftovers from my cooking.  I planted my container garden (pictures coming soon), and I’m still continuing to make my awesome no-knead bread at least a couple of times a week.

Luke the Dog is dealing with his seasonal allergies again.  He gets topical staph infections every time he swims in the lake…I think he’s probably allergic to some of the algae that grows in there or something.  So, he doesn’t get to go swimming as much as he’d like to–which is pretty much all the time since he’s a Golden Retriever.

I’ve been listening to the audiobook version of the EXCELLECT Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins.  I’d highly recommend them for people who like well-written but not-pretentious novels.  I’ve not gotten this engaged in any novels since the Harry Potter series, and the also excellent Fablehaven series.

Oh yeah, and I’ve decided that I’m going to start a separate photoblog for posting all my photos.  I’ll probably still post a few here on this blog, but I wanted a single place where I could put all my photos and find them easily.  Plus, the wordpress theme for the photoblog is SWEET!  You can visit it at http://photoblog.mattarmstrongmusic.com.  I haven’t tweaked all the settings yet, but I love the main entry page.

That’s about all that’s going on with me.  I’ll try to do a better job with posting my happenings here but, let’s face it, now that the nice weather’s starting to show up, I’d much rather be outside or doing something naturey than writing epic blog posts.

‘Till next time!

Apr 19 2010

Make it Right

If you turn on the TV in my house, chances are that you’re going to find that the last time it was turned on, it was on one of two channels: Food Network or HGTV.  Of the two, I used to be a big fan of Food Network, until the network decided that it was more interested in food entertainment than it was in food instruction.  The whole reason I used to watch the network is so that I could learn to cook from classically trained, highly respected chefs with impeccable understanding of the science and technique of cooking.  (Good Eats, Sarah’s Secrets, Molto Mario, etc.)  I mean, I learned how to cook by watching these shows. 

Now, instead of having informational and instructional television, they fill it up with Unwrapped, Iron Chef, Chopped, Dinner:Impossible, Throwdown, Food Network Challenge, The Next Food Network Star, and Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.  Instead of teaching us how to cook, they teach us that a headband and a snooty British accent means that you have what it takes to judge a cake building competition.  Instead of the Sarah Moltens and Mario Batalis, we have the Neeleys, Brian Boitano, and Sandra Lee–people who may have a personality, but can’t really teach you much about the technique of cooking because they think it’s okay to make mixed drinks out of crushed kiwi, vodka, melon liqueur, and juice from a jar of jalapeno peppers.

Side Note: If you’ve ever seen Semi-Insane: With Sandra Lee, I’d suggest you read this hysterical article.  Best Line–in reference to Sandra’s Kwanzaa Cake: "It’s like being sodomized by the sugar plum fairy."

So, instead of watching Food Network twenty four-seven liked I used to, I am now a fan of HGTV (motto: Why make our own TV Shows when we can just buy them from Canada?)  All of the American-produced HGTV shows are stupid competition shows or shows like Selling New York, which just follows around a bunch of agents selling ludicrously over-priced property to excruciatingly wealthy jackasses with gigantic egos. (Which isn’t surprising, since HGTV is owned by the same parent company as Food Network.  Apparently, Scripps is more interested in making the food and real estate equivalents of Flavor of Love than in programming content that is actually watchable) 

However, more than half of HGTV’s premiere programming is purchased from Canadian production companies.  Apparently, Canadians don’t have enough to do during their frigid winters, so when they’re bored, they remodel their homes.  And they’re good enough at it that they can actually teach others how to do it.  Divine Design, Sarah’s House, The Unsellables, Property Virgins, and Income Property all grace major spots in the network’s prime time lineup.  But the Canadian-produced show that stands head and shoulders above them all is Holmes on Homes.  

In HoH, Mike Holmes is a contractor who goes into situations where contractors have given their customers the royal screw job, completely undoes the damage caused by these yahoos, and then fixes it.   He helps them oot.  (Get it?  Oot?  ‘Cause he’s Canadian?  Oh, never mind.)  (Seriously.  Where’s your sense of humor?) 

Mike’s Motto is "Make It Right."  His whole message centers around the fact that, if you spend the time and money to do it right the first time, then you won’t have to go back and fix it up later.  It’s always cheaper and easier in the long run to just do what it takes to make it right than it is to bandage it.

I started watching this show about three weeks ago because nothing was on and instantly I was hooked.  I grew up around construction.  My dad was a construction manager for most of my formative years, and I used to go to his office with him, or occasionally tour his job sites as they were in progress.  For 7 1/2 of the 8 years we spent in our house in Albion, it was under renovation.  So watching shows like this make me nostalgic in a way.  I still watch This Old House or Hometime whenever I come across them (although I miss Joanne Liebeler).

There’s something very different about this show, though.  Mike is a gruff, brash guy who can come off as pretty intimidating.  But you can tell by watching him that he loves what he does, and he demands excellence from both himself and his crew.  He never takes the easy way out and he never does the job half-way.  Everything that he does on the show proves that he takes a great deal of pride in the work that he does.  It’s inspiring to see someone care so much about the quality of their work.  Inspiring and increasingly rare.

Among craftsmen, there seems to be a theme of taking pride in your work.  My father, who now builds multi-million dollar buildings for a living does it.  My brother-in-law, a project manager for a large construction company does it.  My uncle, who also builds buildings and, in his spare time, is an excellent wood worker, takes pride in his work.  My grandfather, an architect, does it.  My great uncle the plastic surgeon took pride in his work.  Even the cleaning woman who comes to my apartment once a week cares deeply about her work and wants to make sure that she’s done the best she can do.   

This concept, however, seems to be slipping away outside of the skilled trades.  For those of us who work in an office, doing the same thing day in and day out, it’s hard to take pride in your work when there’s nothing tangible to show for it.  In my job, for instance, I have become a digital janitor.  Among my assigned responsibilities, I’ve been tasked with cleaning up incorrectly entered data.  I write my SQL queries, develop my processes, send out my weekly and monthly reports, but no matter what I do, tomorrow I’m going to walk into the office and there will be new messes for me to clean up.  I’m never "done."  I never have a product that I can look back on with pride and say, "I did that.  And I did it right."

In the absence of a tangible, visible result of your efforts, it’s extremely difficult to take pride in your work.  It’s hard to take a step back and say, "I’m proud of what I’ve contributed."  And that difficulty shows regularly in the modern workplace.  People try to get away with doing the absolute minimum possible.  They take as many sick days as they can.  Rather than doing any work and taking ownership of the problems, they delegate all responsibility. 

As I’ve watched Mike Holmes and his crew looking over a complete abortion of remodeling job, nearly overwhelmed by the sheer stupidity, laziness, incompetence, and fraudulence of the previous contractors, I see them survey the situation, evaluate their options, make a plan of action, roll up their sleeves, and get to work.  They don’t whine about how hard it is.  They don’t attempt to cover up the mistakes and polish a turd.  They make it right.

(I realize that this is a television show, and for all I know, they really could be doing a crappy job, but it’s the concept I’m going after here, so just go with me here.)

Our inability to take pride in our work shows, in my opinion, a greater shortcoming in our cultural aptitude overall.  As a culture, we are increasingly unable to stick with something when it gets hard.  How many people get divorced because one spouse or another just gave up instead of trying to make it work?  How many people start suing anyone with a wallet when something in their life goes wrong rather than pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and making it right?  How many people play the lottery hoping that they’ll hit it big instead of working hard and saving?  How many people wallow in situations that they can’t stand rather than getting to work to do something about it?

As a culture, I feel as though we’ve forgotten what it means to take pride in our work.  Back in the day, when you were the only carpenter or blacksmith or baker around, you lived with and relied on your customers, just as they lived with and relied on you.  If you did a crappy job, word got around, and you lost your livelihood.  Your value in the community dropped, and your ability to support yourself and your family suffered as a result.

Take, for example, the US auto industry.  This American Life recently chronicled an auto manufacturing plant in California called Nuumi. (This was one of the most engaging hours of radio to which I have ever listened.  I’d suggest you listen if you get a chance.)  The Nuumi plant was widely acknowledged as one of the worst plants in all of  GM’s manufacturing lines.  It was inefficient, mismanaged, and full of illegal activity.  Workers would drink on the job, have sex in the break rooms, and often, just not show up for work at all.  Many times, the management of the plant would go to the bar across the street to find enough (drunk) people to fill in just so they could keep the line operating. 

The number one rule of the factory was "never stop the line."  People got injured, you never stopped the line.  Engines got installed backward, you never stopped the line.  Workers would watch minor mistakes go by on the line, but you never stopped the line.  As a result, car after car would roll off the assembly line full of defects and mistakes.  Rather than fixing the mistakes on the line or developing ways to improve performances, the workforce simply settled into an operational rut and did the same brainless action over and over again.

Unsurprisingly, most of the cars that rolled off the line at the plant were full of defects.  Many of them were so screwed up, they’d have to be towed off the line and out into the holding lot for repairs.  Then, they would be taken apart and fixed…often by people who didn’t actually know how to fix the problems.  As a result, the quality of the cars put out at the plant was abysmal.  It was the direct result of people, from the person tightening the bolts on the wheels to the head of the plant not caring about the quality of the work that they did.  Thirty years later, we look at what once was the largest and most successful automobile company in the world, and they’re barely struggling to survive.  What a surprise.

In the modern world of cubicles and email, we are so divorced from our customers that it is almost as if we’ve forgotten how important it is to do our job and do it splendidly.  More importantly, we’ve forgotten how good it can feel when we do our job to the best of our ability.  Pride in your work, once part of your "benefits package" doesn’t count for anything anymore.  Our tasks have become so much less vital to our daily survival that the importance factor has ratcheted down significantly.  When you’re living in Washington state, and your customer is a 14 year old boy in Switzerland who wants to download the movie Booty Call in German, it’s hard to want to put in the extra effort to do it the right way the first time.  And when you live in a world where it becomes more important to report on what you’re doing than it is to actually do it, it’s hard even to find the time to do the job the right way.

As I’ve contemplated this pattern in our modern society, I’ve tried to watch those people who take pride in their work and determine how they’re doing it.  I’m not talking about the people who politic their way up the corporate ladder or play all the right games to get the big salary and the corner office.  I’m talking about the people who come into the office every day with, pardon the pun, workman-like regularity.  The ones who do their jobs every day, and who make sure that they’ve left their work world a little better off after they were done.

I know I do my work responsibility well.  But I’ve not really figured out how to do a better job of taking pride in the work that I do.  What I do isn’t world-changing.  I never get to interact with my customers and see how my actions affect them directly.  The nature of the work I do means that, even if I’ve fixed all the problems today, tomorrow when I go to work the same challenges and frustrations will exist.  I will never have some multi-million dollar building to point out as I’m driving along the freeway as being the direct result of my labors.  I can’t bring someone to my office to to show them what I do.  So I need to find other ways to take pride in my work.

I’m proud of the fact that, in six months, I’ve only missed 1/2 a day of work due to illness.  I take pride in the fact that, if someone asks me to do something, I do it, and on time.  I take pride in the fact that I show up to work on time, show up to my meetings on time, and get my job done.  I take pride in the fact that I continue to learn and expand my knowledge, and that I’ve found ways to apply that knowledge which will affect the way my team does its job long after I’m gone.  I take pride in the fact that I have a deep understanding of the way our systems work, and others call on me regularly to help explain functionality and test issues.

I may not be building a hospital, or bringing a family back into their home after months and years of construction nightmares. I may not have anything tangible to show for my work.  But I want to make sure that, no matter what I do, I want to make it right.

Apr 13 2010

I Got a Tent

So, I think I’ve mentioned a few times before that I have lost my mind decided to go on a pilgrimage through Hell backpacking trip to the Wind River Valley in Wyoming this summer with my father and uncle, and some other sap imbecile glutton-for-punishment yet-to-be-determined fourth person.  The wisdom of such a decision is tenuous, certainly, but what’s done is done.  (Plus, while I’m gone, nobody will be able to get a hold of me on my cell phone, so even if someone has planted a nuclear bomb in the building at work and the only way to diffuse it is by writing a SQL query that only I could write, then that building is going to essplode.  I won’t get any bars where we’re going.)  I decided that I didn’t want to go through my whole life without at least experiencing a trip like this.  And who knows, I may like it and become all rugged and outdoorsy.

Actually, the truth is that I’m mostly going because I want to have a Julie-Andrews-in-The-Sound-of-Music moment.

Because NOTHING will endear me more to the hearts of my hiking companion than singing Rogers and Hammerstein at the top of my lungs (in Julie Andrew’s octave mind you) 10,000 feet above sea level.  What says rugged and outdoorsy more than that?

Anyway, in preparation for this slow trudge to my death very exciting backpacking trip, I’ve had to start buying equipment.  On one hand this has been fun because, as we all know, Matt loves him some shopping.  (Also, can I just say…Amazon Prime ROCKS!)  On the other hand, shopping for hiking gear, while better than not shopping at all, isn’t anywhere near as much fun as shopping for computers or music gear or furniture or clothing or video games or…well, you get the picture.  I’m getting the stuff because I have to, but I would really rather not have to spend the money on anything other than paying off my credit cards. I will say this, however: in the course of my shopping trips, I have managed to re-establish my love of freeze-dried Ice Cream (a.k.a. Astronaut Ice Cream).  Mountain house makes a freeze dried Ice Cream Sandwich which is really, really good.  I’ve started buying them just to eat on the way home from the grocery store.

So far I have managed to procure:

  • Hiking Boots
  • Camp Pillow
  • Mess Kit
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Hiking Pole
  • Special Camera Bag for Hiking
  • Hiking Pants
  • Straps to tie stuff to my pack
  • Tent

I just got the tent today in the mail.  I wanted to make sure that it was all good, so I set it up this evening while I was watching Antiques Roadshow (I told you…rugged and outdoorsy).  It looks quite nice, is very roomy, goes together quickly and easily, and packs away just as quickly and easily.  Overall, I’m pretty pleased with it.  Also, it came with an unexpected $20 rebate.  (Originally $125, onsale for $85 with a $20 rebate…not too shabby).  It’s safety yellow, which will totally clash with my hiking pants, but beggars can’t be choosers. Or so I’m told.

I still have to procure some hiking shirts, base layer undergarments, hiking socks and sock liners, a carbon fiber tripod, and all the little things like sunscreen, bug repellent, food, moleskin, Advil, morphine, and 4 years worth of counseling to undo the emotional scars I’m about to inflict on myself.  I’m going to be borrowing a pack from either my dad or my uncle.  So, I’m getting there.

All I have to say is that I hope I get some KILLER photographs while I’m up there.  (Oh yeah.  Note to self…buy extra camera batteries and memory cards.)

Apr 12 2010

Photography: Headshots of Monica

My first foray into semi-professional photography was through the art of the headshot…the 8X10 photo that actors hand out to auditioners when they audition for parts.  It’s a very specific style of photography.  While I was in college, I used to do headshots on occasion to make a little extra money, and I got pretty good at it.  I wanted to get back into doing some headshots again, so I asked Monica, a co-worker of mine, if she wouldn’t be willing to model for me.  She does community theater, and so I figured she’s get some headshots, and I’d get some practice.  I was quite pleased with the way this session turned out.  Monica (despite her protestations to the contrary) is quite photogenic, and the lighting couldn’t have been more perfect.  I did almost nothing to these photos.  I didn’t really even have to color correct.  Now, go out there and land a lead role, will you?

 

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Apr 11 2010

Luke Wipes Out

I promise I won’t overload this blog with puppy videos, but I had one more I wanted to share.  (Apologies to all the folks on Facebook and Twitter who saw this already.  This is for those folks who visit my blog, but don’t do the social networking thing.  (HI MOM!)

This was Luke at the dog park today.  Such a model of grace.

Apr 10 2010

Luke’s Snow Day – The Video

A quick video I slapped together with footage from my camera. 

Apr 10 2010

It’s beginning to look a lot like…April?

So, like much of the western portion of the United States, the Seattle area got pounded with a freak snowstorm this week.  At work we had about two hours of mightily impressive hail, and the mountains got quite a bit of fresh snow.  I missed not having any snow at all this year, so I figured now would be as good a time as any to go and enjoy the snow up in the mountains.  So this morning at 6:00 AM (!) Luke and I hopped into the car and drove 30 minutes up into Snoqualmie Pass and over to the Gold Creek Sno-Park area for a couple of hours.  It was absolutely beautiful, and Luke had the time of his life.  He saw quite a bit of snow his first winter when we were still in Utah, and he loved it, but there just isn’t much in the way of snow around here. 

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It was a fun trip that wore me out.  The trip did teach me a few things, however.

  • I really need to get a new car.  A Honda Civic Coupe is not a good snow vehicle on unplowed roads.  I almost didn’t make it out.
  • I really, really need to spend more time outdoors.  It’s so beautiful around here, and I just don’t ever seem to take advantage of it as much as I ought to.
  • I am woefully out of shape.  Back to healthy eating and the gym.  *sob*
  • This was such a fun trip, and it didn’t cost me anything but the gas to get there. 

Next weekend, I think I’m going to go to the tulip festival again.  This is my third year here, and it would be my third time going back to to the tulip festival.  I think, though, that I’m going to try and go very early in the morning next weekend so I can get some great wide-angle pictures without tons of tourists in the middle of my shot.

Apr 08 2010

Resolution Update – March 2010

Sorry I’m late on this for March.  I totally forgot about it.  It was a pretty decent month for resolutions.

1) Self Control – Money

Big win for me on this during March.  I’ve managed to save quite a bit of money this month.  I was frugal with my spending, saved a bunch of money, and managed to purchase a few pieces of gear for my upcoming hiking trip.

2) Experience New Things

I went hiking.  I went to the Botanical Gardens. I went to a new Chinese Restaurant.  And I’ve got some new stuff planned for April.  I’m going to call this one pretty good too.

3) Lose 20 Pounds

I’ve done very poorly on the weight loss.  Very poorly.  I’ve been simply ravenous lately, and I seem to be unable to feel "full."  I’ve only gained a couple of pounds, so it’s not been an epic fail, but it is a fail none-the-less.

4) Be More Social

I’m going to consider this a very mild success.  I went out to lunch with some co-workers one day, which was fun.  And I went hiking with some other co-workers which was also very enjoyable.  So I’m getting out a little more.  I’m also really enjoying my alone time these days, so I’m not feeling particularly social at the moment.

5) Write Music

I didn’t do much with music during the month.  I worked a little on a song I wrote back in February, but nothing new.

6) Get in Shape

I’m walking quite a bit more, hiking, etc.  So, I’m making slow progress on this one, but increased success on #3 will also result in increases success in #6.

7) Be More Giving

Fail.  It’s all mine.

8) Get to Bed Earlier

I’ve not been doing as well with this for the last couple of weeks.  I was trying to get to bed by midnight.  Now it’s drifted back to 12:30.  And occasionally 1:00.   I had honestly forgotten about this resolution (which is one of the reasons I do these updates) so I need to re-focus. 

9) Take LOTS of pictures

Doing pretty well…and you’ve seen some of the results here on the blog.

10) El Learno La Espanol C#

So, I think I’m going to axe the whole learn Spanish thing.  I just don’t have the drive anymore.  Instead, I’ve started learning the computer programming language C#.  It’s learning a different language…and, quite frankly, one that I’m far more likely to use on a regular basis.

Apr 08 2010

Screening at the Top of My Lungs

Unless you’re dead, or possibly comatose, you have probably heard that Apple recently released something known as the iPad.

It’s a tablet computer…about the same size as my Kindle DX, but able to do basically the same thing that can be done on an iPhone or iPod touch.  And then some. 

I am no lover of Apple products.  They are obscenely overpriced, overdesigned, and, in many cases, underperforming.  I spent over $1000 on iPhones, none of which actually allowed me to make phone calls.  I purchased three iPods in my day, two of which died after less than 18 months of use, and one of which had to be sent back four times for repair.   Anyone who tells you that Apple computers never crash has never actually used one.  I considered buying a Mac Pro for my recording studio, but it would have cost me $3,800 to buy the machine.  To buy a comparable Windows-based machine, I spent $1,050.  (And, by the way, this particular machine has NEVER crashed…I’m just sayin’).  I could have purchased 3.7 new computers for the cost of a single Mac.

(Side note: I have less-than-rosy feelings about products by Apple’s operating system competitor as well.  Suffice it to say, however, I will not use my blog to point out what I consider to be flaws in the products created by the company that pays my bills.  Let’s just say that all technology companies have their own problems, and sometimes, those problems are myriad.)

When the iPad was first announced a few months ago, I had to say that I wasn’t particularly thrilled by the concept.  I like where Apple is trying to go with the device, but I don’t want a giant iPod touch.  And I joined in with the rest of the world making fun of one of the worst product names of all time.  (My personal favorite:  "I’m going to wait to buy an iPad until Apple comes out with the larger version: the Max iPad.") 

Despite my relative distaste for Apple products (and moreover, Apple Fanboys), I had a chance to play around with one of these tablets for a while and I came away mildly impressed.  It does many things well (although it can only do one of them at a time), it’s relatively well designed, and most of all, it’s a new category of device.  It’s not meant to replace the phone or the computer, but sit somewhere in between.  On the weekend of the release, I actually toyed around with buying one. 

See, it’s not that I really wanted an iPad, but I’m one of those early adopters.  I like to have the new stuff before everyone else does.  I was the first person I knew who owned a DVD player, for instance.  I was a very early adopter of the TiVo.  I got a digital SLR camera VERY early on in their life cycles.  The iPad is something new, and I wanted to be a part of the cultural phenomenon. 

But as the weekend progressed, and I mulled this over in my mind, I came to a pretty significant realization: I do not want or need any new screens in my life.

I wake up every morning and the first thing I do before I even get out of bed is roll over, pick up my phone, and check my email, Facebook, and Twitter.  I go to work where I have (literally) five computer monitors at my desk and I spend all day long staring at computer monitors.  I come home, and I pull out my Kindle, head into the recording studio, and work on my audiobooks.  Then I sit down in front of my two computer monitors at home and write blog posts, edit my audiobooks, surf the net.  Sometimes, I’ll take my camera (which has a screen) outside and take some pictures.  Then I’ll come back in and edit photos on my computer.  And when it’s all said and done, I sit down in front of my 42" television and watch TV, Movies, or play Video Games.  Then, the very last thing I do before I lay down at night is check my email, Facebook, and Twitter on my phone before I set the alarm and go to sleep.  My life, from the moment I wake up until the moment I go to bed, is spent in front of screens.

And that, to me, is the real shortcoming of the iPad–at its heart, it is nothing more than another screen.  The iPad doesn’t replace any of the screens already in my life.  It can’t replace my phone.  There’s now way it will replace my computer–at least not for several generations.  If given the choice of watching TV on a 10" tablet or a 42" high-def TV on my comfy sofa with a surround sound system, I’m going to pick the TV.  It can’t replace my kindle because I can’t read books on blacklit LCD screens–it gives me terrible headaches and eye strain.  (Heck, if I have to read something more than just a few pages long, I still print it up and read it on paper.)  All the iPad would be is another very expensive screen that I would need to find a way to cram into my life.  There’s NOTHING that I can do on the iPad that I can’t do just as easily, if not more so, on one of the other devices already in my life.  And the limitations of the iPad–in particular the requirement that I use iTunes, one of the slowest, most bloated, ugly, unmanageable, and laggy pieces of software I’ve ever run in my life (which is saying something when you remember where I work…) to access the device mean that I have even less desire.

(Side note: in proofreading this blog post, I realized that I typed ‘iPod" when I meant "iPad" about 80% of the time.  Another reason why the name is so annoying.)

I can see where the tablet computer concept would be very handy for some people: those who travel a lot, those who use imagery as part of their profession (photographers, artists, designers, etc.).  For people who aren’t bothered by reading on backlit screens, the iPad would be a phenomenal eBook reader.  But for most people, and most uses, I think people are buying into the expertly generated Apple Hype™ and buying the iPad because it’s the cool thing to do.  As the tablet PC ecosystem expands, I believe that many companies, including Apple, will find ways to help the tablet expand its usability and functionality, but I don’t think that most people will end up using the iPad as much as they think they will.  I think folks will drop their $800 (!) on an iPad, play with it incessantly for the first few weeks, and then I think it will become just another device that only gets pulled out every once in a while.  Until Apple, or some other company, can create a device without so many usage restrictions, I just don’t see the need for this in my life.

So, to answer the question I’m sure you’ve been asking yourselves since the iPad came out: no, I will not be buying one.  At least not now.  And not for what they’re charging.  And probably not for this first generation of devices.  I have already thrown such a huge part of life away staring at pixels on screens for hours and days and months and years on end.  I don’t need anything else that encourages me to do so even more often.  If I get the urge to go and buy an iPad, I will just go for a walk.  Because honestly, it’s about time I stopped living my life through the false images transmitted to me via Liquid Crystal Displays and started living life in person. 

For me, that’s the truly revolutionary new thing.

Apr 03 2010

Anything You Want to Be

I have struggled to manage my personal finances for the last decade…and mighty has been the struggle thereof.  Education was not the problem.  I knew I shouldn't be charging up the credit cards.  I knew I should be saving and investing my money.  No, education wasn't the problem.  Self-control was the problem.  I knew what I should and shouldn't be doing, but I also knew that, really, I deserved the things I was buying.  Or, more accurately, I completely convinced myself that, not only did I deserve them, but I needed them.

As part of my continuing path toward developing better financial self control, I listen to podcasts about money issues.  In one recent episode, I heard an interview between two columnists from financial publications talking about the state of the financial system.  Over the last several months, the economy has begun to pick up again, after two and a half years of a very bad recession–the kind of recession that has the power to change people's financial behavior.  These two columnists, who were supposed to be in a point-counterpoint type of argument, were discussing what changes we could expect to see from the general public following this recession.  They both agreed that there really aren't going to be any lasting changes in behavior as a result of one of the worst financial meltdowns in American history.  The savings rate went up for a little while, but it was always one of the lowest in the world, and it's already started back down again.  Wall Street has already started recklessly throwing their money around again–doing risky things with it and pissing it away on massive salaries and bonuses.  People who call into the show are already starting to ask about whether it would be a good idea to take out a HELOC (Home Equity Line of Credit) to buy something they don't need.  Credit card spending was down, but it's starting to rise again.  And all of this despite a nationwide unemployment rate of well over 9%.

I've thought a lot about this financial crisis over the last few years.  I actually predicted the burst of the housing bubble in this post about four months before it happened.  It has been interesting to watch, both from the point of view of an MBA student learning about the financial system, but also as a person who has a good job, lives in a nice location largely unaffected by the recession, and who was entirely unscathed by the financial system.  I didn't have anything invested at the time of the market collapse, so really, I've benefitted quite a bit.  I was able to invest money when the market was at the bottom.  I bought low.  So, my perspective of the financial crisis is different from someone who was affected directly.  And I've been thinking a lot about the causes–not the economic causes, because those are fairly well understood.  Rather, I'm more interested in the social causes.  What made the culture buy the houses they couldn't afford?  What made the culture spend insane amounts of money in credit card debt that they couldn't repay?  What caused the Wall Street culture to gamble so flagrantly with other people's money?

Over the last 100 years, the nature of being a working man has changed significantly.  For much of history, a person's career path was determined by the career path of their parents.  So much so that family names were often determined by what a person's family did (e.g., Smith, Cooper).  And that was only for those fortunate enough to have a family career path.  Many had to resort to simply picking up whatever day labor they could or, in extreme cases, selling themselves on the street.  Many of the people who came to this country in the early stages of its development came as indentured servants or, far worse, slaves.

In an environment such as this, work had a very different meaning than it does today.  Much like those whose marriages are arranged and never have the opportunity to choose their spouses, many men and women in history never got the choice to be what they wanted to be.  Their path was established for them before they were born, and there was precious little opportunity to diverge from that path.  It is likely that, in most cases, the simple fact that choices for alternatives didn't exist actually helped people to enjoy their work–they knew that they would continue to do the work they knew, and they found ways to adapt.  Or, they simply lived in ignorance that something "better" was out there.  And in the case of the workman of the past, it's quite possible that ignorance really was bliss.

But something began to happen in the workforce around the time of the industrial revolution, and exploded after the conclusion of World War II.  The working economy changed, and education became so readily available that people began to see other alternatives than the life established by their parents.  People began to expand and move past the well-established family farms and businesses.  The rise of the office worker and the death of the agrarian and manufacturing economy in the United States helped to expedite the departure from ancestral employment.

Along with, or perhaps as a result of, the increase in employment flexibility and education over the last century, a great change has taken place in the way we talk about work with our children.  No longer do we assume that a child is born into a line of work or a station in life.  Instead, there is constant reassurance that "you can be anything you want to be."  That message is everywhere.  It's repeated like a mantra in children's programming.  It's preached from the pulpit of the public schools.  It's built into the fairy-tale endings of nearly every form of popular media.  It's even preached (far more insidiously) in the realm of higher education.  I can vividly recall my professors in college telling me, "It doesn't really matter what you study.  What's important is that you get a college degree."  The message of "you can be anything you want to be" has become thoroughly and completely ingrained into our societal subconscious.

There's only one problem with that.  It's not really true.

'Come along, Chadwick,' said Father, pulling the boy roughly by the hand. 'But Papa!' came the plaintive wail--'the cows, the cows, the cows, the cows!'
Comic courtesy of Wondermark by David Malki

The consistent repetition of the mantra "You can be whatever you want to be" is, in many ways, a great disservice to the youth of the world.  What the Sesame Streets and Musical Theatre professors of the world never tell you is that, chances are, it doesn't matter how hard you work or how hard you study–you probably won't be able to be anything you want to be.  Most people go through lives doing work that they don't particularly enjoy or care about.  Precious few find the jobs that help them to feel as though they fulfilled their calling, or that they have achieved some greater status.  The majority of people won't be rich, they won't be wildly successful, they won't be the top of their field.  They will just be normal, regular people.  They work to live, not live to work.  Some people despise every second of their working lives and can't wait for the instant they can retire.  But the collective "they" never tell you that.  The heads of youth are filled with dreams of grandeur and great possibility, and, far more dangerously, an undeserved and unearned sense of entitlement.

I have witnessed the result of this shortcoming both in myself and in others over the last 16 years of my working life.  People walk into jobs with a sense of entitlement: they will get promoted quickly or will get large raises–not because they've earned the right, but because "I can be whatever I want to be."  I have had jobs in the past where I felt as though I was being treated like cattle heading toward the slaughter or, especially in the theater, a human set piece.  And it infuriated me.  I had gone to college.  I had studied my craft.  I had worked hard.  And I knew that I deserved better.  I had jobs where I started my first day feeling as though, because I had "put in my dues" and worked hard, that I deserved respect, despite the fact that I had never done anything to earn that respect.  Workers who don't come to work, do illegal things at work, or fail to perform even the basic functions of their jobs, then scream "foul" when they are called out.

Aside from an deserved sense of entitlement, we as a society fail to explain to our youth that the natural functions of life also block off opportunity.  Ugly Betty tells us that if we just put in our dues, we'll go from being a frumpy nobody to a glamorous, beautiful, and successful person.  The Biggest Loser tells us that if we can go to "The Ranch" and get screamed at by a couple of pretty trainers for four months, we'll lose 150 pounds and win $250,000.  Well, my physical appearance means that, no matter how hard I work, I'll never look like a "leading man."  My lack of coordination means that I will never make millions playing basketball for the NBA.  The gap in my front teeth means that I'll never be asked to be a model for a toothpaste commercial.  My eyesight means that I'll never be allowed to fly an experimental jet plane for the military.  No amount of hard work, study, practice, training, or stick-to-itiveness (thanks for the word, Principle Skinner) will undo these physical obstacles.

"They" also neglect to explain the consequence of choices.  I'm not talking about the good vs. bad choices taught in Sunday School.  I'm talking about the directional choices.  The choices, not of right and wrong, but of option.  Every choice you make opens up hundreds of new avenues.  But at the same time, it also closes off millions of other avenues.  My dogged insistence on studying musical theater and my decision to pursue it for several years, meant that for the rest of my life, my work history and resume has an anomaly that I have to either minimize, rationalize, or lie about in order to make it make disappear.  It meant that, in order to become credentialed to be taken seriously for the types of jobs I wanted to have after I retired from performing, I would have to spend two years and tens of thousands of dollars getting an advanced degree.  As a result, I will be paying for my five years of musical theater for the next twenty five.  And that limits a lot of my choices.

If the point of the educational system is to prepare the youth of today to become the adults of tomorrow, I think it's time we as a culture re-evaluate the messages we are sending our children.  While I think it's a good thing to inspire the young to experiment and try new things, that experimentation needs to be coupled with blunt honesty.  People need to be told that sometimes, they're just not good enough–that they've got the wrong aptitude for what they're trying to do.  It will either spur them to improve or redirect them into more suitable paths.  Instead, we've developed a wishy-washy educational culture where there are no winners or losers, and where everyone gets an award just for showing up and participating.  A culture where you're good enough just the way you are, or where you are so sheltered from the consequences of making mistakes, you never really get an opportunity to learn and grow from those mistakes. 

The reality of the world, particularly the working world, is that sometimes, even if you work hard, your efforts will go unnoticed or unappreciated.  Sometimes, you won't get what you think you deserve.  Sometimes, nobody needs or even wants your opinion.  And sometimes they do.  Rather than teaching our culture that hard work is the avenue by which you can accomplish great things and become exactly the person you want to become, maybe we should instead teach the culture that hard work is, in and of itself, the true goal.  That building a life of peace is more important that building another giant McMansion that will end up in foreclosure the next time the stock market crashes.  That sometimes, what you have (and nothing more) is exactly the right amount.

And most of all, that sometimes, no matter how hard you try, maybe all your wildest dreams won't come true.  And that's okay.

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