Big Words Don’t Make You Seem Smart

I’m very sorry sir but that particular extension is down at the moment, do you mind if I place you on hold while I locate a representative who can provide further assistance to you today?

This is what the heavily accented woman tried to say. I don’t think many of the words are typical to her dialect except in these exact phrases. What came out was a beautiful Tennessee twang with a mouthful of bubblegum but nothing as clear as the following:

that agent is not there, I’ll find another. Would you wait a moment?

I find the same thing at airports:

Good afternoon, American Airlines would like your attention in the concourse for important information about American Airlines Flight number 471 with service today from London Heathrow to San Francisco California. We’d like to continue boarding by rows, and ask anyone holding a boarding pass and seated in rows 40 and higher to approach the gate agent…

This long phrase is rattled off without thinking by gate agents; looking around, you see other agents from other airlines patiently waiting for this lengthy announcement to finish before inhaling deeply and dishing out their own Shakespearean soliloquy.

Seriously, it’s bad enough with accents in your own language (and some english is barely that) but worse if you’re a foreigner trying hard to hear the details you need to board the plane.

American 471 San Francisco at gate 57 boarding rows 40 and higher

All six people in the entire airport who may be offended by this coarse, direct speech can fly another 50 flights before rendering an opinion. Seriously.

Consider how people who have learned only a little english speak: “I want eat dinner” or “this taxi go Eiffel tower, yes?” See how there are no silly fluffy filler words, yet the meaning is understood? See how there’s no extra words to confuse things? See how it’s so brief, it’s basically punctuation and key words.

Key words.

When they’re most of the content, they stand out even more.

That’s like more signal/meaning within the noise of blah blah blah announcements.

On a similar note, I met an elderly couple who had never flown. I had to help them with seatbelts: I sat beside them, heard the same ridiculously complex announcement, their grasp of the english language left them unsure of what to do. They probably would have preferred a more direct speech within the airport as well.

Be direct, be clear, be brief. Get the point across, and use words you’ve used before. Talk slowly when addressing the very elderly and the addle-brained — the rest of us are aging as you Soliloquize the blah blah parts. You done yet?


Languages Greater-Than

In a strange side-effect of my travel, I pick up a bit of the languages where I stay for any amount of time.

My Chinese (not Cantonese, but Mandarin, from the other 22 provinces of China) is sufficient skill to bark at a taxi driver, but not so good.

Funny, it’s better than the chinese guy I just spoke to at the delivery joint — even using the Chinese name for things was not understood. Granted, my Chinese might be *that* bad… but “Is that Kung-Pow Chicken, is it Guangdong or Beijing Style?” and “well, is it Cantonese, or is it like real Gong-bao Ji-ding? (宫宝鸡丁)” seem difficult to butcher. The poor guy didn’t make sense of the terms.

It would be ironic to brag about such little skill — I’m not posting this to brag about my non-skill at a language, just the oddity that it exceeds the skill of a Chinese-sounding guy (who sounds a bit like a Golden Boy).

I guess it’s true: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king — when everyone sucks, a slightly less suckage is still “better”…


Rapid-Deployment Squadron: Rapid Command and Coordination?

My old unit in the Canadian Forces was “Rapid Deployment Squadron”; our role was to quickly establish command infrastructure upon air-drop in near-tactical areas with minimal notice.

Reading some of the reports from Haiti, it seems this would have been a perfect deployment.

Despite issues of sovereignty, the biggest problem in severely disaster-stricken areas is that their existing, recognizable command and coordination has just been destroyed. They may or may not have backup facilities available. The inpouring of aid to Haiti was an example of overwhelming the non-existent coordination with aid that could not be leveraged. The worst example is that of medical professionals who were pushed back from arriving, arrived to non-existent facilities, had their backup (supplies and staff) delayed and hijacked, and eventually had to abandon the hospital and the people of Haiti because they were no longer able to work.

Consider that: professionals willing to use their hard-earned skill to support the people of another country, and left in a position of doing more harm to themselves and others, fleeing because of the competition building for their limited ongoing benefit.

Like any military force in hostile or contested grounds, a compassionate force needs support: reinforcements, supplies, logistics. A disaster is no time for politics, although clearly respecting the existing government is a critical enabling factor. Once it’s clear there is no threat to sovereignty, command-and-control, with protection of supplies and personnel, need to come in with rapid attention to establishing a protected supply chain and blossoming medical support as quickly as can be safely organized.

There should be no assumption as to existing conditions: a ground-guide can quickly appraise whether replacement shelters, power, water, communications need to be laid in. At least one airstrip and a dockside should be coordinated by the augmentation force, until such time as the region which is victim to a massive global disaster, can clearly resume control.

Note: “resume control”; such an aid-to-civil-authority should be done with the acceptance of the government in power; that said, greenzones should be established just as in hostile territory. Desperate people, acting in predictably extreme means, can sabotage an entire relief effort in an attempt to help their kin. It’s understandable, but should be postured against.

My old unit could have landed in Haiti, resumed comms, enabled a channel for a platoon to create a green-zone, and allowed medical flights to create a medical-relief zone, even if on the very edge of the airstrip.

Instead, transports of medical gear are hijacked, flights canceled, professionals turned back, and the populace suffers.

For shame.


Online Dating across Cultures

I’m a fan of online dating sites — not because I’m hideously ugly, or socially inept (thanks, James) but because it draws in otherwise disconnected people.

Therein lies a risk: if two people are so disconnected, then they will never get along, but I pointedly disagree: opposites attract. Unfortunately, those opposites otherwise rarely mix. I’m not a fan of hanging in bars alone or with the express purpose of finding a girl; I’d rather hang with friends, but then it’s a group where I’m a bit shy to show me striking out with girls, or a bit hesitant to introduce a new girl to before I know her to be a good person.

So I am a member of a dating site.

A girl from another culture asked me (in anonymous email, of course) what I can expect by dating someone from her country, and it’s a unique question. No one’s asked me that before.

In general, even though most women will indicate that they’re looking for a man of good character (described as stable, independent, funny, good-hearted, etc), different cultures express their desires differently: American women will describe their search for a fun guy to spend time with and get to know, with the chance of something more down the road, whereas Asian women tend to express a search for a husband from the outset. This small difference is not lost: recall that American men tend to shy form commitment at the very start, and a woman who talks of marriage on the first date is “moving too fast”. Clearly American women are savvy to this in their expression, but perhaps Asian men are a bit more courageous.

This is the first hint of the open-ended collection of little differences.

What can I expect from dating cross-culture: many many little differences, often a surprise, usually things to discuss and mutually understand. It doesn’t matter what culture she’s form: so long as it differs from mine, it’s going to be a bumpy, fun road.


Harlem ShotoKan

I ran into an interesting fellow this morning at 5th ave / 146th street: Sensei Maxwell. It started as he repeated a word for me in Spanish to help me make a purchase, and ended up talking about Shotokan Karate Mon/Tue/Thu/Sat nights at the Frederick Samuel Community Center.

Not sure how my post-London time will be, but if it’s in NYC, and I cannot find Shitoryu on the east coast, I’m sure Senseis Racey, Tippenhauer, and Izzy would all prefer I’m in any dojo with a community and regularity.


The Curse of Travel

My most effective learning environment is where I’m in a lurch, have no choice but to rely on myself or my knowledge, and it exercises that little bit of learned stuff under stress. I think that’s why I love to travel: I don’t know how to say in Portuguese “it feels like an alien rooting about in my colon, please take it out before he emerges to enslave the world!”, or “Dear god, do people actually eat that? voluntarily?” in Thai.

Sometimes, the things people will do to get-by day-to-day without the incentive of Reality-TV cameras is humbling, it reminds me how good it is where I grew up.

Unfortunately, too, I get to see how other cultures do things, and often how they have a different idea, a better idea.

This would normally be fortunate, but in returning back from this discovery, I return to people who have not seen anything but the one way, and that way is better, of course, or else they would have thought of the better way. You can call it the American Pride, or the Chinese referral to their valued 5000 years of history, or a 3-word put-down that a Brit will utter to show not only are they superior, but only the very stupid would think otherwise of the country that spawned both the Industrial Revolution and the Beatles.

OK, I made up the Beatles — they were real, but are not a critical part of British pride.

When an idea that is successful in many other countries is mentioned, many people simply cannot seem to accept that another country invented something better. Indeed, the craziest of excuses will be used, the latest being the medical industry in the US: “our system is expensive, but everything less expensive must be worse” — despite the fact that most countries have a lower mortality rate than the US. Indeed, the follow-on to that logic was “the mortality rate in the US is all because of immigrants”, which is the most unsubstantiated line of (un)reasoning I’ve heard since Palin’s Healthcare Deathcamps.

Thermostats. Brits continue to use these non-functional plumbing setups perhaps due to never traveling to another country and seeing a thermostat in a shower tap, or seeing how some places (except NYC) have thermostats for home heating-control. It’s not rocket-science, it’s a bi-metal coil that reacts to heat changes, coupled with a mercury bulb and carriage that twists to re-orient where “gravity” intersects the twisting or untwisting of the bimetal to get the mercury on the contacts.

OK, if you didn’t follow that, you may not be smart enough to build a thermostat, but dammit, you can recognize the difference between “keeps the room warm for you” vs “get up, turn the tap on until the room is unbearably hot, then turn it off until the room is frigid as a coal mine”

I know, it’s a subtle difference.

The resistance to recognize this can easily be passed off as “I don’t need silly luxuries like that” but the refusal to look outside at other solutions is crippling: the time spent on re-solving the same problem can be better spent taking a solution and enhancing it, or re-tasking innovation to the problems that are NOT already solved.

Britain, Thermostats were invented in 1883, did you think it was time to look at more recent problems yet?

That is why the Chinese will win: despite their 5000-yr-history, which obviously proves that they should know how to invent everything, they are willing to reach over and reuse the solution from another country (for example, TDS-CDMA) and move themselves forward.

Limiting oneself by patriotism implies that eventually, the only achievement to be proud of will be the loyalty to keep shouting “we are the best” despite the obvious truth. Just like Red Socks Fans.


Le Bien Mal À Qui

Le bien mal à qui ne profite jamais – unknown


SFDC: It’s a Design Flaw, and We Just Don’t Care

I pointed out a flaw in — a wellknown outsourced Customer-Relationship-Manager — and although it’s understood to be a flaw, “SFDC works as designed”.

I’m unconcerned whether it’s a coding error, or a design error; an error is an error. Working-as-designed implies that the implementation was flawlessly accurate; a design error is still an error.

In this case, it simply shows that SFDC is unwilling to accept that other countries exist, and that they speak more than one language, and that those people are alienated if you’re forcing your culture upon them. It’s worse if you’re forcing your customers to force that culture on their users.


S.Lott-Software Architect: Meetings

I worked for a few really good managers; most would grip the general ideas of manager-vs-developer work styles, and efficiency of all-hands meetings. S.Lott is the latest of many to summarize in his entry “Meetings“.

In short:

  • 12 direct-reports in a 1-hour meeting is 13 hours consumed. Luckily, 7 direct-reports is only one day of effort wasted.
  • An all-hands meeting should be brief, focused and logged
  • An iterative status report from each attendee is the opposite of these rules

I was lucky enough to work with Rao Hong for a while; he was laconic, targeted, efficient. He did call me into his office to discuss, but it wasn’t a power-game, it was a meeting-of-opportunity.

I get to work with Clarissa Eastham; she takes names, actions, and follows up; also, she protects her people like precious resources, inducing attempts to make oneself worthwhile.

I was pleased to work with Julian Chen; he excelled at brief meetings-of-opportunity, and the ability to make the other person feel truly significant. Julian’s style of strategic meetings where possible were also quite effective at the one-on-one.

There were others, but these examples approach the “Holy Grail” of the PMs in S.Lott’s article, and excel in other attributes.


Vague Suggestions are like Hindsight

I love feedback, suggestions, ideas on how to improve; in fact, I almost feel as if I’m withheld a chance to improve if I don’t get feedback.

At the same time, vague negative feedback is as useful as hindsight and fortune-tellers.

We’ve all heard it: someone who visits a fortune-teller, gets a horoscope-accurate diagnosis (“you’ll come into money but it involved a large mass of water”) and matches that to whatever happens (“I found $50 in a High-C -brand orange juice — and High-C is like High Seas!  That fortune teller is so accurate”)

Vague suggestions simply allow someone to say “see?  I told you not to do that” after the fact: to have been right.  There’s little value in being right beyond a victory at the other’s expense, and a history of being right so that one’s advice is more easily accepted without question.  It has little value beyond what hindsight gives us — trading re-use for lower acceptance threshold for accuracy.  Hindsight is accurate.

Vague suggestions are an opener for conversation, but discussing a vague suggestion might involve refining it.  It might shine the Bullshit Spotlight at the information and chase the smelling bits out, or might beat up an imprecise idea that has merit but is difficult to express.  Discussion should be done with a certain gentleness.

Once a suggestion is less-vague, more concrete, it’s actually valuable; it would be a shame to attack someone offering genuine help, chasing away his or her idea through aggressive discussion to refine it.