Archive for September, 2007

27
Sep
07

Dangerous Expectations

Expectations are a dangerous thing. They offer hope of things to come, but set you up for disappointment, too. Last night (technically, very early this morning) I had my expectations smashed. Yesterday, I received a long-awaited book from Amazon. Work demands required that I be responsible and set the book aside until evening. So with much anticipation, I started reading around 7 p.m.

Like all good book junkies, I decided to keep reading until finished. Now, imagine my utter and complete dismay as I read the last page at 1 a.m. and said to myself, “Are you kidding me? I stayed up for that?” However, there’s a problem with my reaction, I knew within a couple of chapters that this book would not meet my expectations, but I kept reading. I knew because I had read earlier books by this same author, and once you’ve read an author a few times, you come to know what works and what doesn’t.

The problem with my reaction at 1 a.m. is that I ignored the earlier cues that told me I should probably go to bed. Unfortunately, like rubber-necking at a traffic accident, I couldn’t seem to stop myself. Even though I know better, the mantra, “It’s got to get better,” repeated over and over doesn’t work either. Ultimately, my dismay wasn’t only about the book, but also about the utter failure of the expectations I’d set for the book.

Our role in the crushing of personal expectations is a side we ignore. We latch on to the more obvious villains—other people, events beyond our control, etc.—and hang our failed expectations on their necks. In the meantime, we skip over our own behavior that contributed to the failure. For instance, the last book I read by this same author was not up to the standards of her previous three. However, in my pursuit of fulfilling my expectations, I ignored the signs and considered number four a fluke. Five would surely be better.

Expectations are also a cover for our unwillingness to try something new. Benjamin Franklin, later echoed by Albert Einstein, said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” (link) How many people do you know who continually do the same thing over and over, expecting a different result, and who are crushed every single time by their lack of success? Maybe it’s time to revisit the fundamentals.

Fundamental, as Noah Kagan highlights in his latest post, is great way of thinking about what you want to accomplish. As part of his explanation for why he’s so fond of “fundamental,” he poses a question that I believe is at the root of expectations: “What is the real point of something?” When you expect something to happen, why have you settled on that particular outcome? What’s the real reason driving your expectations? Think about that the next time your expectations are crushed. The answers might surprise you.

While I may have this trick down for other areas of my life, I’m afraid my books are immune. At some future point, probably sooner rather than later, I will again stay up late to finish a book. And I will again say, “I stayed up for that?” However, I’m willing to play the odds that I just might say instead, “I’m so glad I stayed up for that.” Maybe it then becomes a matter of framing one’s expectations instead of keeping them in a vacuum. Expectations may be dangerous, but I can’t imagine living life without them.

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25
Sep
07

The Cost of Health Insurance

Here’s a question: do you think if health insurance hadn’t become so prevalent health care would be so expensive? Think about that for a few minutes. Now here’s two more: how would the health care system function if insurance didn’t exist? If we actually had to pay the true cost, would we run to the doctor with every sniffle?

I pose these questions, because health care is one of the topics at the center of the UAW’s nationwide strike of GM plants (in 2005, GM spent $5.2 billion on health care). This post isn’t about the validity of unions, corporate greed, employer health care, or even universal health care. Instead, I’m focused on the validity of health insurance in general.

What’s mildly entertaining is that GM was the creator of its own mess. Back during World War II, the government capped wages. To compete in the war-time employee market, companies offered health insurance, which wasn’t classified as an increased wage. After the war and lift of wage caps, employers continued to offer insurance as part of the benefit package. GM, however, didn’t just settle for offering health insurance:

In 1950, GM President Charles Wilson offered to pay 50 percent of the health care costs of his employees. Walter Reuther, national president of the United Auto Workers, initially resisted, believing the cost should be spread across many companies or across the nation, according to a biography of the union organizer.

Reuther gave in, and GM entered the health care business.

In 1961, retirees were included. Three years later, the company began paying 100 percent of health care bills for workers and retirees. (link)

And that’s how you rack up billions in health care. Now, as part of the negotiations between the company and the union:

GM had been pushing hard for the health care trust known as a Voluntary Employees Beneficiary Association, or VEBA so it could move $51 billion in unfunded retiree health costs off its books. GM has nearly 339,000 retirees and surviving spouses. (link)

GM’s issues aside, the mistake people make with insurance is assuming that things will get better and/or cheaper if everyone has it. My aggravation with insurance is that it blinds the buyer to the true cost. For instance, you aren’t likely to you buy food, a car, or a house without knowing the price. But we scream about insurance premiums, deductibles, etc., without knowing what our health care really costs.

Maybe the insurance companies are cheating us, but how can we know that if we don’t understand the real cost of health care? One of the more recent issues of interest is the rising cost of prescription drugs. What if we didn’t request the drugs we see advertised on television and choose a generic version instead? Do you think that would make a difference?

There’s one caveat to my argument that requires acknowledgment. In the case of catastrophic events, like cancer or car accidents, insurance helps balance the risk of life. You can’t exactly weigh your cost options for emergency extrication from a smashed car or chemotherapy and radiation.

As I’ve thought through this issue, I go back and forth (which isn’t a good way to make one’s case). I don’t necessarily have answers to any of the questions I posed earlier. However, the one thing that holds true is the reality that too few people know the real cost of their health care. We lack knowledge when it comes to health care. Perhaps I’m wrong. If so, do you actually know how much your doctor charges (not your co-pay) for an office visit? Next time, ask. You might be surprised. I suspect asking questions is the first step to figuring out the value of insurance and its impact on health care.

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24
Sep
07

Billie Jean, Tara Hunt, & the Bionic Woman

I’ve had an idea percolating for about four days now, and it took watching the pilot episode of Bionic Women for everything to gel. Let me start at the beginning. This past week, I heard a brief mention on the radio that it’s the 34th anniversary of “The Battle of the Sexes” between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs (CBS Sportline; Wikipedia). I paid attention mostly because of my recent viewing of a bio on HBO about Billie Jean.

I grew up after Title IX was firmly in place and enjoyed every benefit as I ran track and played basketball through much of junior high and high school. While I knew about the match between King and Riggs, I didn’t understand why it was such a big deal until I saw the bio. Beyond the historic value, something else about this anniversary was nagging at me.

Women in Technology

Then, a few days later, courtesy of Robert Scoble‘s link feed, I got another piece of the puzzle when I saw Shroki’s post on Tara Hunt‘s recent article for O’Reilly. Tara, from what I’ve read on her blog and in interviews, gives a voice to women in technology, pointing out the value they’ve brought to the industry as a whole. She also does an excellent job of highlighting the blind spot that pops up when the story relates to women and technology. In this particular article, she addresses the question, “where are the women in tech” with an impressive list of participants:

If you look around, you’ll see that there are many Sandras. Some of the hottest companies of early Web 2.0 (and before) have been co-founded by women: Flickr (Caterina Fake), Blogger (Meg Hourihan), SixApart (Mena Trott), Mozilla (Mitchell Baker), Guidewire Group (Chris Shipley), and Adaptive Path (Janice Fraser).

My exposure to the tech world is relatively recent, not quite a year. But I have met some amazing women at some of the seemingly all-male conferences I’ve attended. I had the pleasure of briefly meeting Gina Trapani, one of my favorite tech bloggers, at SXSW. I’ve also become friends with Rachel Clarke at JWT. Then at Gnomedex, I saw Cali Lewis and her husband Neil talk about their experience with GeekBrief.TV. Also at Gnomedex, as part of the Ignite Seattle group, I greatly enjoyed Deborah Schultz. These women are just a few of the amazing individuals I’ve been exposed to since my entrance into the tech world. Now for the final piece of the puzzle.

The Bionic Woman

Tonight, I watched the premiere episode (via Amazon’s video download) of the new Bionic Woman. The original was on the air from 1976–77. This new iteration uses the same basic premise. A “normal” woman, through a series of events, is “rebuilt” and ends up with super-human skills and healing abilities, courtesy of a shadowy government group. I like sci-fi, so the story was interesting to me anyway. But what drew me in was this idea of melding women with technology into something that could easily overpower a guy—and not for the reasons you might be imagining.

For a long time (forever actually), women have had to rely on their brains for the majority of their survival. Physical prowess is not a natural ability gifted to the female form, so we balanced it out with mental skills. What do you think the world would be like if men and women were actually on a level playing field (if such a thing exists), mentally AND physically?

Combining Brains & Brawn

Billie Jean proved that she had the physical and mental ability to beat Bobby Riggs at a time when women in sports had significantly lesser status. Today, some of the biggest stars on the tennis circuit are the female singles players—Venus and Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova to name three. It’s taken time, but these women are garnering their own endorsement contracts conquering other terrain normally reserved for the male superstars.

Tara Hunt has shown that many women have the necessary mental power to be the leaders in today’s technology industry, a field heavily dominated by men. Women are coding their own programs, creating their own companies, and getting funding from VCs. Now that they’ve found their tech voice, women are using it.

What brought all these random thoughts together was the Bionic Woman (if I remember right, the character’s name is Jamie). For me, she represents a melding of these two realities. Physically, she’s a match for any man, and mentally, she’s got the brains to outwit anyone, too (her IQ score is higher than her genius boss). Plus, she’s got $50 million in technologically advance body parts.

I’m willing to admit I’m stretching this concept a bit, but isn’t that what this medium and everything else haphazardly categorized as Web 2.0 is about? Stretching, testing, discovering, imagining. Maybe Web 3.0 won’t be about any particular technology or toy. Maybe it will be about a level playing field that accepts anyone—woman or man—that dares step onto the turf.

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23
Sep
07

Housekeeping: Comments Feed

I finally got around to putting up a comments feed. If you’re interested in subscribing, you can do so via my blog or by clicking here. I’m always curious to hear what you think about what I write, and with the feed, it will be easier to keep track of the conversations. I hope you’ll always feel free to participate.

23
Sep
07

Digging Potatoes

I’ve been MIA for a few days, however, since what I’ve been doing is the source of today’s post, I think you’ll understand. Many of my friends know that I come from a family of farmers (4th generation), but very few actually understand what that means when I say we grow grains and potatoes, let alone how we harvest them. A few have mentioned they’d like to see some pictures. So, to give you an idea how a potato goes from the field, to your grocery store, to your plate, I’ve put together a mini collection of photos that will hopefully make it easier to understand when I refer to “digging potatoes.”

We started digging the first of the potato crop at the end of August. Several types of machinery make it possible to harvest potatoes. Below is a picture of a potato crossover.

Behind the crossover, you can see a potato digger:

The crossover drives in front of the digger, digging, in this case, four rows of potatoes. Blades placed on the bottom go under the potato rows (below), lifting the spuds out of the ground onto a series of chains.

Potato Rows

Crossover blades

Those potatoes are carried back and then dumped on a cross chain.

Crossover chains

The cross chain then carries those four rows of potatoes to a boom that sits next to the ground, dumping them between two potato rows.

Crossover boom

The digger follows behind the crossover, picking up the potatoes the crossover piled, plus, as least two more rows of potatoes (we have both a four-row and a two-row digger). The digger is set up in much the same way. Blades enter the ground below the potatoes, picking up all six rows of potatoes (two from the digger, four from the crossover) and placing them on a series of chains.

Digger points

Main chain, digger

This chains lead to a cross chain that moves the potatoes to the elevator chain that then carries the potatoes up to the boom.

Cross chain, digger

Elevator chain, digger

From the boom, the potatoes are loaded into a truck that drives alongside the digger. The boom lifts and extends, allowing the digger operator to keep from the potatoes from dropping too far into the truck, which can bruise the spuds.

Boom_1

Boom_2

When I work during potato harvest, I drive one of the trucks, like the 10-wheeler pictured below, that goes next the digger and loads the potatoes off the boom. The second picture shows my 1/2-ton pickup parked next to the truck for scale. These trucks are big. The first time I drove I thought this must be what it’s like to drive a tank.

Ten wheeler potato truck

Ten wheeler & pickup

The pictures below show a couple of shots of a truck loading under our four-row digger (works just the two row, but picks up a total of eight rows; 4 digger + 4 crossover = 8 rows of potatoes).

Truck loading

Rear digger, loading

In the picture above, you can see dirt and vines coming the back of the digger. Each digger is equipped with a blower, the piece that extends on the right side, which helps remove field debris from the potatoes.

Once the truck is loaded, it backs into a potato cellar and unloads onto a piler. You’ll see both a piler and the outside of a cellar in the photo below. On one of our farms, we have two cellars. Both are approximately 250 feet long (not quite a football field) and 50+ feet wide. Potatoes stored in bulk require ventilation, so each cellar has an air system that keeps the cellars from overheating during the winter.

Cellar & piler

The piler, like the crossover and digger, uses a series of belts and chains to unload the potatoes from the back end of the truck (each truck is equipped with a belt and rear door to move the potatoes out of the bed). We hire a pit crew that stands at the piler to pick out vines, rot, and other debris that made it through the digger. The piler operator then creates piles of potatoes.

Piler_1

Piler in Cellar

So now you know what I mean when I say we dig potatoes. I’ve posted all these pictures plus some others on my Flickr account. I’d be happy to answer any questions, too.

Frankly, I owe everything I am to growing up on a farm. I learned how to work hard and how to manage a business. I also saw firsthand that even when you’ve given everything you’ve got, sometimes Mother Nature, or other forces, will smack you around just because they can. Then, you have to figure out another way. Growing up, there were definitely times I loathed living on a farm. It always meant work and more work. Now, I realize it gave me a work ethic I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.

I’m fond of this quote by Daniel Webster about farmers:

Let us not forget that the cultivation of the earth is the most important labor of man. When tillage begins, other arts will follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of civilization. (link)

I’m a big proponent of technology and the other amazing crafts that have come about. But I’m also keenly aware that if we didn’t have farmers it would be incredibly difficult to fuel ourselves in pursuit of new things. Happy harvest!

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19
Sep
07

Makeup of a Meeting

I’ve become keenly aware of the power of meetings, for both good and evil. The last few weeks, business has demanded that I participate in more gatherings than normal. My attitude towards meetings is captured perfectly by Dave Barry:

If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’

Luckily, I’ve been able to act the role of observer, and I’ve noticed a few common characters pop up in every meeting:

  • The Talker: Without fail, at least one attendee loves the sound of his own voice. Once given the floor, this individual makes a point of dragging out comments, repeating as necessary to ensure attention, regardless of the actual value. Occasionally this person hits on a valuable point, but the audience response usually falls along the lines of eye-rolling and random snoring.
  • The Critic: Regardless of who says what, there’s the attendee who can wait to point out how wrong everyone is. However, this person rarely, if ever, has a better idea or solution to the problem or issue. This person takes more pleasure in attacking than in problem-solving.
  • The Silent Majority: The bulk of the audience says very little. Due to The Talker and The Critic, the opportunity and the desire to participate is less.
  • The Sleeper: No matter how exciting the meeting gets, someone is always asleep, or at least zoned out, within 10 minutes of the start. My favorite? The reaction of The Sleeper if nudged or startled away has a tendency to pretend he was never asleep.
  • The Note-taker: The clacking of keys or the scratching of a pen gives away this person’s position in the room. Like the obsessive note-taker in high school or college, this person believes the world will come to end if they miss a word. The sad part? They usually miss the heart of what’s happening. And how often do you actually revisit notes from a meeting?

These are just a few of the personalities I’ve seen in action. Meetings by their very nature are not set up to be honest exchanges of ideas. Instead, involved parties spend a significant amount of time and energy guarding territory and attempting to add to their power. Combine that with the disinclination of people to take responsibility, and meetings are usually a mess.

So I pose the question—is there a better way than meetings? Does another option exist that we’ve overlooked or haven’t explored?

Comments?

18
Sep
07

No Constitutional Clause for the Unpopular

Pop quiz: what constitutional right would you give up to take away someone else’s?

I ask because of something I caught on The View this morning. The co-hostesses were discussing the ACLU’s brief filed in support of Senator Larry Craig withdrawing his guilty plea. From there, (how I wished I’d hit record; I can’t find the clip anywhere) the discussion wound back around to the ACLU.

A little background…normally, I feel sorry for Elisabeth Hasselbeck. She’s a staunch defender of her beliefs that are usually attacked on a daily basis. Although I don’t agree with her, I do admire how she stands up for herself, even if she’s not always articulate about her beliefs. However, she undermined that admiration significantly with her position today regarding the ACLU, highlighting that for all the experience she gained on Survivor, she has a very limited world view. What’s more frustrating is I know she isn’t the only one who holds her opinion.

I’ll try to recollect the best I can, and I won’t attempt to direct quote anyone, but the gist of Hasselbeck’s antipathy towards the ACLU stems from their defense of unpopular groups. The examples she referred to were the ACLU fighting to allow a neo-Nazi group to march in Cincinnati through a predominately African-American neighborhood (ACLU’s position; news story) and their defense of NAMBLA‘s right to free speech back in 2000 (note: I won’t link direct to their site to avoid most workplace issues, so I’m sending you to Wikipedia if you want more info).

Unfortunately, she exhibited the attitude I see more frequently than I’d like—“if something is offensive to me, and as long as it doesn’t infringe on MY rights, it shouldn’t be defended.” The ACLU explained their defense of unpopular groups:

The principle is as simple as it is central to true freedom of speech: those who do wrong are responsible for what they do; those who speak about it are not.

It is easy to defend freedom of speech when the message is something many people find at least reasonable. But the defense of freedom of speech is most critical when the message is one most people find repulsive. That was true when the Nazis marched in Skokie. It remains true today.

Regardless of your feelings about the ACLU, I believe they are fighting for a valuable principle—equal defense for all parties as it relates to Constitutional freedoms. While the ACLU still makes my eyebrows rise on occasion (due more to the facts of the case than the principles they’re defending), I wonder when people will understand that we don’t get to pick and choose who enjoys the rights provided by the Constitution. What’s to stop the government and the courts from willy-nilly application of individuals rights and freedoms if all, no matter how personally distasteful, are not defended?

A long time ago, Samuel Adams, our “Father of the American Revolution,” outlined an idea that I think has been largely overlooked if not forgotten:

The liberties of our country, the freedom of our civil Constitution, are worth defending at all hazards; and it is our duty to defend them against all attacks. We have received them as a fair inheritance from our worthy ancestors: they purchased them for us with toil and danger and expense of treasure and blood, and transmitted them to us with care and diligence. It will bring an everlasting mark of infamy on the present generation, enlightened as it is, if we should suffer them to be wrested from us by violence without a struggle, or to be cheated out of them by the artifices of false and designing men. (link)

What makes the Elisabeth Hasselbecks of the world believe that their rights aren’t next? And could you answer the quiz? For the record, I can’t think of one.

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