« April 2003 | Main | June 2003 »

May 30, 2003

Furry Weather Report: Foggy rain or rainy fog

Returning home today from a trip to Sunnyvale to visit with a client (interviewing a software engineer), I passed through a number of microclimates. Well, for that matter, I passed through several microclimates on my way down. I was reminded of Mark Twain's comment about the weather in San Francisco; something like, "If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change." Not strictly true; for changeable weather, nothing has the Orkney Islands beat, but true enough.

I love San Franciso—to visit, that is. I don't think I could ever live there, being more of a country girl than a city girl, but I never tire of the view of the Golden Gate Bridge as I swing around and down and out of the Waldo Grade tunnel heading south and west toward the bridge and the city beyond. Those two proud towers painted with that crappy orange rust-preventing paint always lift themselves into my heart. I feel lucky to live where I can see them any time I want.

It would be a great loss to the world were they to be demolished. I used to have nightmares when I was quite young about being in a far future time when the San Francisco Bay was no more—the passage into the bay closed with hills, the bay itself long gone, with the twisted remnants of the Golden Gate Bridge (destroyed by some ages-old war, perhaps, or just the twisting power of time and earth movements) standing in the shallow waters just off shore from the coastal hills. The climate was quite temperate in these dreams. But I digress.

When I left Santa Rosa just after noon, it was sunny and hot. By the time I was as far south as Marin, the sky was filled with those beautiful dark grey low-lying, fast-moving clouds that are part fog and part cloud, misting my windshield ever so slightly. By the time I was crossing the bridge (1-PMish), the clouds were definitely fog, moving fast in through the narrow straits and over the bridge itself.

I whizzed through a FastTrak lane, having finally purchased a FastTrak device (one of the better choices I've made, commute-wise anyway; the bridge toll is up to $5, but with the device, I am only paying $4 per south-bound crossing, and am saving several minutes of time each time as well).

The fog was lighter through San Francisco (I was taking 19th Avenue, which is also Highway 1 at that point), then lifted further as I drove on to southbound highway 280—one of the loveliest highways in the world. Though this time I was only on 280 for a few miles; I took Highway 380 over to Highway 101, which is definitely showing its age but cuts my journey shorter by about 11 miles. Most times it is faster to stay on 280 despite the extra miles, but at the time of day I was traveling, it was fine to take 101. By the time I reached Sunnyvale, the weather was sunny again.

My return trip was similar, only by the time I reached Santa Rosa (about 10 PM; after meeting with my client, I had a wonderful dinner with an old friend, meeting him in Mountain View at Don Giovanni's, a great restaurant with impeccable service), the weather was heavy fog that was turning into sort of precipitation. Not exactly rain; just fog so heavy it couldn't stay in the air. The road was steaming, even that late at night, and when I got home and was greeted outside by several of the cats, their fur was heavy with damp. Not that they seemed to mind; they never do. Healthy, happy cats don't, or so I was told once, and I think I believe it.

May 16, 2003

Dark Side of the Moon

National Public Radio celebrates the 30th anniversary of Pink Floyd's album, Dark Side of the Moon.

There's a discussion, among other things, of the use of this album as a soundtrack for the movie, The Wizard of Oz. I tried that once; it really does work. You have to start the album at the right time (the third roar of the MGM lion), and let the album loop (because it isn't as long as the movie). If you get it just right, the transitions and associations are eerily accurate.

Listen to the short audio commentary at the above Web site for much, much more on this topic. The interviewee says he spoke with Alan Parsons (who was the sound engineer for Pink Floyd at the time the album was made). If you read between the lines and listen to what Alan Parsons did and did not say, you will notice that Mr. Parsons never actually denies that there is a connection or that the coordination of the album's music with the movie's scenes and themes was deliberate. To which I say, interesting, very interesting. I had always assumed it was a coincidence until I heard this audio commentary. Though of course it could be one of those things where an intelligent man (which Mr. Parsons is) wants to maintain a certain mystique.

Also, you absolutely must listen to the clip from Pickin' On Pink Floyd: A Bluegrass Tribute. I think I have to own that CD. For that matter, I also want the reggae cover and the string quartet cover of the entire album. Absolutely maximally cool.

Criteria for a Free People

The following brief essay presents three criteria for judging whether a society is free or not based on the habits of those people. Unfortunately, the people of the US do not come off very well in the analysis, and to a certain extent I agree. What I don't agree with is the cynical assumption that things won't change. As long as people have the Internet to provide them with alternative points of view so they can educate themselves, there is hope. Go. Read. Think. Then act upon your thinking.


May 15, 2003

The Furry Weather Report: Warm and Dry

I'm going to resist the temptation to hold forth at length this time and just report that the weather is turning warmer and drier. We've had an unusual (and on my part, quite welcome) amount of rain this year, but the California summer is rapidly approaching. I have a patch of California Poppies beside my driveway, and Sunshine, out big orange-and-white cat who is afraid of his own shadow, was nestled among them yesterday. It was a beautiful sight.

That patch was carefully nurtured back from the death I thought it suffered at the careless hands of some neighborhood boys last year, who yanked out everything despite my pointing out the poppies and telling them to leave them be. The boys didn't bother pulling things out by their roots, though, which meant more weeding by hand this year for me, but it also meant that the poppies they massacred had a chance to come back too. And they did.

About those boys—I hired them because one of them said he wants to run a yard maintenance service when he grows up. I made the mistake of thinking that that meant he cared about plants, instead of just wanting to make what he saw as an easy living.

I was rapidly disabused of my idealistic notion as soon as I started to tell him about some of the more rarely seen herbs and other plants I grow--not in a pendantic or boring way, mind you; I just pointed to a few of them and said what they were. The non-comprehending look I got back from this boy (in his mid-teens, by the way), and the all-too-obvious, barely contained "who gives a f*ck, lady?" at the tip of his tongue told me instantly of the mistake I had made, and I let it drop. With misgivings, I allowed him and his partner in crime to weed my poppy patch, asking him to weed around the poppies and to pull the weeds out by the roots, both of which requests they blithely ignored. I will never hire him again, of course.

I thought about telling him that if he is interested in yardwork, he might want to learn which plants are not weeds, and learn how to pull weeds, for that matter, and even learn how to fake a polite interest if he can't muster a genuine one, but I could tell that he didn't really care. Maybe he will as he grows older, or maybe he'll think of another way to get rich, but it really isn't my business to try to educate him in why he might lose customers.

Though this ties in with my earlier essay on the death of loyalty—quality as a part of good customer service. There is a certain attitude that many people have, an attitude that states that what other people think or care about isn't important, that may possibly get such people far in the short run, but will bite them where it hurts in the long run. They may even make it to the age of 60 or so before the spiritual and emotional desert they call their heart finally rises up in protest and demands the sweet surcease of a spiritual rain. They may not ever heed the call from their heart to listen to it and to set their feet on a better path; at least, not in this lifetime. But the call is always there, whether one heeds it or no, and cannot be denied forever. This lifetime or next, or the tenth one later, one must eventually learn to listen.

It's a matter of attitude, and at the heart of it is the desire to create something of quality in one's life—to create a life that is the very definition of quality. Without that desire to create quality, you get boys like my neighbor's son, who doesn't give a flying cornflake's hoot about quality, and wouldn't have a clue if I started talking about it. But underneath that is what some might even call love, which comes from the heart, not the head. Without that feeling, one doesn't produce anything of quality. I guarantee it. And it isn't escapable, at least not forever. To paraphrase the Course in Miracles, following the path of love is a required course. The only choice you have is of when you take it.

May 14, 2003

Installing a New Hard Drive

Caution/Caveat: The information in this article is for entertainment purposes only. Though this article is probably not entertaining to anyone who isn?t interested in installing a large hard drive (> 137 gigabytes) in a Windows 2000 Professional system. Since it is kind of techy, I assume you know what I am talking about. My apologies to those who came here today looking for something kwacky or New Age; I'm in a techy hardware mode today.


I?ve owned and operated a personal computer of one variety or another since 1981. I?ve installed, uninstalled, reinstalled, configured, and reconfigured software and hardware of just about every description. (Well, perhaps I exaggerate some there—but not much!) In more recent years, I have come to rely on ?the experts? to do things with my computers, but when I recently needed to add a hard drive to my system (my older drive is close to full, and I also want a second drive for backups), I thought, ?Piece of cake.?

I had temporarily lost sight of Rule 1 in computing: Nothing is ever as quick or as easy as you anticipate.

Things might not have been quite so bad had I been installing a smallish hard drive. But my primary drive is 100 gigabytes, and I wanted at least that much capacity.

Rule 2 in computing states: Always buy the best, latest, most capacious technology your budget can afford, for whatever you buy today will seem too little far too soon.

So I researched prices (overall and per gigabyte) and decided on a Western Digital Caviar Special Edition 200 gigabyte 7200 RPM drive with an 8 megabyte cache. My first drive is also a Western Digital Caviar, and although you can mix brands in hard drives, it can sometimes be tricky, so I decided not to introduce another possible way for things to go wrong. (In case you are interested, I used NextTag.com to research prices, though I also double-checked prices at PriceWatch.com. I found the best price for this drive at NewEgg.com. The drive came bare-bones with no screws or anything, but anyone who has had computers as long as I have has a few loose screws anyway.)

Uh-Oh: Drives Larger than 137 GB Not Supported

The drive arrived in due time and was easily installed. (If you are looking for the nitty-gritty of installing a hard drive, as in putting it in its rack and attaching cables and the like, you won?t find it here. There are many excellent Web sites that can tell you how to accomplish those tasks.) And I thought I was being really clever in planning to use Windows 2000's Disk Management console. I wasn't. See Rule 1...

For one thing, my shiny new drive is too large to be recognized by the Windows Disk Management Console, and it turns out that FDISK isn't too savvy about large drives either. Nor does there seem to be a fix for FDISK or Disk Management that works with drives this large. Tut tut, Microsoft. Keep up with the times, for heaven's sake.

A Solution is Found

Many frustrating hours later, after researching the possibilities on the Internet, I decided to purchase a Promise Ultra100 TX2 Ultra ATA/100 controller card that promised to manage my larger-than-137-gigabyte hard drive. (It also promises to take full advantage of my drive's speed. I hope so.) I also downloaded the (free!) Data LifeGuard Tools software (version 10) from the Western Digital site that, so they claimed, would work well with the Promise controller, and would make formatting said drive a breeze. In fact, I ordered the Promise controller from the Western Digital site, though of course you can purchase it directly from Promise Technology or from a retailer.

Of course, I had to wait a few days for the controller card to arrive, during which I continued to try to debug the problem, with no success.

I am quite happy to say that both companies were true to their word. The Promise documentation could be made a little clearer, but otherwise the installation and drive formatting went very, very well indeed. (Later, I found better instructions on the Western Digital site, but that was after I had already figured it out myself.) I am now the proud owner of a fully formatted, fully usable large hard drive.

Installing the Promise Controller and Formatting the Drive

Caution! This is just a general outline of what I did to install my hard drive. There are a lot of things you need to be aware ofI did that I don't mention, such as powering down my computer, unplugging everything, grounding myself, and so on, that I don't mention. THESE ARE NOT INSTRUCTIONS. If you want to perform these tasks, follow the manufacturers' instructions TO A "T."

Basically, the procedure I followed for installing the Promise card under Windows 2000 with an existing hard drive and controller was this:

  1. I installed the controller card, but didn't connect the hard drive(s) to the card yet; I left the drive(s) attached to my old controller.
  2. I installed the Promise controller drivers.
  3. I rebooted so that Windows could detect the new hardware.
  4. I shut down my computer again. I then installed the cable that comes with the Promise card. With one old and one new hard drive, I attached both drives to the Promise card, with my old hard drive as the master and the newer one as the slave. I used explicit jumpering to accomplish this, as well as the controller cable locations (the end connector is the master, the middle connector is the slave.)
  5. I started up mycomputer again so that Windows could detect the new hardware (again).

Next, I ran the Data LifeGuard software.

CAUTION! Again, this is just a general outline of what I did. There was a lot more to it, and I cannot emphasize enough how very important it is that you KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING. It is possible to lose all the data on your hard drive if you mess up. THESE ARE NOT INSTRUCTIONS. If you want to perform these tasks, follow the manufacturers' instructions TO A "T."

  1. I created a self-booting floppy per the software's instructions. (Basically, I ran an executable; it created the floppy for me.)
  2. I shut down my computer.
  3. I inserted the self-booting Data LifeGuard floppy that I had just created into my A: drive.
  4. I started up my computer and chose Install, then (carefully!#$151;and you can be sure that I checked the drive identity many times before proceeding) followed the prompts to partition and format my drive. It literally took just a few minutes to do this. I created a bootable partition because I plan to later switch over to using the new hard drive as my boot drive, though I will wait a while until the pain of this installation fades (and I start to forget Rule 1 again) before I attempt that task.

Back-up Software

My next task is to install and use Retrospect Backup Professional (from Dantz). Retrospect promises to be the backup software I have been vainly trying to find for two years now. I have tried a lot of software that promises to make it easy to back up your system, but so far, none has fulfilled its promise. I have high hopes for Retrospect. It comes highly recommended. I'll keep you posted.

May 12, 2003

The Death of Loyalty?

Not quite two years ago, I was contracting at a company that had a lot of potential but that was going under rapidly. Although just a startup, the company had a good product and even some solid customers--big names that anyone would recognize. So what was the problem? Why, with millions of dollars of venture capital being poured into the company, were they experiencing massive layoffs, and why was the company dead within the year?

My Credentials

Before I begin talking about this subject, allow me to present my credentials. My first post-graduate degree was a master's in library science. While that may not mean a lot to most of you, essentially it is a kind of specialized MBA (master's in business administration; in other words, a degree in the course of which you learn all about how to run a business).

Not everyone you see working in a library is a librarian, any more than everyone you see working at a company is a high-level manager, director, or CEO. The librarian is the one in charge who has the skills and knowledge to run the place; the others are library staff or even volunteers doing their best to make available to you one of the great American inventions: free books. But I digress.

When earning a degree in library science, one studies business models, finances and budgeting, staffing, and every other aspect of running a business. In this case, the business is a library, but most of the principles apply to any business.

In addition to earning this degree (and working as a librarian for a few happy years), I also have maintained a lively interest in management practices my entire life, and have read a great deal on the subject. Some of the better books to read are listed at the end of this article. Without going into details, I have learned much that applies to any business practice and model, and have seen companies thrive when they practice those principles, and die when they violate them. And one of the basic, essential principles that is repeated over and over again in the better business management books is that excellence is a worthwhile goal, and as part of striving for that goal, people are to be honored and respected.

The Proponents of the Death of Loyalty

While contracting at the company I mentioned at the start of this article, I had the opportunity to speak with one of the higher-level managers. I am not sure how we got on the subject, but he spoke proudly of how he was the co-author of an article that he felt explained the "new direction" that companies had to go in order to be competitive. I don't recall the title of his article exactly, but its theme was that loyalty was dead. There is no obligation, he said, between companies and their employees; it is just a business relationship, and either may end that relationship at any time without justification.

In fact, he continued, people weren't even needed for the long term, and could just be brought in to do the work needed and then laid off again when the work was no longer there. I think he called this "just in time" employment. He used as an example the documentation team. There was no need, he said, to have someone on hand at all times working on the product manuals; instead, just bring in writers a few weeks before the product was to ship to have them write or update the manuals.

Although I listened politely to his explanations, in part because I wanted to understand his point of view, after hearing him out, I was not convinced. In fact, his attitude and beliefs, apparently shared by others in high-up management at the company, coupled with the fact that the company was dying and no one could figure out why (I could have told them), proved the counterpoint I made to him about how loyalty is the engine that drives good commerce. Not that I convinced him, any more than he convinced me. But let's take a look at some of his core assumptions, starting with the phrase "just a business relationship."

"Just" a Business Relationship? So What, After All, is a Business Relationship?

Yes, the relationship between a company and an employee or contractor certainly is a business relationship, consisting essentially of these terms: The employee agrees to perform tasks for the company, and the company agrees to compensate the employee for it, not just through a paycheck, but also, generally, through benefits as well, such as health insurance, savings plans, stock plans, social security taxes, and other things of value.

But to assume then that the "business relationship" means no loyalty, no affinity, the treatment of workers as interchangeable parts instead of as people with valuable skills and knowledge that you just can't hire off the streets, is to make a large assumption indeed. There are certain intangibles that make the difference between a company that lasts and a company that dies, and I (and many more stellar business managers than I) would firmly set loyalty and an attitude of respect toward the employee as two of those intangibles. Each of us is unique, with unique strengths and skills. People are not interchangeable, neither at the bottom or the top or anywhere in between. The knowledge that people develop of a company's products is in a large part what drives innovation and constant improvement, ultimately resulting in better products and happier customers. And if you are selling anything at all, happy customers are the bottom line.

Without customers, your company is going to die. I guarantee it.

For that matter, going beyond the vertical relationship between empoyees and company, let's address the idea of a business relationship between two companies. How can you have any kind of relationship without loyalty, trust, and respect? Did that manager's idea of "just" a business relationship mean that he felt he could end any "business relationship" agreement he had on just a word? Apparently so.

But let us return to the vertical relationship.

How to Kill a Company

There are many ways to lose customers, but the most certain one is to produce a bad product and/or to have lousy customer service. And the most certain way to produce a bad product or have bad customer service is to treat your employees badly, so that you either have high turnover or you can only keep people who can't be hired anywhere else (with, if you are lucky, the occasional brilliant person who has no confidence in their skill). So even if you don't have the heart or soul to treat your employees right, then looking coldly at the bottom line should convince you that it is the right thing to do as part of a successful business model.

At a deeper, more spiritual level, those of us who believe that our attitudes and values influence everything we do will also understand how a lack of loyalty on the part of a company toward its employees (and, by logical extension, its customers) is going to be reflected by a lack of loyalty on the part of both its workers and its customers.

It may sound old-fashioned to speak of customer loyalty, but how else are you going to describe a customer returning to buy from your company again instead of buying a similar product elsewhere? That loyalty is made up of satisfaction with the product and, very importantly, satisfaction with a company. Many people refuse to deal with a company with a good product because of how the company treats them as customers.

Workers Owe Loyalty Too

Likewise, the loyalty of the worker is important. In return for the company treating them loyally and well, workers owe the company something as well. Their part of the bargain, that of performing the desired tasks, also includes the intangibles of a drive for quality, of not settling for adequate or mediocre, but instead always striving to make the product better. It also means behaving with professionalism, not allowing one's emotions or personal feelings to get in the way of creating good working relationships, and of behaving ethically and with respect toward the company, its property, and its other employees, even when the business relationship ends. That means that if a person is laid off, for whatever reason, no matter how angry he or she may feel about it, there is no justification in the world for lashing out at the company or for damaging the company or its property in any way. It also means managing your work and documenting what you do so that should you have to leave suddenly, it is easier for someone else to step into your shoes.

This isn't about making yourself dispensable; it is instead about making yourself valuable without making yourself irreplaceable. People have long memories, and the mess you leave behind, thinking you'll never need to deal with it again, may come back to haunt you.

I have worked side-by-side with some people whom I later hired, when I was in the position to do so, because I truly appreciated their work ethics and skills. I have also had people working for me who later were in a position to hire me, and they did. I have also worked for people who hired me who I would never hire in a million years, were I in the position to. I have even been in the position to see what were almost certainly acts of sabotage by disgruntled departing employees--not provable beyond a doubt, but based on the evidence, I am as certain of it as if I had witnessed the crime--and I would never hire those people were I in the position to. And I just might be.

Of course, there are the times when a person is treated well by a company but does not reciprocate, or vice versa. In those cases, one might assume that the business relationship is over because the agreement has not been kept. That still means that ending the relationship must be done professionally and with respect, no matter how badly the other party has behaved. After all, you have to look at yourself in the mirror every day--and you certainly want to be able to look yourself in the eye! Following ethical business practices is one good way to do so.

Recommended Reading

The first books I want to mention are by Harvey MacKay. His books have been steadily popular since the 1980s. Their popularity is due in part to the fact that they consist of short, pithy essays that make a point in few words, and don't rely on dry, technical, high-flown business language to do so. Unfortunately, their strength is also a weakness, as many people might overlook the deep wisdom embedded in these books because of how easy it is to read them. But I can guarantee that if you understand and apply the principles he espouses, you will do well in every aspect of your life.

The next author is one you may have heard of as well. Tom Peters is famous for his book, In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies, but has some other good books out as well. Definitely an extrovert, nonetheless he offers ideas that even we less outward people can use and enjoy.

The third "author" is none other than the Harvard Business School. Take special note of the title and theme: loyalty is not dead.

I've only read this one book by the following author, but what a book it is! One principle alone from this book has stood me in good stead in both business and personal relationships, and that is that if someone takes the time to communicate with you (via letter or voice), even if they are unhappy or complaining, underneath, they are communicating a desire to find a solution so they can continue the relationship. In business, what this means is if a customer is unhappy and writes to you about it, that is an opportunity to retain that customer by making things right for them. If you assume you have already lost that customer and just blow them off, you have lost a golden opportunity. In personal life, if someone takes the trouble to complain to you, that's a good sign! It means the relationship is not lost. Yet. It may sound odd that this comes from a business management book, but the fact is that good people skills don't stop at home or work.

Main Home | Lighthouse | CatMom | Other Stuff |