How not to do business

I contracted out some work recently. It involved a large sum of money, at least to me. It amounted to about a three weeks’ worth of take-home pay. He wanted the money for the materials up front. I didn’t really want to do that, but other people had told me he was completely honest, so I did it.

He had trouble getting the necessary permits and other paperwork. I had trouble keeping his story straight. I gave him some time to sort it out. After about a month–which might have been too long–he concluded he wasn’t going to be able to do the work, and told me he’d give me a refund.

Then he quit answering his phone.

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Buy online, manufacture at home

The way we buy things (or don’t buy them) has changed a lot in the last decade or so. We stopped buying CDs. Now that our Internet connections are fast enough, we’ve really slowed down on buying movies, too. And the emergence of practical e-readers means a lot fewer people are buying books now too. All of this is part of the reason why there’s probably a Borders closing near you, and there are suddenly a lot less of what we used to call record stores too.

But there’s something even bigger looming overhead. 3D printing. Ars Technica has a piece about its legal implications.  Rather than rehash that, I’d rather talk about some of its other implications, including why you should care at all.

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Instant welding with Aileene’s Tacky Glue

I’m not sure where I read this first, but I love this trick for making instant repairs. If you’re putting together something made of paper, wood, or a combination of the two, join it together with a bit of Aileene’s Tacky Glue (this may also work with ordinary Elmer’s white glue or Elmer’s wood glue), then zap it in a microwave for 20 seconds. That 20 seconds is enough to instantly cure the glue for a strong bond.

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WordPress may be coming soon. I hope.

I’m experimenting with WordPress. I have it up and running on a system built from spare parts, but importing from this archaic blogging platform that nobody uses (and for good reason) is less than obvious. A filter exists but isn’t officially blessed, so you can’t just go grab it like you can for a common blog platform like Movable Type or Greymatter.I’m going to look at it all again when I’m less tired. It may be possible to just take the importer and turn it into a standalone program that just slurps the database over and puts it into WordPress format. It’s probably been eight years since I did any PHP coding at all. But I have everything to gain from the move.

As far as I can tell, this server and this software have been running for 8 years. That’s a good run, but it’s too long. It’s time to modernize. Time to use modern software, running on a system that was built in this century.

Upcoming

I’m working on a post about SSD myths/misconceptions. Hopefully it will be helpful to someone.

I don’t understand why some people are downright hostile toward SSDs–I haven’t seen anything like it since the hostility I saw towards Amigas in the late 1980s, and OS/2 in the early 1990s.

Maybe it’ll help some people.

Editing. Or not editing.

If you were one of the 25 people who read my ramblings earlier today, I apologize. I accidentally posted what amounted to a bunch of disorganized notes. I’ve since edited them into better shape. I still think they wander too much, but that’s a reflection of me, I guess. My writings are all over the place because I’m all over the place right now.

The stunning fall of Mark Hurd

I didn’t believe it when the news broke late Friday that Mark Hurd, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, had suddenly resigned under fire.

Hurd wasn’t flamboyant or a quote machine like many technology CEOs. He just steadily turned HP around, increasing profits, passing Dell in sales of PCs and IBM in sales of servers, and buying companies like EDS and 3Com. He was exactly what investors liked.

In the following days, it turned out there was more to the story.Some people believe the infraction that HP cited for Hurd’s downfall was a cover, that HP wanted him out. The reasons make some sense. The one that resonates with me the most is the logic that Hurd increased profits by squeezing expenses to the bone, slashing the workforce to the minimum, then slashing salaries. Doing more with less, in other words–the mantra of IT during the entire previous decade.

The result? Record numbers of applications from HP employees at competitors. So far, no Steven Slater-style meltdowns, but when demanding more and more while paying less isn’t a good long-term strategy. The Slater story brought attention to this problem and got people talking about it, and it looks like HP may have been a few days ahead of the curve on that.

Other accounts have said employees don’t like working for Hurd and he’s unpleasant toward him. Which lead to some defenders questioning when "being nice" was a job qualification for a CEO.

Well, five years ago I was consulting for a Fortune 500 company. I stepped onto an elevator, and the company CEO stepped on right after me. He extended his hand, introduced himself, and asked me my name, what department I worked in, and what I did there. It was a 30-second exchange.

He stepped off the elevator and literally never saw me again. I don’t know whether he forgot about me the moment I stepped off the elevator, or if he jotted down a note that if he needed a printer fixed he could call Dave Farquhar and filed it away. But unlike a certain very famous CEO, he gave me no reason to fear sharing an elevator ride with him.

And I do think an important qualification of being a CEO is knowing who to call when they need something done quickly and done right. Being friendly is conducive to that. Being ruthless at all times is not. Even Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun knew when to be kind.

Then there’s the question of the consultant. The consultant who had, among other duties, the questionable job duty of "keeping Mr. Hurd company on trips," but with whom Hurd didn’t have an affair (both deny any sexual element to the relationship), and whom Hurd didn’t sexually harass (HP said no harassment took place, and the two settled out of court and kept the terms private). The consultant with whom Hurd concealed $20,000 in expenses in order to hide the relationship.

To a CEO of a multibillion-dollar company, 20 grand isn’t much. Hurd could have paid that back, and he offered. The amount of money isn’t the question nearly so much as the motive. Why did he feel the need to conceal having dinner with one particular subordinate?

The sexual harassment claim gives weight to the claim of it not being a sexual affair. But the job duty of "keeping [any male in a position of power] company" is a common euphemism for something less innocent. I’ve also read speculation that some of this consultant’s past work–namely, acting roles in several R-rated films of the type that gave the cable TV channel Cinemax the nickname "Skinamax"–may have contributed to these expectations.

Some have said that’s blaming the victim. But no means no, and the definition is the same no matter what the person’s job description was for most of the 1990s.

If Mr. Hurd jumped to certain conclusions because his consultant once had a starring role in "Body of Evidence 2," that says more about him than it says about her.

If I remember one thing from my freshman orientation in college, it’s sitting in an auditorium and being told repeatedly that no means no. Regardless of how much she’s had to drink, or what she’s wearing, or what reputation she has for whatever reason.

Since the charge was harassment rather than something else, it sounds like perhaps someone thought a no on Monday might not be followed by a no on Tuesday. That’s better than thinking no means yes based on reputation, but it was still problematic enough to settle out of court rather than try to get it dismissed.

We’ll probably never know HP’s full motivation behind the dismissal. Mark Hurd left over what appears now to be a relatively minor matter of $20,000 worth of incorrect expense reports and a slightly inappropriate relationship with a subordinate, both things that would go completely unnoticed or be easily rectified if it was a different company, or, perhaps, a different person.

The key is to not leave that something relatively minor laying around.

How not to succeed in business

So I have this house. Not the house I live in. It was a foreclosure, apparently one the previous owners walked away from about a year before we bought it. So it sat neglected for a year, and most likely, for several years before that.

I got in over my head a little, so I sought some help. Mowing the half acre looked like a smart thing to outsource.My neighbor’s son mows lawns. He mowed mine for the first year I lived here, but he mowed a little too frequently for my tastes, and he charged more than I could afford back then. Rather than call just anyone, it made sense to drop him a line.

He visited the place. I asked for a quote. He said $300.

Yeah, about three times what I expected was the worst case scenario.

I told him I wasn’t looking to have the place landscaped, nor was I looking for a really thorough job. I just wanted the lawn cut. One quick pass with a big mower, make the place look like someone kinda-sorta cares.

He argued with me a little about what needed to be done. I told him, point blank, that I didn’t have $300 to give him. Which was true. Rehab projects have a way of running away with the budget. The trick is to not spend on frivolous things. Like $300 lawn jobs.

He offered to give me a month to pay him.

I suggested a few other things to try to pare back expenses. He wouldn’t budge. He said pretty much anyone else would charge the same thing, and not to let the yard sit much longer because then it would really be out of control.

So I made a phone call, but not to another lawn guy. I called a lawnmower repair guy, to see about getting my piece-of-junk, died-two-cuts-into-its-second-season 6.5 horsepower Toro mower fixed. Fifty bucks plus parts, he said, and he’d have it done in about a week.

Meanwhile, I bought a battery-powered weed trimmer. It was $120, but I didn’t want a gas one, and it would take $100 worth of extension cords to reach back to the house from the far reaches of that yard.

Today I spent four hours out there with the Toro. At times it was overmatched. The guy next door came outside and decided to coach me, offering unsolicited advice to buy a bigger mower, on how tall the grass was, and, finally, how to start my Toro. All with lots of laughs along the way.

"I had it running earlier," I said. "It’s just being cranky."

Turns out the mower doesn’t like being low on fuel. It took a while to remember that, because it’s been a while since I last ran it. When I drove to the gas station, the neighbor went back inside. Thankfully, he stayed there.

For obvious reasons, the mower wasn’t happy chewing on waist-high grass. But it did surprisingly well on some nasty-looking weeds on the other side. And although it took some time, it got the job done, burning less than 2 gallons of gas in the process.

Considering the neighbor’s kid sad he’d have to have two people out there for three hours with his big mowers, four hours working alone isn’t bad at all. Out-of-shape me got it done in just an hour more with a 22-inch mower with 6 1/2 horses on the deck, so I’m not sure what he was going to have his other guy doing, but that’s his business.

So now the job’s done. I’m out four hours and $186, but the grass is cut, and I have a mower that might work another year and a weed trimmer to show for it. It’s all sitting in the garage, ready for next week.

As for the neighbor’s kid, well, I don’t think there’s any reason to call him again. I need people who are willing to work with me. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think if I’m signing the check, I ought to have some say in what work gets done and how it gets done.

Improving DSL speed

I found some DSL speed tips. They work. If you have DSL, you should read them and do the same.I went from speeds all over the map to a fairly consistent 600 kbps just running a new CAT5 line for DSL. Replacing the cheap, flat, old-fashioned phone cord running from my modem to the phone jack and the other cheapie in my patch panel with UTP phone cords boosted me another 30-50 kbps. That extra boost varies, but it’s something, and I’m glad to be consistently above 600 kbps now.

Finding UTP phone cords is a challenge. Supposedly Lowe’s has them but I can’t verify that. I had one that I wasn’t using for some insane reason. I found another one at a garage sale, obviously from a DSL installation kit. I don’t remember what I paid for it, only that it was a lot less than it’s worth to me. Digging through boxes of random cables at garage sales can pay dividends.

The easiest way to get them is probably to make your own from scrap lengths of CAT5/5e/6 cable. Just crimp RJ11 modular plugs onto the ends instead of RJ45. Radio Shack sells a package of 10 plugs for $6. Overpriced, but convenient. There’s always a Radio Shack nearby.

Belkin sells a special shielded twisted pair modem cable as an “Internet cable,” for around $20. I’m sure it’s a very good cable, but it’s not worth 20 bucks.

When looking at a store, as a general rule, flat cables are always bad, but a round cable stands a chance of being good.

If you have a fairly new house, chances are your phone wiring is pretty good, in which case the most important thing is getting a good phone cord. If you have a house built in the ’60s like me, with phone wire run after the fact by a weekend handyman who either didn’t know or didn’t care how to avoid interference on the wires, that’s another story. If there’s 30 feet of bad wire between the telco and the modem, the quality of that last 6 feet of wire doesn’t make much difference.

While you’re at it, you might as well replace all your phone cords with these higher-quality models. Your voice calls will be clearer, and it eliminates the possibility of those cables introducing interference into the line. That interference shouldn’t reach the modem, but “shouldn’t” is no guarantee.

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