Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson needed to explain himself

I understand Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson’s predicament. I don’t agree with how he handled it.

You see, both Scott Thompson and I work in the technical industry, and neither of us have a degree in computer science, computer engineering, some other kind of engineering, high mathematics, or another socially accepted relevant-to-the-industry field. Read more

The worst test I ever took

I’m gearing up (finally) to take the CISSP, a 250-question marathon of an exam that covers everything from firewalls and intrusion detection systems to how tall the fence or wall around a building should be and what kind of lights to use in a parking garage.  And everything in between. Three of my colleagues have had CISSP certifications for several years, and on Friday two of them were telling me what to expect.

And the worst test I’ve ever taken came to mind. No, it wasn’t Security+. I had a pretty good idea I was going to pass that one, which I did. The worst test I ever took was Dr. Walter Johnson‘s Fundamental Macroeconomics (Economics 1) makeup final at Mizzou, circa Winter 1994.

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Reflections on 10+ years of blogging

Om Malik shared yesterday what he’s learned in 10 years of blogging.

1. Blogging is communal.
2. Be authentic.
3. When wrong, admit it and listen to those who were right.
4. Be regular.
5. Treat others as you expect yourself to be treated.
6. Respect your readers’ time.
7. Wait 15 minutes before publishing.
8. Write everything as if your mom is reading.
9. It’s not opinion–it’s viewing the world a certain way and sharing that view.
10. A little snark goes a long way.
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LED is the future, but I don’t think it’s here yet

San Jose Mercury News columnist (and fellow Mizzou alumnus) Troy Wolverton has been testing LED bulbs. His conclusion: The quality of light is good, prices will continue to fall and efficiency will continue to improve, so they’re the future, but the future isn’t here yet. Update: I think it is now.

I’m always trying to wring the last bit of value out of my utility bill dollars, so I’ve been watching this closely. And I agree.
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Why total freedom of expression is a reader’s worst nightmare

A longtime reader asked me about news writing, and writing in general, after complaining about the sorry state of writing these days. I think a lot of things are in a sorry state, and the writing is a reflection of that. But maybe if we can fix the writing a little, it’ll help everything else, right?

Kurt Vonnegut once said writers should pity the readers, who have to identify thousands of little marks on paper and make sense of them immediately, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after studying it for 12 long years.

He says to simplify and clarify.

As writers, we’d rather live by Zeuxis’ mantra that criticism is easier than craftsmanship. But one way to avoid criticism is to make sure the readers understand what we’re writing in the first place.
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A late adopter’s survival guide to Facebook: Part 3 of 3

This is part 3 in my series on Facebook and avoiding pitfalls. Here’s part 1.

Too many friends

Psychology professor and self-help pioneer Jess Lair used to ask people if they had five friends. If they said no, he said to go make some–with fewer than five, you wear your friends out. If they said they had a lot more than five, he said no they don’t–they have a lot of acquaintances. People don’t have enough time and energy to maintain more than about five deep friendships.

I think about that when I see people who have hundreds of Facebook friends. One Facebook meme I’ve seen is people posting a status update that just says, “Tell me how I know you?”

By hiding game/app updates, you can make it a lot easier to keep up with larger numbers of people. Hiding friends who post excessively helps as well.

But the odd thing is, even though I’ve done these things, there are still friends I’ve never seen a status update from. They appear to be active. Many of them have hundreds or thousands of friends. Whether they’re using filters and I’m just not in any group that gets their updates, or whether Facebook just isn’t designed to handle hundreds of relationships, I don’t know.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to keep in touch with large numbers of people, but don’t let the “friends” misnomer get in the way of the relationships that are most important to you.

The power of lists to filter updates and avoid conflict

Sometimes you may post something that you suspect will rile certain friends up. Hopefully it will be a small number of them. Before posting, click on the lock icon, and there’s an option there labeled hide. Start typing the names of friends you don’t want to see the post, then select them. This will keep them from seeing the post, and hopefully prevent you from inadvertently starting a world war.

A former Mizzou classmate clued me in to an even better tip: Some people go so far as to create lists and hide certain updates from those lists. Click on Friends, then click Edit Friends, then click Create List. Name the list by topic, add friends you don’t want to send updates on that topic, then click Create List. Now, when you go to post a status update, when you click on the lock, you can type the name of that list into the hide option.

You can also use lists to avoid sending irrelevant updates to all 999 of your closest friends. You can create lists of family, coworkers, former coworkers, former classmates, and any other list that’s useful to you. Then, if you want to send an update just to your family, type your update, click the lock, select customize, select specific people, and then type the name of the group. Now you can send a message to your whole family and not worry about bothering other people who won’t care or understand the message.

And then you can use those lists to see updates just from those specific groups, so if you ever wonder what your old coworkers from Initech are up to, you can find out really quickly. Just click on Friends, then click that list, and you’ll see all the recent updates from the people on that list.

The upside

Despite the pitfalls, there’s enough upside to make it worthwhile. I’ve questioned it a couple of times, but never for more than a few days.

It is an effective way to keep in touch. One blatant example: Last summer, we had a project at work that required several teams to travel. Those of us who had Facebook accounts knew how the remote teams were doing. Those who didn’t knew very little. It was a lot easier to sign in to Facebook at the end of the day than it was to use our convoluted e-mail system from the road.

I also find it easier to deal with than e-mail. I used to get more e-mail per day than I could possibly read or respond to in 24 hours. With Facebook, people’s expectations are more reasonable. I have a much better handle on what’s going on in people’s lives by spending a few minutes on Facebook than I did plowing through hundreds of e-mail messages.

I’m a whole lot more connected now than I was in 2007. I can trade family pictures and talk effortlessly with my first cousin in Philadelphia, whom I haven’t seen in person in 22 years. I can do the same with my first cousin in Germany, whom I’ve never met at all. I’ve even used it to try to chase down job leads for friends who weren’t on Facebook yet. There’s nothing at all wrong with any of that.

What does religion have to do with the United States falling behind in math and science?

This morning on one of the Sunday morning political shows (probably "Meet the Press"), I heard a statement that troubled me. I may be misquoting, but I heard the moderator ask how we can afford to have a vice president who believes in Creation in a time when the United States is lagging so far behind in fields like science and engineering.

I call irrelevance.I’ll tell you why the United States is falling behind in science and engineering. It has little or nothing to do with religion (or lack of it) and everything to do with society and education.

I know several engineers. Some are practicing and licensed; others have the degree but haven’t had need for the license. One is the godfather of my son. He’s in church every Sunday and I know it, because I usually sit in the same section.

You can pretty much name any large company that makes something made of metal in the United States, and chances are he’s designed a press for them. Companies buy his presses because they are reliable, safe to operate, and cost efficient. I don’t know what he thinks about when he’s designing his presses, but it’s certainly possible to design one without thinking about God once. And being well-versed in biological evolution isn’t going to make his presses any safer or cheaper.

But if we want to debate Creation vs. Evolution, I’ll drag Dad into this. I have to speak for him, because he died in 1994. Dad had bachelor’s degrees in chemistry, physics, and biology in addition to his medical degree. He was also a practicing Lutheran, so he believed in God and could find his way around a hymnal and a Bible.

Dad believed in evolution and was told more than once he was going to hell because of what he believed. But the church elders never let Dad finish his argument. He and I had this talk once, and let me tell you the last thing Dad said.

Evolution’s dirty little secret is that at the very beginning, some force had to set it in motion. Dad said God set it in motion, and the same God gave Darwin the brain to figure that out.

As someone who was much stronger in English than any science, I’m not qualified to argue with my Dad. But I can say that more people would have listened to him, and the discussions would have been more civil, if he’d said that first instead of last. Dad was guilty of burying his thesis.

In 1998, I had a conversation with another doctor, one who had known Dad. Unlike Dad, this doctor wasn’t an evolutionist. He said it’s bad science, because its earliest stages are neither repeatable nor observable. So rather than plug God into it like Dad did, he preferred to throw out the theory.

If you want to say evolution disproves God, then you have to assume that original lifeform and the world it lived in happened by chance. There’s a word for that. It’s called faith. The difference is whether you believe in chance or in God.

When engineers set out to design a car or airplane, or part of one, their personal beliefs about the origins of life don’t help them design a better machine.

Personally, I couldn’t care less whether public schools teach evolution alone or side by side with some variant of intelligent design because that’s not going to make or break mathematicians and scientists and engineers. The educational system and popular culture is what’s keeping our country from being on top of those fields.

First of all, the portrayal of anyone who has any interest in math and science in popular media needs to stop. Now. Television shows like "The Big Bang Theory" and "Beauty and the Geek" reinforce the negative stereotypes of anyone with those inclinations. But it’s not new. Twenty years ago the same stereotypes existed.

I knew lots of science and engineering majors in college. And you know what? Most of them didn’t wear glasses. I never saw any of them with pocket protectors. One of them enjoyed Star Trek but wasn’t obsessed with it by any means. Most of them had girlfriends, and without exception they were all what any normal person would consider good girlfriend material. And perhaps most importantly, you could sit down with any of them and have a pleasant conversation about anything you would talk about with anyone else with a college education.

So there’s no more truth to that stereotype than there is to racial stereotypes. But how much does that stereotype dissuade kids with the gift from speaking up in math or science class when they know the answer?

I know it kept me quiet. I stopped speaking up, and probably on some level I stopped trying as hard as I once did.

But the educational system also bears some blame. Do you want to know why German kids score better in math and science than U.S. kids?

Because German schools know how to teach math and science and U.S. schools don’t, that’s why.

Twenty years ago, I was sitting at the kitchen table of my parents’ house with a German national named Peter. Peter was little more than a drunk and a con man, but I still learned something from him. For some reason, a math problem came up. I attacked the problem using long division, the proper, sanctioned, U.S. method. Peter came up with the same answer I did, and he came up with it a lot faster. He showed me the German way. I’ve long since forgotten the details, but it was quick and easy, unlike long division, which was one of the most difficult and painful things I ever had to learn in school.

Why are German cars better than U.S. cars? Maybe because German schools don’t use math as a way to torture their kids. And, heaven forbid, German kids might actually grow up knowing what they can do with the math skills they’re learning.

In high school, I quit math after trigonometry. The point of no return for me was when one of my classmates was building a speaker box for a car. He knew the size of the box that would fit the car, and wanted to know the maximum size of the speakers he could fit in that area. So he asked the teacher. The teacher tried some equations, but couldn’t figure it out.

The message to me (and the rest of the class) was pretty clear. We were learning this garbage because someone else before us had to learn it, not because it was something necessary for us to succeed in life. Let’s call it for what it is: institutionalized hazing.

Today, I’m 33 years old and I can tell you what basic trigonometry is good for, but that’s only because I watch This Old House on a regular basis and I see Norm Abram and Roger Cook using trig to figure out if something they’re in the process of building is going to be square or not. But I learned so little in trigonometry in high school that it’s a miracle I even know they’re doing trig.

So if we want to keep up with the rest of the world, I have a start. First, burn every math textbook currently in use. Second, launch a crash program to translate German math textbooks into English. Third, fire any teacher not willing to use those methods and replace them with teachers who are. Replace them with people like me who struggled to get Cs under the old method.

Yes, in high school and college, I got Cs in pretty much anything that required the use of numbers. Yet today I can look at business-related data and use statistical methods to figure out how to make that business more efficient and profitable. I almost always need help with the math, but once I manage to get past that, profits increase.

I struggled in Dr. F. Tim Wright’s Statistics 31 class at Mizzou, but his word problems always sounded like a something that might happen in the real world. He’s probably the reason I have that ability today.

Right now the biggest decision my son faces on a day to day basis is what toy he’s going to put in his mouth. So I don’t know what he’s going to decide to do with his life. I know when he reaches adulthood, there will be a shortage in several fields. Medicine and engineering will be among them.

He probably has the genetic disposition to be one or the other. Four of the six generations who preceded him were doctors–his father and great-great grandfather were the two exceptions.

What he decides to do with his life will have very little to do with the personal beliefs of the next president and vice president. It will have everything to do with the kind of education he receives. If a couple of math and science teachers show him how those subjects can change the world, he might head that direction. If it’s a language or social studies teacher who ends up wielding the most influence, he’ll be a lot more likely to go that direction.

I care about that, but I’m not under the illusion that Washington D.C. has much control over it.

$13.99 a day for three days isn’t $39 total!

On Monday, I had the pleasure of renting a car. The insurance company was paying–the pleasure came courtesy of the 81-year-old woman who rear-ended my wife and son as they sat at a stop sign–but I learned a lot about rental company tactics.The insurance company was paying $24 a day, which would put you in a mid-sized car–roughly the size of a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord. So the rental company tried to upsell me. Enterprise stuck me in a Buick LeSabre once when the Dodge Neon I initially tried to rent had a flat tire. I hated the thing. It was comfortable, but it was huge, I couldn’t park it, the brakes were mushy, and the steering was mushy. I felt like I was stuck in a big bowl of oatmeal.

But they didn’t want to put me in a LeSabre. They wanted to put me in an SUV or a minivan. Completely impractical. Besides, I wanted fuel economy. I pointed to a Ford Focus. “How’s that gas mileage compare to my Honda Civic?” I asked.

“It has to be pretty close,” he said.

“I’ll take one.”

Once inside, he said he also had a Toyota Corolla. I lit up. “I’ll take the Corolla.” He said the last person who rented it got 38 MPG out of it. I like 38 MPG.

Then he took me outside to see the car. It was cleaner than my car, had fewer scratches on my car, when he put the key in the ignition and turned it, the engine started. It promised to cost less per mile to drive than a Civic, and someone else was paying the bill. What’s not to like?

Then he tried to sell me insurance. By then I was getting frustrated because all this upselling was making me even later for work, and I was plenty late enough. They had primo insurance for $23.99 a day, which was more than the daily cost of renting a Corolla. He said it would give me a million dollars in liability. I don’t remember what else. I probably rolled my eyes. I think he sensed there was no way, no how he was going to sell that to me, so he turned to the “cheap” $13.99 insurance.

“I don’t think I need insurance because American Family said they’d cover me since I have full coverage.”

“What’s your deductible?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I’ve never had to use it.” (Remember that second sentence.)

“It’s probably $500. So for $13.99 a day, we can save you the hassle of having to deal with American Family if anything happens.” Then he went over the things it would cover.

I started to get antsy, knowing how late for work I was getting. I tuned him out, which was the best thing to do. Otherwise I’d get even more irritated.

“So for just $39, we can take care of you for three days.”

I ignored the mathematical fact that $13.99 times 3 is $41.97, not $39. Any sixth grader should know that.

“$39 is a lot of money,” I said. That’s true, isn’t it? That’s about how much it costs to fill a Corolla’s gas tank in Missouri right now.

He laughed. “So’s $500!”

“Yeah, but I’ve never had to use that deductible, so the chances of me having to use any insurance this week on this car are about zero. So it really doesn’t make any sense to pay $39 for something I’m not going to use.”

“Suit yourself,” he said.

It suited me fine. The car was in our possession from roughly 9 AM on Monday until about 5 PM today (Wednesday). I guess that’s about 56 hours. My wife ran errands for a couple of hours each day and went to the doctor on Wednesday, but I think it’s safe to say that the car spent at least 41.97 hours sitting in our driveway.

Nothing bad happened in our driveway. I’m sure the dog sniffed it a few times.

I’m guessing the salesman who was helping me was probably 24 or 25, and in all fairness, when I was his age I didn’t think $39 was a lot of money either, even if it was really $41.97. Let’s face it. When I was 19, I was making about six bucks an hour. When I was 24, I was making a shade over $12 an hour, and after $6 per hour, that seemed like a lot of money. That was 9 years ago. Let’s guess this whippersnapper makes $15 an hour and made $8 an hour selling dishwashers at Best Buy five years ago. When you go from making $160 a week to $2400 a month, $41.97 seems like nothing. I’m sure he’ll spend more than that on dinner and drinks on Friday.

And I’m sure he and thousands of others like him manage to convince a lot of people every day that $41.97 is really $39, and $39 is nothing, so they sign on the line. All those nothings pile up really quick, and the next thing you know, you’ve got a $9 billion company.

Slick.

But that “only” tactic doesn’t work on me anymore. Quote me $41.97, and I can tell you it takes me an hour and a half to make that, pre-tax. Factor in taxes, and it takes me more than two hours to make that. That’s a quarter of my day! If I’m going to waste $41.97, I can think of a number of things I’d much rather waste $41.97 on. Maybe a full tank of gas. Or half a week’s worth of groceries. Or 288 diapers, if I shop at Dollar General. That might last my son a month.

But I spared him the Dr. Walter Johnson Economics 51 lesson on Opportunity Cost ($101 per credit hour in 1994 at Mizzou). Like I said, I was already late for work. I’d probably already blown $28 worth of vacation time and I didn’t want to make it $41.97.

The Megan Meier Myspace suicide, 10 days later

It’s been about 10 days since the story first broke about 13-year-old Megan Meier being harassed online by a 48-year-old neighbor posing online as a 16-year-old boy and eventually being driven to suicide. The blogosphere has gone nuts, the story has national and even international attention, and while none of this will bring Megan Meier back, at least there’s been some progress.On Monday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch named the 48-year-old impersonator. From what the story said, the family gets very little peace, and the neighbors don’t care much for them. Their life wasn’t good even before the story broke, and it hasn’t gotten any better in the past week.

Comments on various blogs indicate the impersonator’s phones have been disconnected. As widespread as that information had become, their phones probably never stopped ringing. This harassment is illegal, but I still have a hard time feeling sorry for them.

The original police report showed up on The Smoking Gun. Reading it made me even madder. The part that bothered me the most:

Despite the recency of the suicide and several neighbors recommending she not contact the Meier family (especially on Thanksgiving), Meier stated she and her husband attempted to contact the Meier family three times, “banging on the door” even though Mr. Meier had already told them to leave. [She] wished the current tension be documented in case any of her property is damaged. Further, [she] insisted on contacting the family to “inform them of what she knows.” [She] stated she “just needed” to tell them to relieve herself of the “responsibility” and apparent guilt.

Relieve herself of responsibility and apparent guilt? Document the tension in case of property damage?

How about a good old-fashioned apology?

At least one company that advertised with the impersonator’s coupon magazine, a carpet cleaning business, stated in public that they will be ending that relationship. They had already committed to being in the next issue, so they may appear in it, but that will be the last.

Two businesses expressed indifference, according to one commenter, but all it takes is a few businesses pulling their ads to make it difficult to pay the bills.

A blog surfaced on Sunday, titled Megan Had it Coming. It claims to be written by someone who knew Megan.

I read the single post there, and I have serious doubts that the author is 14 years old. The spelling and grammar are much better than the typical 14-year-old, and the paragraphs tend to be more complex than I would expect from a 14-year-old. The paragraphs for the most part follow the structure one is taught to use in college.

That said, some of the elements of the writing are too bad for a gifted 14-year-old. I could write that well (or better) at that age and I know several other people who could too. But the logic is extremely flawed. I believe any English teacher who saw a student capable of writing like that at age 14 would hammer on the child’s logic. English teachers aren’t satisfied with that quality of work from someone who exhibits this much ability at 14.

For these reasons, I believe the author is older, and probably had at least the introductory composition course in college. She (I believe the author is probably female) may not have done all that well in the class, or she may have been intentionally making mistakes in an attempt to appear to be a younger and less sophisticated author. When I was a journalism major at Mizzou, I was a go-to guy for people who were having trouble in their Introductory Composition class, so I read a lot of those papers. This piece really reminded me of those papers.

Let me also say that the most difficult thing for an author to do is to appear to be something that he or she is not. So if a piece of writing doesn’t look or sound like that of a 14-year-old girl, then it probably isn’t.

I agree with the author that Megan Meier wasn’t perfect. Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and assume everything she said about Megan is true. The Megan she portrayed reminds me of pretty much every girl aged 12-14 I remember growing up with. Some girls stay that way a lot longer. I definitely remember elements of that kind of behavior in two ex-girlfriends, both of whom were in their early 20s when we dated. A few girls I knew got over it early, and I remember having trouble knowing how to react to them, because they were so different.

If Megan Meier deserved to die because she was self-conscious, oversensitive, shallow, fickle, difficult to be around, and prone to overreact, then that means virtually every teenager in the world deserves to die. Those flaws are the very essence of that phase of life. It’s all a phase, and most people grow out of it. It’s not a cause for deserving death. It also doesn’t mean that someone who exhibits those characteristics is automatically going to commit suicide.

It’s a terrible logical fallacy.

I also disagree with the assertion that Megan deserved this fate because a 48-year-old vs. a 14-year-old isn’t a fair fight, no matter how you cut it. I would have far more sympathy for the impersonator if the impersonator had been another teenager, acting alone.

The author tends to talk down, as if she’s already outgrown this phase, and even if a 14-year old was already through all this, I don’t think she would have enough perspective to comment about it this way. I can’t really put my finger on specific phrases, but the whole piece gives me a sense of looking back at 14, rather than being in the thick of 14.

I have no way of knowing who the author of this one-off blog is. Given writing samples, I can usually figure out if a piece in question was written by the same person, but I have no writing samples to compare. The author could be the original impersonator who is now vying for the title of most hated woman on the Internet. It fits her pattern of behavior. It could also be one of the many contrarian random trolls who are popping up on any blog that mentions Megan Meier and her impersonator by name.

My friend who lives in the area observed that the blogger referred to a local sports complex as “Tri Sports.” The proper name of that complex is the Renaud Spirit Center, and the address is 2650 Tri Sports Circle. Tri Sports Circle is one street over from the street where the Meiers and the impersonators live.

So the author of this piece is almost certainly local. Given that the impersonator has few or no friends left in the neighborhood, and given how the author of this piece went out of her way to defend the impersonator, I believe the author of this one-off blog probably is none other than the same mind that brought us Josh Evans, the fake-16-year-old boyfriend.