Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Rose by Any Other Name

My friend Norberto’s son Josh graduated from High School last night, and Norberto invited us to attend the ceremony. I had not attended a High School graduation (or any graduation, for that matter), since 1966.

Josh attends a large, inner-city High School, which produced 582 graduating seniors. Because of the size of the graduating class, the ceremony was held in the civic arena, where the Orlando Magic play. I refuse to call it by its current “official” name, because at some point, the greedy arena management will sell the “naming rights” to some other disgusting example of corporate arrogance.

We entered as soon as the doors opened, and found good seats down close to the floor. The floor was set up with rows of folding chairs for the graduating class and the teaching staff. A stage was set up at one end, with seating for the school management staff and the class officers. Three-fourths of the lower bowl filled up with spectators quickly (the remaining fourth was behind the stage), and people began to fill the upper bowl. We were amused by parents who wandered down to our seating area minutes before the ceremony began, looking around with confused expressions, wondering how it was possible that there were no good seats remaining for them in their own private universe.



Before the actual ceremony began, a school official made a little speech asking the audience to “respect the solemn nature of the occasion” and refrain from making lengthy, loud or distracting noise that might prevent others from hearing the names of the other graduates as they were announced. This request was largely ignored. It's an inner-city High School, and a lot of these families may have never welcomed a High School graduate before. The sense of joy and excitement was palpable.

The class filed in, wearing their caps and gowns, and the principal made a speech in which he listed the achievements of the class. He pointed out the large number of graduates who were moving on to colleges around the country. Then, for reasons known but to God, he decided to name those colleges, alphabetically. There must have been 50 or 60 of them, and while I’m sure he would have preferred to name only the most prestigious universities, he felt obligated by the spirit of equality to name them all, including numerous community colleges, second-tier agricultural and mechanical colleges, and trade schools, such as the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. Occasionally, when he named a university, a cheer would erupt from some part of the arena, and a student would leap to his feet, arms raised in celebration.


The class Salutorian and Valedictorian gave what can best be described as “typical” High School graduation speeches, nearly interchangeable with those given at my High School graduation almost half a century ago.

Finally, the diploma ceremony began. Students moved in a seemingly endless line to the right of the stage, their name was announced, and they would then cross the stage, shaking hands with the school management, receive their diploma, pose for a photo with the principal, and exit on the left of the stage. It would have been unbelievably tedious except for two things: The shrieks and joyous dancing that would erupt at some part of the arena when the name was announced, and the names themselves.

I noticed some things about the last names of the graduates right away. For example, there were lots of Browns and Greens, but only one Black and one White. There were as many graduates named Nguyen as Hill or Ortiz.

The first names were the real entertainment. I don’t live in the inner city, and I have a plain-as-vanilla name. Inner city parents give their children pretty interesting, decorative names. Some of them are charming, some of them are amusing, but few are boring.

For example, there were girls named Shardonnay and Tiarra. One name was incredible: Marquis DeSade Burns. Two names were funny, not because of the names themselves, but because of the images they evoke in my head: Nicholas Dyer Strates and Ricky Ricardo Moore.

But the best name of the evening was the name of a future president of the United States, a man with instant appeal to all racial, religious and ethnic groups: Jeremiah Hakim Rodriguez-Schwartz.

The ceremony wrapped up with a terrific, heartfelt speech given by the Senior Class president, Brooke Thomas, and the class exited the building. Unfortunately, no plans had been made to reunite the graduates with their parents. The throng of students exited the building by one exit, the families by another, and all were funneled to a parking lot, where they were left to find one another in a seething mob.


It was a sad metaphor for life after graduation, as though the school authorities wanted to send the message, “We’re through with you now – fend for yourselves.”

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Gorilla Hands and Involuntary Dentistry

Years ago (sorry, I mean decades ago), I obtained a degree in Fine Arts. It was a great time, surrounded by creative, expressive people. But the Art world has more than its share of snobs. I remember one professor describing the misery of his military service, where he was reduced to making “manipulation drawings.” These are drawings of human hands performing some task, such as the disassembly of a complex piece of equipment, used to illustrate instruction manuals. I guess it never occurred to him that drawing for the Army was pretty soft duty, considering that most of his comrades were slogging through the mud in Korea while people shot at them. I vowed never to turn my nose up at such work.

At one point in my career, I made lots of manipulation drawings, and I loved doing it. Most of the commercial artists I met felt it was beneath them, but I took pride in making clear, well-rendered illustrations that would easily communicate a tricky procedure.

Over the years, I’ve been fascinated by the lack of quality I see in such illustrations. It must be difficult to find someone who enjoys it enough to do a good job. I remember one occasion where someone had purchased a small “party keg” of beer. The instructions for tapping it were rendered without words in the form of a series of manipulation drawings embossed on the lid. The hands in the illustrations were so poorly drawn that they didn’t resemble human hands. I wondered if we needed to find a gorilla to tap the keg.

The same issues occur with common forms. Everybody has to fill out forms - forms for work, forms for government agencies, forms for health care providers, forms for school, etc. But when was the last time you saw a clear, well-designed form?

I’ve always enjoyed designing forms, especially those that require a complicated set of optional or condition-dependent information. But in real life, I find that the people who design most forms invest very little brainpower to make the form easy to use.

My new employer just dumped a pile of forms on my desk that have to be completed tomorrow. The health care coverage form asked me to provide the code of my primary care physician, which could be obtained from their Web site. But the Web site requires me to be enrolled before I can use it. I went to HR to clear up this chicken-and-egg problem, only to be told “Oh, you don’t need to fill out that part of the form.” OK, so why is it here?

That same form asked me for my coverage dates. Well, I can tell them when I want coverage to start, but how the hell am I supposed to know when it will end?

The 401(k) form required me to specify the distribution of my contribution among 10 potential mutual funds. But it didn’t provide a way to compare them, and it didn’t give me the stock symbols so I could look them up. Perhaps they should have been provided in the form of a dartboard.

The dental coverage form asked me to check a box indicating whether I wanted “Dental” coverage or “Voluntary Dental” coverage. No explanation was provided to define these terms. I had no idea there was such a thing as involuntary dental coverage, but I checked the “Dental” box anyway. I hope it doesn’t mean they’ll strap me to a chair against my will and give me Regis Philbin teeth.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Want Some Candy, Little Girl?

People in my office travel a lot. My division alone manages staff in India, Thailand, the United States, England, Finland, and Spain. So people are always heading out the door for long, hemorrhoid-inducing business trips to far-flung places.

A tradition has emerged, where the traveler returns with some kind of interesting candy, and leaves it out for all to enjoy. Recently, a guy returned from Finland with vodka-filled chocolates. I’m not talking about vodka-scented cream filling. I’m talking about a shot of real vodka, which is quite a breathtaking shock when you bite into one.

Yesterday, one of the Business Analysts returned from Thailand with three bags of little packets of taffy. They’re exotic Asian tropical fruit flavors: Lychee, Mangosteen (not related to the mango), and Durian. The Lychee and Mangosteen are tasty, not unlike typical fruit-flavored taffy found in the USA. The Durian candy is another story altogether.


I realize they probably don’t grow strawberries and raspberries in Thailand. They make do with what nature provides and the climate can support. Strawberries and raspberries may taste weird and exotic to them. But I don't care where you're from, the Durian just screams at you to leave it alone.


The husk is covered with spiny thorns, capable of drawing blood. Inside is a pus-like substance (some would call it custard-like, but not me) that is technically edible. People eat it raw, or they make products such as candy from it.

I tried the Durian-flavored candy, and it didn’t last half a second in my mouth. I gagged and spat for 2 minutes until the pungent taste faded. Some people say it tastes like smelly feet. I say it tastes like a dead mouse, one that has defecated all over itself.

The rest of the office spent the day waiting for victims to wander by and notice the candy. They would try one of each, and we would snort with laughter when they got to the Durian candy, made retching noises and raced for a trash can.

I’m told it’s an acquired taste, but I imagine you’d have to be close to starvation to acquire it. Of course, I’m going to buy a big bag of it as soon as I can find a source. Halloween will be here before you know it.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Goodbye, Mr. Ahmadinejad

In 1975, an astute friend of mine made the observation that the United States of America had stupidly built an entire transportation system around a resource they don’t control. It all seemed amusing enough during an era when the governments of oil-producing countries loved the river of valuable dollars that flowed across the oceans to fund their lavish lifestyles. However, the chickens are now coming home to roost, as those same dollars have lost much of their value on the world currency markets, and those rivers are beginning to look like trickling streams. Worse, the warehouses in which they store the huge bales of American currency they’ve accumulated over the decades now look like they might be better used to store a huge collection of Beanie Babies.

The solution they have chosen to pursue is to charge more for the oil and build bigger warehouses. The majority of Americans have been looking around, blinking as though waking from a long slumber, wondering why it suddenly costs them $150 to fill up their SUV. Most don’t have any alternative. It would be nice if they could just leave that thing in the garage 3 days a week and take some form of safe, clean, efficient and affordable public transportation to work, but surprise! For most of us, there’s no public transportation system at all. And of course, the cost to rapidly build a nationwide public transportation system of any kind would be ruinous and politically impossible.

Some are angry. Some are angry and stupid, demanding to know why we don’t immediately nuke Iran and seize their oil fields.

To solve this problem for myself, I have been thinking of buying a motorcycle, which will get 3 times the gas mileage of my car. I have an 11-mile commute to work, none of which involves highway driving, and I live in Florida, which has a year-round motorcycle climate. This seems like a simple, rational response to a crisis that may get much worse before it gets better. There are just two small obstacles to overcome.

The first obstacle is that I’ve never owned or driven a motorcycle. So I don’t know if it’s a simple skill to learn, or if I’ll be a danger on the road. But there’s a motorcycle safety course I can take that will teach me the things I need to know. I also don’t know very much about motorcycles, so I’ve been doing some research. It seems as though in the USA, motorcycling has been developed and marketed as a lifestyle, not as transportation.

Bikes sold to guys my age are designed as cruisers for long distance weekend rides. They’re big, heavy and bloated with storage compartments and comfort accessories. Many are chromed or tricked out as status symbols, whose only purpose is to impress other guys. One company called Boss Hoss makes motorcycles with automotive V-8 engines. They get 18 miles per gallon. I dare you to make an argument that this bike is anything but a testicle substitute.

Bikes sold to imbecilic 19-year olds are called “sport bikes,” designed to achieve lethal velocities and perform wheelies on the Interstate. One salesman showed me a motorcycle made by Kawasaki that can go 240 miles per hour “right out of the box.” They don’t have a helmet law in Florida, but they should, because it makes it easy to carry the head of a dead sport biker to the ambulance.

There are a few bikes designed for simple commuting, but nothing like the assortment available in Europe or Asia.

The second obstacle is my wife, who assumes that if I buy a motorcycle, I will die. There’s no argument I can make that will shake this belief. However, I’ve been slowly wearing her down, and once gas hits $5 a gallon, I think she’ll see the light. In other words, my life can be bought for the right price.

What I didn’t expect was a third obstacle, and it showed up on HBO the other night. It was a documentary called Coma, which followed the lives of four people who awakened from comas. One had fallen from a balcony, two had been involved in automobile accidents, and one had been assaulted. Unlike actors in movies, these people faced enormous hurdles to recovery. All had brain injuries of one sort or another. One was in a Persistent Vegetative State, unable to speak, recognize his family, react to stimuli or control his limbs and bodily functions. One suffered a stroke and was left deaf and partially paralyzed. Another suffered profound physical disabilities and reverted to emotional infancy. The last one, barely conscious, succumbed to his injuries, lapsed back into a coma and was removed from life support.

The stories were compelling, but heartbreaking. All I could think about was the inherent instability of motorcycles. Suddenly, nuking Iran doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Holiday Productivity

Many years ago, I was traveling through Europe and at one point, I took a train to Madrid, Spain. I arrived on November 1, and discovered that this huge, modern metropolis appeared completely deserted, as though a terrible plague had wiped out the entire population. After wandering the streets in confusion for several hours, I found a man sitting in a parked car and asked him where all the people had gone. He told me that November 1 is All Saint’s Day, which is a national holiday in Spain. Everyone was in church or at home with their families. Museums were closed, restaurants were closed, supermarkets were closed. I found a hotel by pure luck, and the owner took pity on me and gave me some food. I spent a miserable day unable to do anything, and took the next train out of town.

Now that I work for an international company, I’m discovering that every country celebrates national holidays throughout the calendar year that don’t coincide with holidays in the United States. For example, lots of countries have Labor Day holidays, but their Labor Day isn’t the same as ours. Lots of countries celebrate Independence Day, but surprisingly, they didn’t all declare their independence on July 4.

But everybody celebrates Christmas on December 25, right? Wrong. In Greece, Russia and other countries where the Eastern Orthodox Church is dominant, it’s celebrated on January 7 because the church still uses the Julian calendar (which has been accumulating errors over the centuries and is currently 13 days behind the more accurate Gregorian calendar in use today). And of course, Israel and many Muslim countries don’t have official observances of Christmas at all.

Many countries have their own oddball national holidays as well. Tomb Sweeping Day in China (April 4), Royal Ploughing Day in Cambodia (May 23), Boxing Day in the United Kingdom (December 26), etc.

This has caused some problems for me and others in my company, because we rely on worldwide personnel to contribute to our projects, which have fixed delivery dates. When I need answers to questions, I often find that the people who can answer them aren’t at work. I’m sure the same thing happens when they need to talk to me. The potpourri of non-coinciding national holidays has created something of a minefield when it comes to project planning. For example, in the month of June, 2008, every day is a holiday somewhere.

I’m sure I’m not the first one to think of this, but it seems that in a worldwide economy, it would be in the best interests of countries who stand to benefit from outsourcing and international trading partnerships to consider moving some of their holidays to common days. I’m aware that some holidays, particularly religious holidays, cannot be moved without bloodshed.

But for those countries willing to move at least some of their holidays, the first step is to agree on a standard calendar. It’s the 21st century, we understand celestial dynamics, nobody cares how they measured time 3,000 years ago.

The next step is to agree that lots of holidays are moveable. In the United States, we observe a number of holidays on a Friday or a Monday, for the convenience of a 3-day weekend. Nobody cares when the actual birthday of a national hero occurs; all they care about is when they get to take the day off. Once you make that small concession, it’s easy to make the next step.

The final step is Coincidence. Every country agrees to move their movable holidays so they all coincide. They don’t have to be the same holiday, they just have to occur on the same day. So Slovakia celebrates Slovak Uprising Day on Friday, August 29 and the United States celebrates Labor Day on Monday, September 1 this year. I’m sure we could come to an agreement.

The outcome of these negotiations would be an international calendar of holidays, the bulk of which would coincide. Each country would have a few national holidays that would differ, but not enough to cause serious impact to world productivity.

As I see it, the biggest obstacle is that some countries have more holidays than others. To make this work, some holidays in holiday-happy countries (such as Lebanon, with 20) would have to be downgraded to regional holidays or “festival” status, like Cinco de Mayo in Mexico. Holiday-poor countries (such as Canada, with only 8) would benefit by the assignment of some new holidays, which they can name whatever they want.

Of course, this will never work. But if they agree to televise the negotiations, it would probably be the highest-rated show in world history. How about it, Canada? If you’ll move Canada Day from July 1 to July 4, you can have another holiday. Deal or No Deal?