Sunday, December 28, 2014


I’ve mentioned elsewhere my packrat tendencies, and this time I have the ultimate example.
In an old file I’ve found the handwritten composition I wrote for a highschool English class in 1949. For me this is akin to an archeologist discovering the papyrus that will later define a whole civilization.
OK, that’s a bit much; but it was the start of something.  It’s titled “The Science of Listening,” and I remember very distinctly it was a response to the activity of another guy in English 7-5 who, it seemed to me, never stopped talking. Worse, the technique was working for him. Dr. Mercier seemed to be taken in, responding to Peter's eager volunteering to read his work in class and awarding him high grades.
This paper, as you’ll see below, was my scathing riposte. Sixty years before the invention of snark!

The Science of Listening
      “Hearing, while one of the most valuable natural gifts we possess, is also one of the most underrated. It is our greatest aid to learning, our strongest tie with the world around us, for what we cannot see, we may hear of, and hearing of it we may picture it in our minds.
      “But we have not yet reached the crux of the matter, for hearing is not listening. Hearing is a natural endowment. Listening is an acquired virtue, and a science in itself. Hearing is the curse of knowing noise. Listening is the power of concentrating sound and arriving at a single product.
      “It is a curious fact that man has not the power to talk and listen at the same time. The need therefor becomes felt for a medium of transmission, a switchboard through which the tangled lines of articulation and absorption may be sorted out. This need was filled by the invention of silence, the discovery of one of the unsung benefactors of humanity. 
      "Like every great soul he was ridiculed and humiliated. 'Silence will never work!' they said. 'You’re not taking an interest in the world if you don’t make noises with your mouth.' There were even those who believed that the way to get an education was to keep their mouths open rather than their ears. So they ridiculed the great man, as to this day his disciples are reviled.
      “But we digress. With the coming of silence, listening came into its own. Man found that by remaining quiet himself he was better able to concentrate on the sounds others were making. Through further development and practice he found himself able to distinguish the pertinent facts from the rest of the sounds. In this way he greatly facilitated his education.
      “However, listening has not yet been fully accepted for what it is worth. Rather, since it is accompanied by silence, it is sometimes taken as the mark of the disinterested or unintelligent. It still has a long hard climb ahead before it reaches universal acceptance, and until it does, listening must remain a lost art rather than a science.“

A little confusion there at the end between art and science, but you get the idea.
There was just one problem: I was too modest -- or insecure -- to volunteer to read it aloud in class. No one has ever seen or heard it until now.  

Sunday, December 21, 2014

When I Edited Engineers - 1

I used to work in aerospace, editing proposals to the government. Because the proposals had technical content, it seemed logical to management to have engineers write them. The result often was that the quality of the technical stuff was excellent, but the non-technical stuff surrounding it, of which there’s quite a bit, didn’t work as well. 

Language would be stilted, and there would usually be too much of it. “Summaries” and “overviews” would choke with detail; and while, thankfully, graphics weren’t my responsibility, I did have to wrestle with paragraph-length figure captions. I also suspected there were office pools for Most Acronyms In A Single Sentence.

Time and temperament permitting, I would collaborate with the subject matter experts to rewrite or sometimes write the material. Other times, left to their own devices, the SMEs would fall into certain patterns in their writing; certain words would be used, or misused, in the same way. It was my responsibility to correct this, but since prevention is preferable to cure, I wrote up generic corrections to some of the more common problems and made them available to each new proposal team. It had no visible effect, but I present them in an occasional series here pro bono for any engineers who may happen by.

When I Edited Engineers  - 1
On “Over” Use
Many people have developed the habit of prefacing numbers with the word “over.” It seems to have become almost an involuntary thing. Even engineers who may deal in precision out to four decimal places in their everyday work become susceptible to it when working a proposal.

Aside from the fact that it would make more sense to say “more than,” it’s a tricky thing, and you don’t want to use it indiscriminately.  It’s one thing to say “over a million,” but something else to say “over 27.” You won’t be asked for more precision if you’re a journal claiming your million-plus readership, but if you’re talking about testing an airplane, you want to avoid saying “over 27 successful flights.” If you didn’t make it all the way to 28 -- 271/2  is bad news. 

I think there’s a reason why people use “over” more than “more than.” “More than” makes you conscious of the question “How many more?” and that might require some effort or research to get the answer (plus which you might find that “more than” was just an expression and there were only 27 after all).

Sunday, December 14, 2014

More Views on LinkedIn (on More Views on LinkedIn)

The next “thud” you hear coming from this quarter may be LinkedIn hitting bottom on my value scale. 
I’ll acknowledge my own contribution to that; I allowed myself to get into discussions (arguments, really) that had nothing to do with business, and were on subjects and with people so polarized  there was never any chance discussion would change a mind on either side. Engaging in that is, I’ll say it myself, stupid. 
Now, however,  I’ve seen something  that may tell us more of what LinkedIn is really about. 
People publish tips for success on LinkedIn, success being defined most often as getting more people to view your profile. Presumably the more people who look you up, the more chances you will have to succeed in whatever it is you’re doing, usually selling something. For some people, of course, being noticed is the goal in itself.
But of three tips I saw recently, only one involved anything constructive, like posting information of value. The real keys to succeeding on Linked in appear to be (a) to keep changing things in your profile (doesn’t matter what) because people connected to you receive notice of those changes and, you hope, will want to see what’s changed, upping your number of profile views; and   (b) to look at lots of other people’s profiles, on the assumption that they will then look at yours  -- upping your number of profile views -- to see why you’re checking on them. This one has the added benefit of also increasing the number of views for all those people you’ve looked at -- a win-win situation if I’ve ever seen one. The beauty of it is, it doesn’t require any intellectual effort. Your fingers do the walking.
Somehow, that doesn’t seem like what I remember as the reason for joining. I’d be happy to debate the subject with anyone who cares to defend those techniques.
I’ve also posted to a “LinkedIn Influencer,” the question “What qualifies you to be an “Influencer”? The occasion was my attention being called, via email announcement, to something he had written. It was well enough written, and presented nothing to offend, but Influential, with a capital “I”? Didn’t seem that way. It sure didn’t have the heft of the Communist Manifesto, or Martin Luther’s checklist, or something written by the Thomases  Paine or Jefferson. Fact is, it didn’t rise to the level of a political speech by Mitch McConnell -- a very low bar.
But then, there are people easily influenced (take a look at the post just before this one, December 7, for an example). For me, though, old and set in my ways, a banal essay about  happiness, money, and success isn't going to influence anything.

All in all, LinkedIn is a disappointment. If that puts me on the short end of a 300-million-against-one argument -- so be it.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

"Thought Leaders"

I’ve made fun of LinkedIn’s “thought leadership” before, but I’m wondering now if maybe it’s indicative of a serious condition.

I recently ran across a LinkedIn post (it was actually months old when I discovered it) but it intrigued me to the point that I started looking back at some of the 7500 comments it generated.

The subject was why the author doesn’t accept “connections” to his network. If you don’t know LinkedIn, LinkedIn encourages people to connect with other people to expand their business networks, and provides a mechanism for doing that with one click of a mouse. You could say “connecting” is the definition of what LinkedIn is.

The gist of the article was that the author was selective about whose requests for connection he accepted. People do abuse the system and many requests for connection are really attempts to sell you something.  

That said -- the article adopted the most arrogant tone imaginable, the author in effect laying out a list of reasons why most people aren’t good enough to associate with him. I reserve judgement on whether he’s just tone deaf (some people don’t realize how they sound in writing) or if he’s really as arrogant as his writing says he is.

The real point of my writing about this, though, is the reaction from people who read it. It generated  7500 comments, and almost every one said the article was terrific. The mind boggles. One of his criteria for refusing a connection was lack of a photo on the applicant’s profile page. “You aren’t a real person if you haven’t posted a photo.” Yet dozens of people with no photo on their profile page congratulated him on the article. Come on, folks; recognize when you’re being insulted.

The fact is, the article is insulting to everyone. If you want to connect with him, for whatever reason, if you don’t meet his stringent specs, don’t bother to apply. Bad enough from someone who is apparently a successful businessman; but here are aspiring entrepreneurs and wannabe tycoons saying “Great article. I’m adopting your guidelines.” Most would be prohibited from accepting themselves as connections under those rules 

I know there are 200 or 300 million people on LinkedIn and you can’t draw generalities from a few or even a few thousand, but I can’t help wondering: “Are this many people really this willing -- even eager -- to be led?” Why would you adopt policies that work for someone you don’t know, operating in a particular situation bound to be different from yours?  Wouldn’t it be better to develop your own guidelines, even if that means making a mistake or two along the way?  

The whole idea behind being on LinkedIn is to meet new people. If you turn away, or away from, everyone who doesn’t post a picture or lay out all the details of his or her life or who hits a typo in a message, you don’t know who you might be missing.     It could be me.  
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