Monthly Archive: October 2009



Originally uploaded by kaiyen

It’s funny how one can get so bored with the same thing that he or she starts seeing it in whole new ways.

As I’ve mentioned before, I walk to and from work most days. I bring the camera along, but I have also mentioned before that it’s not exactly the most exciting of routes and I kind of run out of ideas at some point.

This particular day, I managed to get out the door a bit earlier than usual (which means I left on time) and the sun was still quite low. I have pictures of sun on knurled wooden fences, on rocks, etc. But this one of the shadows of grass on the sidewalk, which I apparently didn’t quite get right on the focus, stood out to me when I was scanning. I also did something during development that made it a bit grainier than usual.

But the shapes and light really did something for me, I’m quite happy with this. Perhaps there is still some creativity left in me…

obsolecense of my…coffee maker?

I’ve been meaning to write about how the commoditization of so many different things that we use on a daily basis has changed our expectations of reliability.  For instance, I find myself thinking that if I get a good 4 years out of something, then that’s amazing.  Even with cars, I think of something 5 years old as aged and ready for replacement.

This is not about always wanting something new.  It’s about forgetting that sometimes we should expect things to last.  How many times do we see a car on the road that is 10 or 15 years old, still running strong and reliably?  Why should I be frustrated with my “old” car that is not yet even 5 years out of the plant?  A car is a bit extreme of an example – let’s look at the items we have around us on a daily basis.  How many people have kitchen appliances that are more than 3 years old (other than the fridge, oven, or dishwasher)?  More importantly, how long do you expect that toaster or blender to last?  How many would be okay if they broke within 5 years?

The reality is that most appliances and have become commodities.  Think of all the things you see at Target that used to be even $50 that are now $25.  How they have become almost throwaway items.  Even something like a computer monitor, which can be less than $100 if you look around, doesn’t seem like a big deal anymore (the environmental impact of perceiving monitors as throwaway is a pretty big deal, as an aside).  And if we were to start throwing all this stuff away when we’re done with them, and they end up in landfills, that’s sad and a massive environmental issue.

I have been “proud” of the fact that I try to invest in purchases whenever possible.  Yes, I can spend $15 and get a really lame coffee maker that will break down after a few years because the coil that heats the bottom plate (that burns the coffee after too long) wears down.  Or I can spend $100 and get a high quality maker with a vacuum carafe that will last me 15 years.  Same thing with my TV, which I bought 4 years ago and still feel will be just great for another 10 (until they come out with 50000p resolution, that is).  And even my home theatre processor/amplifier, which I do intend to replace, is of wonderful quality and build.  It’s just missing some functionality now that blu-ray and HDTV have different connections and sound options.

Speaking of coffee…I’m reading and hearing rave reviews about Starbucks’ new “Via” instant coffee.  Supposedly it’s different from those big cans of instant coffee because

  1. it’s ground more for a french press, which is of course just soaked in hot water rather than dripped through a filter
  2. it’s sold in small, single-serving packets so they are less likely to get stale

After all this time thinking about how everyday appliances have become such commodities, having lost an expectancy of reliability and sturdiness…and now even my coffee maker goes down in the battle…

teach me how to fish

Mere moments ago, I was meeting with some of the administration at the business school where I am pursuing my MBA, and found myself stunned by a statement.  For the most part, I am very happy with my education here.  Most of the faculty I’ve had have been very solid to great most of the time, with only a few duds.  However, I was shocked when I was given the “you’re grad students, you should be able to take care of/figure out X yourself” speech when meeting with one of the academic administrative leaders.  I was seeking advice on how to handle something, and was essentially told to handle part of it myself (not all – I’m trying to be accurate in my depiction so that I am not unfair to the person with whom I was meeting)

Don’t get me wrong – I am 100% behind the “teach someone to fish” model of learning.  I want to learn how to do something – management, finance, whatever – so that I can go out and do it myself.  It can be theoretical, but even then I should be able to come away from that with an ability to apply those theories in a meaningful way.  I would never advocate for someone just handing me or any student a finished or nearly-finished idea.  I want to be stimulated, intellectually, and I want my opinions and positions to be questioned, challenged, and refined.

However, there are people that should be helping me along the way – teaching me how to fish.  Those people are the faculty and, in a broader but perhaps even more important sense, the heads of the various academic departments that help define the direction and goals of that set of faculty.  It is their job to challenge me, to make me, as an adult with presumably some degree of intelligence (a sound presumption since I got into the program), support my positions, etc.

Faculty should also care about whether their students are learning.  They should provide counsel and guidance.  Not hand-holding.  Not provision of answers.  But providing guidance is part of their job.  It doesn’t matter how old I am or that I’m a grad student rather than an undergrad (and I think undergrads should be taught to fish, too, for what it’s worth) – it is a terrible, terrible thing to feel that there are faculty and/or academic administrators out there that feel that there are questions we shouldn’t ask because we should already know the answers.  To have our concerns – even the poorly formed ones – be dismissed as part of “something we should already know.”

After all, when do we know when we are asking one of those questions?  How shall we know if we’re pushing back in the right way, to our benefit, if it is suggested that, as an adult, there are some things that we should not question or should just figure out ourselves?

preaching to the choir, making us not want to go to church

I am taking a class right now about developing sustainable products and methods in business.  This goes from management to organizational design.  On the face, it is an extremely interesting topic and I applaud the SCU Business School for having a course dedicated just to this topic.

Unfortunately, it’s a terribly-designed course.

First, while it is a 1 unit course and many students take a few of these just to get an extra unit here or there rather than a full 3 unit class with all the work that entails, I would venture that most students in this class have a pre-existing interest in sustainability.  We were drawn to the course by its title, but the concept of thinking about this topic as we move forward with our careers, etc.  The students in this class are there because we are interested in this topic.

Of course, any course that one takes as an elective is, to some extent, preaching to the choir.  We elect to take the course because the topic interests us, and therefore the professor is telling us stuff we want to hear and with which we largely agree.  Maybe we want to be stimulated about the topic and will put up a bit of an instinctive fight, but I would be shocked if someone took an elective and he or she flat out hated the topic.

However, in this case all the preaching to this particular choir has many of us not wanting to go to church anymore.  It’s not that all the issues about the environment and how companies and organizations and even just people in general aren’t important – of course they are.  And nothing will shake my own personal beliefs about the importance of change today.  But for a 1 unit course, this is making being interested in the environment off-putting, to be honest, and that’s a terrible shame.  I know that there are a billion reasons to care about the environment, and thousands of ways of analyzing a person’s or company’s environmental “footprint.”  But if one tried to assimilate all of those reasons at once, and is then given an assignment that could easily become a dissertation in terms of research and detail, it can kill motivation.  Simply saying “but don’t go into more depth than you have to for the topic” doesn’t counter “contact your vendor, find out what process they use, from where they get their supplies, then contact those suppliers and…”  You get the idea.

There are other aspects of the course that really discourage me, but those are about the professor and I will get to that in one of my reviews later.  But the point is that we’re there to have discussions about what we can do, as humans, as employees at companies, and as ambitious students who are pursuing an MBA and hope to move up in our careers, to develop sustainable methods.  I think we’re there to look at things we can do.  Talking about what a CEO did to change his entire company and then saying that we have to go that deep on our own projects, when most of us are middle-management at best, is ludicrous in my opinion.  It’s like asking a line-level worker to implement Six Sigma.  There has to be buy-in from all levels.

My point, to be clear, is that to basically assault students with this much information, to ask them to analyze everything from 300 different perspectives, to give examples of what we “could” do that potentially involves weeks and weeks of research, for 1 unit and 9 total hours of class time is simply overwhelming.

And one of the last topics about which one should become overwhelmed and perhaps frustrated to this point is the environment.  We are dangerously close to thinking of trying to develop sustainable practices as too hard.

Starbucks’ Pavlovian training

I recently bought a new coffee mug for use here at work. My other ones, which are great for keeping things piping hot for hours, are all stainless steel on the inside and susceptible to staining. I was therefore hoping for something ceramic which would keep the coffee hot enough for at least a bit longer than Starbucks’ paper cup.

So I bought a mug at Starbucks that looks like…a Starbucks cup. White body, little check boxes on the side for types of coffee, milk, etc, and a cap that even looks just right.

The weird part is that, even though I know this mug sitting on my desk is a travel mug, bought to be reused (obviously), I have this instinct to toss it into the trash. Somehow. Starbucks, through its commoditization of just about every possible coffee & espresso drink and the proliferation of these cups, I have been trained to want to throw this thing away.

It’s kind of sad, really…

tree monster

tree monster

Originally uploaded by kaiyen

There is a certain set of developers out there based on the agent pyrogallol – more commonly called “pyro” developers. No, they do not catch fire as a way of creating the image :-).

Along with being incredibly toxic (and absorbed directly through the skin – wear gloves!), they are also staining developers. The idea is that it gives excellent sharpness including sharp grain, but the stain then “fills in” the gaps between the grain. This means a very sharp image, with relatively low grain.

I took this image while walking through Stevens Creek County Park. Tri-X film is especially susceptible to the stain, and I decided to leave the brownish color in the scan.

What impresses me is that there really is a great amount of detail in this image – I think the “tree monster” still shows up quite well despite all the grass, branches, and moss. The tint is possibly a bit gimmicky – I’m not sure yet. It’s more than just doing sepia-toning.

I really do enjoy doing photography while hiking, and taking along a medium format camera, shooting basically with guesswork (sunny-16), is very satisfying even if some of the results aren’t great.

communicating and miscommunicating

One professional skill that I both value and work hard at improving is effectively communicating with others.  Effective communication skills is one of the most important attributes one must have in order to be an effective manager and leader.  And it is absolutely required should one have ambitions about moving upward through an organization, in my opinion.  Not that being a good communicator is easy, of course.

I work in a tech field, heading up a tech department, but one of my responsibilities, explicitly, is to develop a strategy about providing the tools to help my overall organization do its job more effectively while not overwhelming others with jargon, too much information, or causing general confusion.

This is not an easy task – many times the benefits of some new technology or equipment are the direct result of what that stuff does, yet what it does is complicated or perhaps out of the ordinary for many folks.  I’m not by any means saying that people aren’t able to comprehend these things, it’s just that they aren’t part of their everyday vocabulary.

Sometimes it’s conceptual, too.  For instance, I remember a conversation with my mother quite a few years ago where I talked about how we used a server to do something at work.  Now, technically, any computer running a service of any kind is a server.  So if you take the computer with which you are reading this post right now – desktop, laptop, whatever – and install the right thing on there, it could be a server.  This might be something that turns the computer into an e-mail gateway (what actually sends out e-mails, and to which your client, like Outlook or Thunderbird, connects to get mail), or perhaps something that tracks the statistics for this or that.  If it’s a service, the box is a server.

To my mother, however, a server was a big, loud, heavy duty machine with lots of blinking lights that the “IT people” kept in a secret, separate room.  Of course, there is a reason why she had that perception – services should be run on enterprise-grade hardware, the kind of stuff my mother was accustomed to seeing.  But the point is that she could not separate the two.  It was a paradigm that was already cemented in place.

Well, it’s my job to help translate that.  To find a way to explain the difference to, in this example, my mother, so that she could understand the benefit she received.

At work, that means that I tell others that we’re looking at getting a “big storage system” instead of a SAN or that we’re working on “a way for all of us to take our Word documents, share them, keep them up to date, and get them off of our personal desktops which might break down” rather than “a collaboration suite with document management tools that is network-based for greater and more effective central management.”  The latter example is far less extreme than the first, but there is still a difference.

I like to think that I do a pretty good job at this, but I have run into a couple of recent surprises.