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I'm a life-long New Englander, father of 4 challenging kids (I know: I'm supposed to say "wonderful", but while that'd be true, technically speaking, it'd also be misleading), and fortunate husband to my favorite wife of more than 20 years. I've got over 20 years experience breaking things as a test engineer, quality engineer, reliability engineer, and most recently (and most enjoyably) a Product Safety / EMC Compliance Engineer. In the photo, I'm on the left.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What does “exotic” mean?

I’ve been doing a fair amount of wood working lately. Pen making, actually. For this endeavor, I have ordered a number of pieces of wood that the sellers advertise as “exotic” wood species. These are species like Chakte Viga, Yucatan Rosewood,  Bocote, Wenge, Cocobolo, and many others. By the way: I strongly advise you to NEVER work with Cocobolo: it’s a truly beautiful wood, but the dust and oil from it is also quite problematic, and if you’re sensitive to it to begin with, the dust can be fatal.

SO not worth a pen!

In any event, having purchased and worked with so many different species of exotic wood, my mind started to wander and scrutinize the definition of “exotic”. I’ve done this many times over the years, and the conclusion that I reached recently is no different from the conclusion that I’ve reached so often over time.

That is, what is exotic to me is mundane to someone else, and what is mundane to me is exotic to others.

Merriam-Webster tells me that “exotic” has a few different definitions: I’m going to ignore the one that talks about striptease, and focus on the other three, all of which say pretty much the same thing for my purposes: 1) not native to the place where found, 2) foreign, 3) strikingly, excitingly, or mysteriously unusual.

Essentially: not from here.

Consider snakewood, for instance, which is a wood species that has what I think are unbelievable grain patterns that can create some very stunning objects. Snakewood is from South America.

Do you think that the average Brazilian looks at snakewood and thinks, ‘Golly! That’s a lovely piece of wood! How exotic!’?

I wonder what the Portuguese word for “golly” is?

Or is that Brazilian more likely to say ‘Crap, another piece of snakewood. Why can’t I ever get any white birch???’?

White birch, of course, grows pretty abundantly right next to my house here in New England. Nothing exotic about it.

To me.

So this leads me to wonder: let’s say that I was living in South America, and I ordered a box of exotic wood “blanks”, how pissed off would I be if I got snakewood in that box?

What if I went out for “exotic” food and was given a baked potato?

“Exotic”, at the end of the day, is just something that’s not from where you are. It’s what made trade routes so damn long back in the day. The longer, the more profitable. The more exoticer.


That should be a word, right?

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Nature of Talent


I’ve been churning a bit lately on what we in America are delivering in the way of a message what’s a valuable talent. That provoked this musing. I get a little preachy here, and probably a bit touch-feely too. That’s unfamiliar territory for me, so I’m going to ask for some latitude. That said, on with my thoughts…

What does talent look like?

I have decided that talent is a characteristic with which one is born. It is a near-relative of skill, except that skill is something that you work to develop while talent was given to you.

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that there are people who are born with talent, and there are people who are NOT born with talent. Additionally, we may have the sense that some people have more talent than others, and there are some people who have less talent than others.

My own personal thought on the matter is that we all have talent, and we all have pretty much the same amount of talent as other people have. The only questions are:
  • Do you know what your talent is?
  • Do you even know what field your talent lies in? Photography? Wood working? Machine building? Archery? Painting? Writing? Acting? There are countless fields of study and pleasure; it’s very difficult to know where your talents lie (this, by the way, is one of the many reasons why it’s important to take classes that expose you to new experiences and disciplines as you go through your school-going years).
I think that here in America we are doing ourselves a great disservice with our media coverage on what talent looks like. We have a seemingly unending array of TV shows that are designed to show off talent to the masses. Any kind of talent! Whether it’s singing OR dancing. So long as it’s some version of rock, what we call “country” music, or perhaps pop.

I’m reminded of the movie “The Blues Brothers”, where they assert: “We have both kinds of music: country AND western!”

Here in America the masses seem to acknowledge basically this one type of talent: music.

I know a number of people who measure your worth by how well you can swing a hammer. That is, “Eddie is so awesome: did you see the dog house that he built? It’s beautiful! You know, you should maybe work with him a little, and see if you can learn something from him; perhaps one day you could build something that might not be too bad.”

“I did see that dog house, and yes: it is beautiful. Did you notice that my paper was published in an industry magazine that has global reach, and I’ve been nominated for the best damn writer of the year?”

“Oh, that’s nice. Did you ever see Eddie’s table that he built? He does such lovely work. I see that he gave the sun permission to rise today!”

Ok…it’s not quite that bad, but it sure does seem to be true that we in our culture have a very narrow view of what’s talent and what’s not. And unfortunately the talents that some folks have will make them wealthy beyond sanity, while other talents will leave their hosts wondering how to feed the kids next week. This is sad, because at the end of the day, I don’t think that any talent is worth more or less, realistically, than any other talent.

Of course, it must be acknowledged that talent alone isn’t what makes money: you need drive, ambition, luck, and a host of other characteristics.

But I think that happiness starts with finding your talent, embracing it, and finding other people who appreciate it. Unfortunately, some talents are very stealthy (did you ever read the book “A Spell for Chameleon”?), and they need to be searched for. Some of us never identify them until we have kids of our own, or until we’re several years out of our teens.

I’ll tell you one of the best ways to find out what your talent is, if you happen to have a particularly stealthy one: ask your closest friends and relatives. I realize that this sounds like begging for praise, but if you don’t know what your talent might be (and believe me: that’s not uncommon in the least), it’d be a better, quicker path to happy than some of the other options. Some of the people that you ask may not be able to articulate your talent, but some of them will. On the chance that no one can illuminate your talent, that’s not the end, it’s the start of a journey for you.

Finally, do not make the mistake of thinking that you don’t have talent. You do. It’s in there somewhere, waiting to hatch and find its wings. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that talent is whether or not you can sing or dance. It’s just so much more than that.

I don’t want you to think that I’m a proponent of the “more money is more happy” mantra, so I leave you with this thought (I’ve read this quote, in myriad forms, attributed to many different people, so I’m leaving it in more or less my own words, attributed to no one):

There are two ways to be wealthy: either have a lot of stuff, or need very little.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Taking Time Off for School

So I've been called to task on my on-line negligence. I honestly didn't think anyone noticed! :)

What have I been up to? Why no posts? Well, there are two reasons:

1) I'm trying really hard to be a more positive person, which kind of goes against my grain! Most of the thoughts that end up in my mind and that I find ought to have some "air" are rants of one sort or another. It seems to me like if I don't have something on the mind to whine about, my brain is empty.

2)...and more importantly...I've been going to school. Not that I've been going anywhere, particularly, nor have I been sitting in any classes anywhere. There are no real instructors at this school.

School, huh? One of the most important things for me, something that my beautiful wife showed me many, many moons ago (BK, in fact: Before Kids) is that I do have a love for learning things.

For about a million years now I've been saying that I think that I'd really like to learn how to make pens. I love pens; it's a fetish of mine. Big, hefty ones especially. I also love wood. I have long been saying that I'd like to be able to take some wood and turn it into a pen.

My lovely wife called my bluff at Christmas last: she bought me a mini lathe. She always has faith in me, and that's a good thing. I said that I'd like to do this thing, and she actually thought that I would be able to do it! What the heck...?

So, I started looking into it in earnest. One thing that I found is that there is virtually no resources in my area for learning how to safely use a lathe. What tools are needed? What are the appropriate (and somewhat more importantly: the INappropriate) techniques? How do we remain safe while doing this? My bluff called, I needed to find out!

There's really not a lot of on-line help either. What I've found is a lot (and I do mean A...LOT) of resources that show a person how to turn this sort of bowl or cup or whatever, but they all seem to presume that the viewer knows very well how to turn to begin with. So, it took me some time to learn a few things.

I am a slow learner. In fact, when I showed my brother my first pen, he said that he didn't think that I had found the class that I was looking for. I told him that I had not. I read, watched some videos, read, asked around, read, got a DVD to watch, read, read, and tried some initial turning. I read like I learn: s....l...o...w...l...y

I've now made close to 15 pens and a few mechanical pencils. It's a pretty cool hobby! If you like woodworking, and you love fine writing implements, this is a great hobby to take up. Even a lout like me can make great-looking pens in very little time. Here are some pictures of a few of the pens that I've made.

Pen #1, a "Slimline" pen made from Rosewood:
If you look closely, you might note my primary error on this pen: I left the wood too wide, so that the barrels are too proud of the metal band (the pen's "belt"). I feel like I should have been paying closer attention to this detail, but overall I'm very happy with this first attempt.


Pen #2, a "Slimline" pen made from Paduk (pictured beside the above Rosewood pen):

You can't tell very well by this picture, but the Paduk (the one on the right) pen was an improvement upon the 1st Rosewood. As expected: I got better with iterations, and continue to do so today.

Eventually I started making other styles of pens; my starter's kit came with parts for what they call "Trimline" and "Comfort Grip" pens. Pictured below along side the two above is a Comfort Grip pen that is made from Rosewood. Sorry for the poor photography. I also got a nice camera for Christmas, and have been trying to figure that out; these images were taken with my iPhone.


So far, I've only made a few different kinds of pens, and only from Rosewood and Paduk. I intend to do a lot of different projects from a lot of different wood types, and I'll probably babble on about some of them in here.

You may recall a conversation that we had about how Christmas gifts ought to be made...this is perhaps the first step to me getting to that point.

We shall see.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Decision Making Paradigms

Have you ever seen the 2005 movie "Sahara", with Matthew McConaughey and Steve Zahn? Despite the 5.9 stars that it's got on IMDB, it's a great movie that I like to watch every now and then; it is, in my opinion,  Steve Zahn's best performance bar none.

A scene from this movie has been playing pretty incessantly through my mind recently; lodged therein by a morass of stupidity that I've waded into at work. The scene has our two main characters, Al & Dirk, travelling through the desert (the Sahara, specifically...surprise, surprise), on camels, and they have this conversation:

Al:
Hey, you know how it is when you see someone that you haven't seen since high school, and they got some dead-end job, and they're married to some woman that hates them, they got three kids who, like, think he's a joke? Wasn't there some point where you stood back and said, "Bob, don't take that job! Bob, don't marry that harpy!" You know?

Dirk:
Your point?
Al:
Well, we're in the desert, looking for the source of a river pollutant, using as our map a cave drawing of a Civil War gunship, which is also in the desert. So I was just wondering when we're gonna have to sit down and re-evaluate our decision-making paradigm?

It might be just me, but this scene always makes me laugh like I'm watching a Monty Python repeat. The one with the dead parrot comes to mind.


So the issue that's got this on my mind is as follows...maybe you can tell me that I'm off base and too close to the conversation:

My job is Product Compliance; I make sure that my company's devices are safe for the end user to use them. I liken my work to the work that they do at Consumer Reports: have you ever read the annual issue of that magazine where they buy a bunch of laptops, and they proceed to drop them, bake them, pour coffee on them, and generally abuse them to see which ones are more robust and a better value for we, the readers? This is sort of the work that I do, except I don't care if my devices get damaged or no longer work, only that after testing, they don't present a hazard to the user.

Ok, so we have a vendor with whom we work to get this stuff done (we'll cryptically call them VM). You may recall that I'm only in this job at this company for a short while thus far, so I'm still the low man on scrotum pole, so to speak. I'm still learning the particulars of business at this particular company...learning the product line, the corporate standards, culture, etc.

But my company has been using this vendor for over a dozen years, and in big company it's hard to change vendors, which is what I'm advocating we do. Why? Well, VM just plain sucks as a vendor. The folks in my group are very frustrated with having to work with them, the project folks are very frustrated with how much time it takes to get a project through the cycle, and they cost way too much.

OK, it's not easy, but we can certainly change our vendors here. I have been doing this exact work with a direct competitor to VM for something like 15 years. In fact, up until about 12 years ago I was working with about a half dozen such companies, VM included, and I stopped sending work to VM because they took 6 months to perform work that should take a few days. They haven't changed their work habits.

To wit: just this week I received a quote for work from them. A quote that I asked for during the ides of December. I've badgered them for this quote through January, February, and half of March. 3 months to get a damn quote?!?! At the end of February I had requested a quote for the same work from one of their competitors (I figured that VM had taken 2 months at that point, why not see what a competitor might do). It's a harder thing to quote this work without any real understanding of the product line or system as a whole, but I got a reasonable quote from the competitor in about 5 days.

VM takes forever to furnish a quote, and even longer to do the actual work. This, of course, affects our project cycle time, and therefore time to market, and as we all know: that's money. And lots of it. It's an industry-wide criticism with regards to VM.

So when's it time to reevaluate our decision making paradigm?

I presented the project with both quotes, and was vehemently challenged with a "we can't do that" response. There are, of course, many difficulties in changing this sort of vendor, but I've done it in the past. It *can* be done, and it *should* be done under circumstances like these.

The arguments against, unfortunately, came from folks of power and of fairly limited knowledge of my work or the requirements in this sort of work.

"That company's approval is necessary!"
No, it's not...approval from that SORT OF COMPANY is necessary.

"Our customers want that specific company to do that work."
No, they don't. They want that work performed by an accredited company, LIKE this one.

But really, project management would rather complain about the lack of service and whine about why things should take so long, instead of addressing the problem and getting better service elsewhere? There's precedent for this: my company has, in the distant past, changed these vendors before; they used to be with "GN", but GN was very expensive and extremely slow and non-responsive. So, they up and changed. To VM, who is now very expensive and extremely slow and non-responsive.

An analogy that presents to me is going to a restaurant. Let's imagine that you go to the restaurant, and they tell you that it's a 30-minute wait. 3 hours later,  you're shown to your seat. 30 minutes later the waiter shows up to take your order. Food shows up 2 hours later, and it's ok...not great, but ok. An hour after you're done eating, you get the check, and it's super expensive. You talk to friends about this experience, and every last one of them relates a similar story about their own experiences at that establishment. Apparently, it's the Modus Operandi for that restaurant.

I ask you: do you go back to this restaurant? I certainly don't. There are other places to eat, that have better food, shorter waits, and are a lot less expensive.

So when do we start to question our decision making paradigm? Is this a problem at my company alone, or does this sort of issue exist everywhere? Me? I'm still working on changing from VM.