“Jim, you’re an eshu.”

Thus spoke my old friend Kent, who’s long had a knack for uttering Truth, after I’d driven us through three yellow lights in a row to arrive for an appointment at just the right time.

We were all playing role-playing games back then, and Kent was referring to the eshu of a game called Changeling. Based on the Eshu of African Yoruba, the eshu of Changeling were storytellers and travelers. Fate had a way of smiling on them in a capricious way. An eshu could be relied on to never take the most direct path to a location, but the one that gave him the best story to tell. Likewise, an eshu rarely arrived at a place when he was supposed to arrive – but he always arrived when he needed to.

And yes, Kent’s offhand comment had that ring of Truth.

When things have needed to happen in my life they’ve happened. Not what I wanted, when I wanted. It’s never been like. But when something has needed to happen it does. In time, when I let it. Wu wei in practice. I owe my life to it, actually, but that’s a story you have to buy me scotch to get.

Eshu of Yoruba is the protector of travelers and the deity of roads, particularly crossroads.

For the last several years I’ve felt like I’ve been on a rail rather than a road. I made decisions, and there were precious few crossroads once I got on that path. As I look back I can see that, while it might not have been the most pleasant of paths, it was still a path that took me past much that would have been unpleasant otherwise.

But the path was still a rail. Not a road, and precious few crossroads.

That’s been changing the last few months. I’ve caught few glimpse of other paths through the undergrowth, the rails have faded into the dirt and it’s starting to feel like I’m walking on a road again rather than riding the rails.

There might even see a few crossroads up ahead.

I’m letting them come. I feel like an eshu again.

Repaired Headphones

Repaired headphonesI have a pair of Sony MDR-G72 headphones – they fit my big-headed small-eared noggin well, have good sound, a "just right" cable length, and fold very neatly. They’re about 5 years old, the earpads were worn to disintegration, and I was warring with my love of the old ‘phones versus having an excuse to buy some new goodies.
Unfortunately, I’ve been burned by headphones before (bad fit, bulky, bad sound, shoddy workmanship, etc.) So I was happy when I came across this photoset showing someone in the UK getting replacement earpads. Comments on an Amazon entry for these now-unavailable headphones led me to a US source:
My headphones are fixed. My ears are happy. And my conservative anti-sustainability boss thinks I’m even more a liberal for not contributing to consumer capitalism by buying new headphones. Win all around.

And what is good, Phaedrus?

Two apparently unrelated articles follow – but consider the following when you read them:

Apple and Nintendo are both companies that have eschewed choices that would lead directly to market dominance. Even Apple’s now-market-dominating iPod wasn’t created to attack an existing market (unlike, say, the Zune). The essential point – as a deeply religious person told me – isn’t what’s being done, but why it’s being done. Arno asks the question, “Is the result good?”. Nintendo’s Wii seems an attempt to answer the question, “what makes this fun?” All while the ones whose “why” is “to be the #1 seller” are crippling themselves.

The Design of Mac OS X Shutdown Feature

Arno Goudal – MacOS X Finder Lead from 1999 to 2001 – weighs in on the discussion of shutdown menu design in Vista. “The success of Mac OS X has been due in part to an ability for Apple to successfully manage a project this complex to the point where full builds of the OS could be done reliably every week. To that extent, considering the issues described by Lettvin, shipping Vista at all is quite a feat, indeed.”

In Praise of Third Place

James Surowiecki of The New Yorker discusses Nintendo’s very lucrative position at third place in the video game console market. “[Nintendo] has five billion dollars in the bank from years of solid profits, and this past year, though it spent heavily on the launch of the Wii, it made close to a billion dollars in profit and saw its stock price rise by sixty-five per cent. Sony’s game division, by contrast, barely eked out a profit and Microsoft’s reportedly lost money. Who knew bringing up the rear could be so lucrative?”


Last night was date night – the sitter watches our son one night every other week while my wife and I go out and spend some time with each other free of the distractions of parenting. After dinner (great Indian food at Kanishka), we went to a nearby shopping center – she visited a crafting store while I sat and watched the water fountain.
I experienced a bit of a zen moment as I watched three jets of water, each rising to a different height. Some might have seen it as a metaphor for striving to always reach higher – I saw three fountains of water that had each risen to the height which was theirs. They accomplished what they needed to accomplish, their purpose was served by the height they’d reached.
Had the lower one risen higher, it would no longer have been so inviting to the toddlers that came to touch it. Had the high one been even higher, it would have soaked passers-by with every breeze.
“Find your place,” the scene said to me. “Once you’ve found it, you don’t have to always strive for more, more, more. Do what you’ve found. Do it well.”
I let that just wash over me for a while. Our culture – American culture in particular – is so focused on always reaching some next level: grow your sales, grow your market, upgrade your house, your income, your car, your computer, your career. Ofttimes, someone who has declared “I am accomplished, this is enough” is viewed as a drop-out from society. In a society that values the Upgrade so much, that might be true.
When Jenni came to find me, she gave me an odd look.
“What?” I asked.
“You have a very smug smile on your face,” she told me.
Is it coincidence that “smug” is so often followed by “and self-satisfied”?
Last night’s thoughts were only reinforced this morning when I read Seth Godin’s remark that perhaps “good enough” might be the next big idea.
Maybe it already is.

Blame the Stick

I find myself telling this story a lot more recently:

Spring of my freshman year at university, I took a 100-level art course. Black and white, charcoal and ink and collage, very basic stuff. The instructor tried – with varying success – to inspire his students. Admirable for a survey course at a state school.

One fine day, we were working with brush and ink. Our teacher became more and more frustrated as we hunched over the paper and tried to make fine, controlled movements when he wanted broad, bold strokes. Finally, he’d had enough.

“Everyone! Put down your brush. Pick up your pad and your ink bottle, and come outside!”

He marched us out to the front of the building, which faced the tree-lined quad. “Find a stick about as long as your arm,” we were instructed.

Once everyone had their stick, he nodded and gave us our orders. “Hold the stick by one end. Now, dip the other end in your ink. This is what you’re painting with.”

Our dismay must have been obvious. His glee came through in his voice, “Anything that you don’t like, blame the stick. Now paint.”

This story comes back to me when I find myself, or others, getting hung up on perfection. When the desire to be Insanely Great on the very first iteration prevents me from getting a single thing done. When nothing seems as good or creative or elegant as what inspired me.

That’s when I’m reminded of a spring day, painting with crufty twigs.

Blame the stick. Now paint.

Score with iPhoto

I use iPhoto on the Mac to organize my digital photos. I try to assign keywords and such as soon as I download photos – nothing fancy, but enough that I can find pictures from one thing or the other without much fuss. Like pictures of Nathan from the past 12 months.
One of iPhoto’s other features is the ability to create and order photo books. Pick a slew of photos, pick a theme, tell iPhoto to do an automatic layout for you. Tweak the ordering a bit, add titles and such, and you’re good to go. Click “order” and it’s sent to a printing service that makes and ships the book.
So the year, for Christmas, I made up a keepsake book for my parents – a series of about 50-odd pictures of Nathan that spanned 2005. 8 1/2 x 11, hardcover, glossy paper, nice layout. Score. Not only are my parents raving about their book of grandson pictures, but I’ve been told in no uncertain terms that this is now the expected Xmas gift for the foreseeable future. Their friends are asking to borrow the book so they they can show their parent-of-grandchildren kids what they want for Christmas.

Productivity Tip: Throw everything on your desk in a box

From the good guys at 37signals:
>Toss everything, and I mean *everything* on your desk in a box. If it doesn’t fit in a box, put it on the floor. Your desk should be completely cleared of everything — no monitor, keyboard, mouse, pencil, paper, stickies, gum, etc.
>Next, get to work. Only remove something from the box (or the floor) when you *absolutely need it*. Not before. No anticipation. If you don’t need a pen now, don’t get the pen. Only place it on your desk when you need it.
>Throw out the remaining items in the box in 30 days or sell the contents on Craigslist. (Edit: or give it away on Freecycle)
>Disclaimer: Before you toss it, you may want to go through it and make sure you pull out the picture of the family and the legal documents, but toss everything else.
When we decided to move this spring, we started by “de-cluttering” our house (at the recommendation of our selling agent). Loads of things to criagslist, freecycle, goodwill, a 10×10 storage space, or just the dump. Made our home look much better, and certainly contributed to the quick sale.
Not to mention it made the eventual move *so* much easier.

An old theme

I’m an IT professional – I’ve spent well over half my life making computers work for people. While my platform of choice is Mac OS X, I still know much more than the average bear about making Windows XP go where I want it to go. The Dell laptop that my workplace supplies is kept well-patched, lives behind the corporate firewall, has several company-supported GPOs, and runs up-to-date anti-virus software (Trend Micro).
So when I lose a workday and a half clearing my computer of a worm, I become intensely frustrated. The worm, TOMBAI, came courtesy of autoplay. It was undetected by Trend (and failed, in later tests, to identify files recognized by other scanners). It reduced the security settings for IE (which I have to use for several corporate IT services such as SharePoint), such that I found out about my infection via the secondary infections that Trend did detect.
Today, finally, I’m certain it’s clean.
The frustrating part is that, with the knowledge, resources, and support structure I have at my disposal, I lost almost 2 days.
How can the “average” user – running Windows, behind on patches, relying on the spare time of the neighbor’s kid, and likely unwilling to shell out for good security software – even hope to survive?
Why does the consumer tolerate this? In my heart, I know – it’s a combination of low Cost of Entry and undervaluation of personal time. People look more at what it costs to get into a system rather than the total cost (TCO), and they usually undervalue their own time. So they buy systems that are cheap, not factoring in what it’s going to cost to make it run – and keep it running – or the lost value in not really being able to do what you set out to do.
But knowing that intellectually doesn’t really help when you’re so frustrated you want to drop-kick the bloody thing and walk down the street to Microsoft with a fistful of invective. I just don’t understand.

Get out of my way

Several years ago, I came across an open-response question:
>”If you could have only one superpower, what would it be?”
A lot of respondents wanted to fly, or be immortal, or see the future – but one person came up with a superpower that I keep going back to time and time again:
>The power to make people get out of my way.
Line at the grocery? On hold? Crowded room? Traffic? Obstructionist bureaucrat? Get out of my way. The joy in the idea only underlined how much time we all spend with someone in our way – often for no good reason. Jenni and I still turn to each on regular occasion and chant, “I want the power to make people get out of my way.”
During a content-poor seminar this morning, I was pruning and cleaning the documents on my Windows laptop. And was marvelling at all the little ways that Windows kept getting in my way. Mix of mouse and keyboard to do simple tasks. Lack of visual cues. Terribly inconsistent interface. Obscured menu language. It got even worse when I decided to take some time to explore OneNote – which is supposed to be Microsoft’s let-you-do-things-quick freeform note-taking app.
The damn thing kept getting in my way until I shut it up and went back to my good old text editor. Maybe OneNote does neat stuff – but I couldn’t get the damn thing out of my way long enough to find out.
And I realized that I wanted my old favorite superpower, but applied to technology. That all the technologies and solutions and applications that I enjoyed using were the ones that – as much as possible – either stayed out of your way or got other things out of your way.
I’ve spent a lot of my career in technology saying that what I enjoy doing is providing cool solutions and elegant tools. But what is a “cool” solution or an “elegant” tool? I couldn’t find a succinct way of saying it. I have that now.
Tools that get out of your way.

What am I worth?

What do I charge for my time?

It’s a fairly normal question for people who have been sararimen all their professional careers and are looking to do some freelance work. Searching for comparable rates rarely helps – web and IT geeks (my line) rarely advertise their hourly rates, same with editors (my wife’s line of work). So how do you figure out what to charge a client?

This is my take on it. It assumes you want to earn the financial equivalent of someone who has a full-time job; someone who works 40 hours a week (not 50, 60, or 70), gets benefits, sick time, training, vacation, and paid holidays. Sound good? Climb on board.

So, first off, decide your salary. That’s why you decided to freelance, right? Let’s say $60,000/yr – it’s a nice, comfortable number. First thing we’re going to do is take half of that, and add it back in. Why? A workplace provides you with all kinds of benefits: workspace, office supplies, office furniture, phone line, computer, printer, fax, paper, pens, electricity, bandwidth, email, coffee, trash service, tech support, purchasing office, training, voice mail, software, insurance, employee discounts, sick leave… just to name a few. I work in Higher Ed, so I also get many spiffy discounts, and access to lots of university stuff. Work for, say, a basket-making company? Bet you get a discount on baskets. It all adds up. But you, you lucky devil, you’re self-employed, you have to supply all these things yourself. So long as you’re putting yourself in the under-$100K range, let’s say that all those things are worth – collectively – about half your salary. So multiply your salary by 1.5. That gives us $90,000. Write that down – that’s how much it costs, per year, to keep you around.

Now, how much do you want to work? Really now. For the sake of argument, let’s use the old standard of 8 hours a day of real, live, billable hours, 5 days a week. Do you want holidays? All said, there’s about 12 valid non-religious (well, save for Christmas) holidays. Vacation? Let’s not be greedy, and take 2 weeks – 10 business days – of paid vacation a year. We already budgeted for sick days in the previous step.

Now let’s do the math. 52 weeks in a year. You work 5 days a week, that’s 260 days a year. But you don’t work on those 12 paid holidays, and you don’t work on those 10 vacation days. That leaves us with 238 working days each year. We liked 8 hour days, right? 238 days at 8 hours a day… that’s 1,904 working hours every single year. That’s our magic number: 1904.

Go back up 2 paragraphs. How much money a year did we need to keep us in beer and cheese-whiz? $90,000 for the equivalent of a $60,000 annual salary. And we decided we wanted to work 1,904 hours a year. Divide the first by the second: 90000/1904=47.27 (rounded).

There you go. If you want to live the life of someone who earns $60,000 year at a 9-to-5 office job with benefits, holidays, and paid vacation, you need to charge $47.27/hr for your time. Or, to make a nice geek equation of it:

(salary * 1.5) / (((52*daysinweek)-(holidays+vacationdays)) * hoursperday)

Don’t have a calculator handy? Fill in the numbers, then cut-and-paste into a Google query. They’ll do the math for you.

Now, I admit, the biggest leap of faith is the first one – that all your benefits add up to half of your gross paycheck. I’ve spent over a decade in workplaces where, to make you feel good about your (often small) salary, they give you a “benefits analysis” each year to tell you what your bennies add up to. And each year, it’s been close to 1/3 of my salary. Add in all the costs of putting you in an office and keeping you equipped with Post-Its and red Swingline staplers… that stuff adds up pretty quick. So, for a ballpark figure, I’ll stick by my 1.5 for sub-$100K jobs until someone gives me a detailed proof otherwise (and you’re welcome to do so).

So, now you know how much you should charge for your time. Or, if you’re a salary-earner, how much your time is really worth. It’s a powerful number, and can change your perspective on things.

Here’s an example: Let’s say I did the above exercise, and my time is worth about $40/hr. I have a house with a yard. It takes me about an hour to tend to the yard, each week, with a basic mowing and trimming. A kid in the neighborhood offers to do the job for $15. Now, if I like tending to my yard, it’s not even a question. But if I don’t – if I consider it an odious task – then having someone save an hour of my time (which costs $40) for $15 is a bargain. See?

Before you all rush off and start applying this to everything in your life besides your freelancing hourly rate, I want to make two last points:

  • One – time spent on something you enjoy is priceless. If I like taking care of my yard, then I don’t care if the neighborhood kid offers to do it for free. I like doing it, and that makes it intensely valuable.
  • Two – Money has no intrinsic value. Yeah, this is something for a later posting. But the short version reads something like this: money by itself is worth nothing. It is a medium of translation. We used to barter directly – item for item, service for service. Now we use money as a representation of value – a middleman in the bartering process. So don’t fall into the “time is money” trap. Money is nothing. Time is what has the value, money is just a way to represent that value.

There. You’re armed now. Set your rates.