Republicans Can’t Do Math


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So why do we keep voting them into office?

Recently I got into a . . . discussion . . . on Twitter.  (You can’t really have discussions on Twitter.  For one, you’re limited to 140 characters.  And for another, most people don’t want to discuss, they just want to bludgeon you.  Sometime, if I’m okay with being sued, I might relay some of my conversations with Cathy Brennan, an extremely unpleasant radical feminist who is one of the most abrasive, obnoxious, litigious, angry people I’ve ever seen online.  And I’ve been online a really long time.  I mean, since Reagan was President.  To say this woman is “transphobic” is to understate things so massively I can’t even express it.  See, what happened was…Wait, where was I?  Oh, right; Republicans and math.)

Anyway, this person––who was not a bad or unreasonable guy––insisted to me that “both sides” had problems with math, citing the amount that the debt has doubled under Obama, just like it did under Bush. I didn’t bother telling him it was a genuinely idiotic comparison, as Bush had been handed an economy running at a surplus and quickly destroyed it with two obscene tax cuts, two unbudgeted wars, a huge new (also unbudgeted) federal drug program, and some phenomenal mis-management, while Obama was handed an economy in free-fall with a skyrocketing deficit, which he turned around and now has the deficit coming down.  But when you’re “debating” with someone who reiterates that absurd right-wing canard about the government giving away “free stuff”, you’re not speaking to a person well-acquainted with actual facts.

But it reminded me of a very basic fact: Republicans just can’t seem to do math.  And I mean simple math, like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.  You know:  K-6 math.

Let’s take immigration.  The Tea Party, the Trumpsters, and of course the Republican Party as a whole want to get rid of every last illegal immigrant in the country.  All of them.  And what I wonder is:  Can’t the G.O.P. do simple math?

(“Obviously not,” I hear you cry.  Yes, you’re right:  they think cutting taxes will increase government revenue; they think giving ACORN a few million dollars will bankrupt us, but fighting trillion dollar wars won’t; etc.  Bear with me anyway.)

If figures are right, there are approximately 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

That’s a lot of people.  I mean, a lot a lot.  It’s basically the entirety of the L.A. metro area.  I mean, it’s a lot.

So let’s assume that you can snap your fingers and gather all those people up with no effort at all.  None.  SNAP!  11 million people appear, ready to be deported.  Now what?

A Republican politician when confronted w/ this question

Where are you going to put them?  Empty all of L.A. and house them there?  Put them in a corner of Texas or New Mexico where they can wait to be processed?  Better be a damn big corner.  And what would you do with them?  Hand them shovels and seeds and tell them, “Good luck!  You’re number 2,459,345–we should get to you by August of 2019; better start tilling and sowing!” and hope it doesn’t turn into an environmental disaster?

But let’s say you figure it out.  You won’t; but let’s say you do.  (“We’ll make them stay right where we find them while we process them, then when we’re ready we’ll do the finger-snapping thing!  Yeah!  That’s the ticket!”)   So now you have 11 million people handy.  How are you going to get them home?  Bus?  Let’s do a little math:

A typical school bus–you know, the yellow kind without air conditioning or seat belts–seats between 75-90 folks.  Let’s go with 100, just to be conservative.  If you want to transport 11 million people to Mexico, you’re talking about 110,000 school bus trips.   How much diesel fuel is that going to take?  How many bus drivers?  How many hours of travel?

Or put them on a train.  The CalTrain double-decker “baby bullet” trains seat about 150 folks per car.  For 11 million people, that works out to around 74,000 cars.  I’ve seen multi-locomotive trains hauling 75-100 cars on ocassion–not often–so that would work out to 740 100-car train, full-loaded.

(And we haven’t even considered issues such as luggage, children, sanitation for longer trips, the processing speed of the U.S. and Mexican governments, and other related issues.)

Bear in mind that the government couldn’t even get ice to New Orleans after a single hurricane while you contemplate the above–and remember too that New Orleans had only about a third of a million folks in it.  So your problem is to move the entire population of 33 New Orleans’ from wherever they are to Mexico.  I’m not too sanguine about the possibility, personally, even if they’re all right there in Brownsville or Laredo.

This is just the simple math of logistics, too.  I’m not an expert in this stuff—I’m sure it’s way more complicated.  And if the simple math shows it to be this bad, what’s the more complicated situation going to look like?  (Answer:  Ugly as hell.)

Not to mention what would happen when all the Orlandos, Carloses, Jesuses, and all the other folks who work the jobs nobody else wants to do (Picking strawberries?  Cleaning out office buildings?  Laying sewer pipe?) up an leave, all 11 million of them.  Imagine all of New York City—not just the adults, but the whole friggin’ city—plus the whole of Newark, Nassau county, and most of Connecticut just pulling up stakes and leaving.  I mean, seriously:  think about it.  Don’t you think it wouldn’t have some kind of massive effect for everyone else?  What happens to the Northeast power grid?  The trains?  The airports?  Imagine New York City being blacked out, but forever, instead of for a few hours as sometimes happens, usually to chaotic effect.  It’s mind-boggling.

So it’s clear:  Republicans can’t do math.  Remind me again why they are ever put in charge?

How to Talk to Politicians


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Politicians basically do this when asked questions
Copyright the Bil Keane estate, all rights reserved, I’m sure

As a guy who grew up watching Ron Ziegler dance around Nixon’s lies, and has observed (usually with horror) how people like Scott McClellan, Dana Perino, and their ilk dissemble and outright lie to the press, it occurred to me that there is a one way to demand answers from politicians:

Treat them like children.

I have two kids.  Kids are past-masters at lying, deception, and attempts to change the subject.  The only way that I personally have found to consistently get information is to not allow myself to be distracted.  Like this:

“Who left this crap in the living room?”
“I haven’t been in the living room today.”
“That’s not what I asked.  Did you leave this crap in the living room?”
“That’s not my stuff; it’s [other kid’s] stuff.”
“That’s not what I asked, either.  Did you leave this crap in the living room?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“It doesn’t matter.  Did you leave this crap in the living room?”

And so on.  It’s a pain in the ass, yes, but eventually you find the culprit (granting that you are more stubborn than your kids which, in my case, is a good bet).

This is exactly how spokespeople, politicians, and their ilk should be treated.  They don’t want to answer the questions they are asked in a straight-forward way?  Fine; treat them like a 9 year-old.  Keep asking the same question.  Demand an answer to your first question.  And if the spokesperson or politician won’t answer?  Well, after 7 or 8 iterations of this, it will be obvious to all involved that they are dodging and lying, and their credibility will go down regardless.  Either they answer or they look like idiots; either one is fine by me.

Consider the issue of torture.  Just once, I wish a reporter had the balls to press and press and press Cheney:

“Mr. Vice-President, do we torture?”
“We have instructed our interregators to remain within the law at all times.”
“That’s not what I asked, sir.  I asked you, do we torture?”
“As I said, we remain within the law.”
“Sir, water-boarding is considered torture by all civilized people.  Do we torture?”
“I believe I have already answered that question.”
“No, sir, you haven’t; do we torture?”
“I cannot talk about sources and methods.”
“That wasn’t my question, sir.  Do we torture?”

And so on.  If these bozos want to act like 9 year-olds attempting to cover up the fact that they have been lighting fires in the back yard, then they should be treated the same way.  Heck, I would even put them “in their room” (and cut off all external access) until they admit what they’ve done.  It’ll be even funnier than those times politicians (and other jerk-wads, like Martin “let’s gouge people for AIDS medicine” Shkreli) keep repeating the same answer over and over, no matter the question.

I dunno; I guess I’m just feeling vindictive.  I’m pretty tired of the Cavalcade of Clowns we’re stuck with on the Republican side, any one of which would be a disaster if President, and any one of which may actually end up President.  As much as that horrifies and frightens me, it’s true.  As true as the fact that the Republicans—despite having a “brand” so eroded that no voters will actually admit they are Republican—are in control of the House and Senate.  (Go ahead; ask a random right-wing bloviator on Twitter or Tumblr or wherever if they’re a Republican.  It’s always “No.”  They’re “Libertarian”, or “Independent”, or whatever, even if they’ve never voted for anyone other than a Republican in their lives.) Which is plenty scary, too.

I’m not too thrilled with triangulation artist & “realist” Hillary Clinton, either, except that I know she’ll be better than anything the Republicans finally throw out there.

But for now, I’d settle for Meghan Kelly pinning down Trump or Rubio or Cruz and refusing to let up until she has an actual answer.  Say, on wars.

“Senator, given the disastrous results of the Iraq War, why is it your foreign policy seems to only advocate more war?”
“Well, I don’t know as I’d agree with the premise.”
“Almost all Americans agree it was a disaster, so why do you advocate more war?”
“Meghan, the question is whether or not America is strong and a leader.”
“Actually sir, the question is why do you advocate more war?”
and so on.

I’m not holding my breath, though.

The Meaningless Scramble for “Scoops” and “Exclusives”


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This concept was dead before I was born
(image courtesy of Technapex)

Recently, a news crew from MSNBC bribed their way into an active crime scene and exposed information that could damage the investigation.  And why?  To get a “scoop”!  Because getting a scoop, or landing an “exclusive interview!” is important, right?

Oh bushwah.

It was disgusting.  It was journalistic malpractice.  And it was completely and utterly useless.  It gained the public no additional understanding of what had happened, it didn’t help the police, and it brought nothing but opprobrium down on the network that put out the footage.  Good work, there, MSNBC!

Look: I was watching a video on YouTube, and the (typically baritone and serious-sounding) news anchor informed us proudly that this was a story that “you’ll only see . . . on NewsChannel 3.”


Of course, I was watching it on YouTube.  Not only did I not know where “NewsChannel 3” was, hell, I didn’t even know what time zone they might be in.  Or when the clip was posted.  Or by who.  Nor did I care a whit.

And that’s a problem that I see with Big Media:  they’re wedded to “the scoop” or the “big get” “exclusive” interview.  And aside from a very few people that I like to see doing interviews—Jon Stewart (when he’s on his game), Rachel Maddow—I simply don’t care who has the “get,” or “the scoop,” or “broke the story.”  I don’t think anyone does, honestly.

It’s time that news organizations realized that, in an era with news aggregators, YouTube, RSS feeds, Twitter, Facebook, Instant Messaging, and other news-gathering tools and methods, the old rules of “scooping” simply don’t apply (if indeed they ever did outside the minds of reporters).

I don’t care who has a particular story “first,” by days, hours, or minutes.  I care about the information, and I care about whether the story is accurate, but as to whether the story came from Salon of the New York Times or “NewsChannel 3”?  Nope, don’t care in the least.  But it sure seems like the Times, the Post, the networks, Fox, and places like “NewsChannel 3” do care.

And that’s the thing; if those outlets are spending their effort going for the wrong goal–the “scoop”–then they’re not providing the public with what it wants.  And they’re not going to get an audience that is after facts that are accurate.

And as for the “exclusive” interview, these days its basically a meaningless term.  If you’re talking to Donald Trump, it’s not an “exclusive” even if The Donald wasn’t willing to talk to you last week.   That guy can’t stop talking; no interview with him can possibly be an “exclusive”.  Which goes for pretty much any other public figure, and doubly-so for politicians.  Yes, I’m interested in an interview with Elizabeth Warren, or Wendy Davis, or anyone else on my “I wonder what they’re thinking” list.  But whether it’s “exclusive” to Fox or NBC or whoever plays absolutely no part in my decision-making process.

And further, by next month or next week (or hell, sometimes even the next day), the same person will give out another interview (often also touted as “an exclusive!”) to another outlet.  With even highly-public folks posting selfies, having their own Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, or whatever accounts, the “exclusive” is a dead concept.  Sorry, mainstream media, but it is.  Get over it.

In this turbo-charged, highly-connected, text messaging and web-based culture, do we want stuff fast?  Sure we do.  But does anyone really care where the facts come from, and who gets them “first”, and whether it’s “exclusive” (whatever the heck that means any more)?  No one that I know.

Get the facts right, MSM—because if you get it wrong, it won’t matter if you’ve got an “exclusive!” or a “scoop!”; people will stop listening to you, reading you, or paying attention to you.  And they definitely won’t shell out any money for you.

So can we declare the “scoop” and the “exclusive” dead now and move on?  Please?  Because I don’t know about you, but I simply don’t care.

We’ll Never See Eye-to-Eye


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Photo of psychotic shooter courtesy of CNN

Recent events in Colorado, where a deranged lunatic decided it was his duty to shoot up a Planned Parenthood clinic, has brought back up to a boil the perpetually-simmering “conversation” about abortion in this country.  Only it’s not a conversation; it’s two people on totally different planets, speaking at each other.  The following is a post I wrote in 2012 after an attempt by anti-abortion absolutists in Mississippi to pass a “personhood” law, to make any newly-fertilized egg a “person”.  Mississippi voted it down, but that hasn’t stopped folks, as you can see.  Here’s what I wrote then, and it depresses me it’s still applicable:

With the recent defeat of the “Personhood” amendment in Mississippi, along with the continued support that the “personhood” idea has in Republican party and, most depressingly, in the Republican Presidential candidates, I’ve been thinking about abortion a lot over the past few months.  I don’t want to; it’s a depressing topic.  But there it is.   And what I’ve come to is that anti-abortion folks will never see eye-to-eye with pro-choice folks.

For a long time, I totally didn’t understand the anti-abortion folks.  Yes, they believe a fetus is a person, but the underlying assumption that women can’t be trusted to make this decision, or that women cavilierly just walk into a clinic and use abortion as birth control, just sickened me, honestly.  How could a rational person actually believe that.

And then I realized that it’s because they believe a fetus is a person. I know you know that, but let me break it down a bit.

I think pro-choice people make a big mistake in how they frame the issue.  “It’s about women’s health!” they say.  “The health of the mother!  Do you want to force a woman to bear the child of a rape, or incest, or that might kill her?”  All those arguments make perfect sense to me, but they’re falling on deaf ears.   Because from the moment it is created, the fetus is a person.  Don’t you see?  It a human being, with rights and privileges.  And an abortion is, literally, murder.

So arguing that they shouldn’t force their beliefs on you strikes these folks as absurd; this is murder.   Surely murder is one of the few areas where the rights of the state to enforce laws over-rides everything else?  This is not (as Rachel Maddow puts it) “Wanting the government to regulate every woman’s uterus;” this is merely a logical extension of the government acting against a heinous crime, i.e. murder.

In this context, Roe v. Wade is immaterial; this is murder.  Murder shouldn’t be allowed, period.  Saying that if you support capital punishment but are against abortion is immaterial to these folks; capital punishment is the rightous punishment of the state for committed crimes.  Abortion is murder, and shouldn’t be allowed.  And any danger to the mother, or forcing her to carry the child of rape, or incest?  It’s completely beside the point; killing that fetus is murder, so if a woman has to suffer to save that life, so be it.  If the woman’s life is at risk to carry that pregnancy to term, that’s a risk they should be willing to take to save a life.  That microscopic multi-celled creature is a person to these people, and aborting it is murder, and murder is evil.  Period, end of discussion.  Do you see?

And when you toss in that a good percentage of these folks believe that any sex not focused on procreation, any sex that is engaged in for pleasure only, is genuinely evil, well, it’s an easy call for them.  (And clearly if non-procreative sex is evil, any woman who engages in it is clearly a whore, and deserves what she gets.  I don’t think all anti-abortion folks think that, but I bet plenty of them do.)

Now as we saw in Mississippi, these folks are not even a majority of the population in one of the reddest states in the country, so they’re clearly a minority.  But they’re a loud minority, and one which is never going to change their point of view, and which is (as we seen with the heinous murders of abortion doctors) very dangerous.  I don’t know how to fix the problem, but I do know two things:  we’ll never see eye-to-eye with them, and arguing about “women’s health” as a way to change their minds is simply going to fall on deaf ears.

The conversation post-shooting has been a perfect example of this.  While not exactly condoning the shooter, the right-wing has been screaming about “baby parts” and Planned Parenthood “making a profit out of selling them”, something which is absolute errant nonsense, but which they believe.  Some of these folks state publicly that all the other healthcare services provided by Planned Parenthood—i.e. the 97% of their services that aren’t abortion—are just a smokescreen to cover up their highly-profitable abortion-and-baby-parts-sale scam.  And yes, I’m serious.  And yes, it’s goddamn scary.

Arguing rationally with such folks seems to be a total waste of time.  So what can we do?  Support groups like Planned Parenthood, women’s health services, vote in politicians who don’t have their heads up their shorts on these issues, and do our best.  Because these people, we’re just never going to convince them.

P.S.: I know I haven’t been posting much lately.  Aside from selling our house and moving earlier in the year, I changed jobs about a month ago, so it’s been kind of a busy time for the ol’ family here.  I’ll try to do better.  Not that there’s been a huge outcry or anything.

A Meditation on The Terminator


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Yes, you read the title right (photo courtesy of themOvieblog)

Today I went to see “Terminator Genisys” with my son.  That’s he’s a teenage boy is all you need to know as to why we went—I probably would have just waited for it to come out on video.  (Indeed, I rate it as “Wait until it’s out on video” in the Doug Movie Rating Scheme.)  Emilia Clarke is much more enjoyable than I ever would have expected her to be having seen her flat acting in “Game of Thrones”, plus she looks significantly better as a brunette.  Ahnuld is Ahnuld, as one might expect.  Kyle Reese is played by some six-pack-sporting block of wood name Jai Courtney, who is quite a contrast to the slender, easily-hurt, somewhat wild-eyed and desperate Michael Behn from the original film.  He’s not as bad as Hayden Christensen [but then, who is?] in “Jumper”; think Sam Worthington from “Avatar”.  Why is it all male action movie stars now have to sport slim waists, ridiculous six-packs, and wooden acting?  When did that become de rigeur?  And why is it they continue to cast slender, small-busted, small-hipped women and try to make them look curvier than they are? I don’t understand Hollywood.

But this isn’t a review of the film.  God knows you can see reviews for this summer blockbuster almost anywhere.  (Next week it’ll be “Ant-man”, a movie I still can’t believe got made.)  It truly is a meditation on thoughts that this film, released 31 years after I saw the first one with a couple of buddies in college, came to me there in the dark, flickering images dancing on my face while I chomped on pretty durn good pizza.  And if you want to know how you can have good pizza while simultaneously watching a film, you need to see if Alamo Drafthouse has opened a facility near you.

Where was I?  Oh, yeah: Meditating.

I wasn’t all that interested in seeing “The Terminator”.  In 1984, hardly anyone had heard of James Cameron, Ahnuld was a hulking “actor” without much acting ability who had played Conan and a few other silly roles (two Conan movies, “Hercules in New York”, that sort of thing), and it was pretty low-budget—$6.4 million, compared to, say, the first Ghostbuster movie out the same year, which cost $32 million.  All in all it sounded like a bad combination, so I was going to give it a miss and wait for it (for years maybe in those days) to come out on video.  But then a good friend of mine on the Ultimate Frisbee team (“Ultimate Kaos”) convinced me to go.  And I was glad I did.  I went expecting explosions and stupid action sequences; what I got was explosions, excellent action sequences, suspense, humor, interesting special f/x, some damn decent acting (and a role Ahnuld was clearly born to play), and most of all . . . a story.  An honsest-to-God interesting story that I never would have expected from a movie with a young directory, a (comparatively) low budget, and a wooden leading man.

There was no way I would have expected the movie to turn its filmmaker into the biggest director on the planet, spawn a TV series, 4 sequels, a long-running career for its star, and two terms of Governor Schwarzenegger.  Not to mention countless catch-phrases, imitations, rip-offs, spin-offs, and God alone knows what else.  Even Exxon-Mobile’s accountants (less scrupulous than the worst Mob accountants any day) would be hard-pressed to calculate how much dough that one movie eventually generated.

What did “Terminator Genisys” do in my case?  It made me feel old, and depressed, and homesick.

Let’s say this up front:  Despite my chronic pain and slowly-breaking-down 52 year-old body, I don’t feel a whole lot different than I did in my 20s (there are those who will insist that I didn’t age emotionally much after age 12; I’ll leave it to others to decide).  I don’t feel as if I’ve aged much past 27,

aken in front of the Franz Josef glacier, New Zealand, by Tim Miller

despite the hard evidence I see every day in the mirror.  I like to think I have a young spirit to go with my old soul, but I’m probably just fooling myself.  But truth to tell, most of the time I really don’t feel old.

And I love living in Austin, a truly wonderful town much more polite and relaxed, much cheaper, and much less crowded, than the San Francisco Bay Area, or even my beloved Santa Cruz.  And I’m a hard person to get down for long; it takes quite a bit.

But still, that’s how I felt after “Terminator Genisys”: Old, depressed, and homesick.

Ahnuld looks old.  The guy is 70; he has every right to look old.  But when I first saw him in “The Terminator”, he looked significantly older than me.  Looking at his young version in the new film, he looked so very, very young.  So now someone who looked old when I was young now looks young.  MAN that made me feel old.

And thinking how long ago it was—before the Loma Prieta earthquake, Chernobyl, the Indian Ocean Tsunami, 9/11, before even “Back to the Future” came out—made me feel old.  And it wasn’t one of those Baby Boomer “Oh my childhood was so innocent!” type deals; I was remembering an era that had the Soviet Union and Ronald Reagan rattling sabres at each other in the middle of Europe (Germany, to be exact), an era when “The Day After” had just come out, when we really did, no kidding, worry that our President was going to do something cosmically stupid and we were all going to die in a nuclear holocaust.  It was hanging over us all the time, though we usually managed to forget it, but it was there.  Look, kids; I know I sound like G’Grandma talking about the Depression, but I’m telling you, it could be fucking scary.

So yeah, sitting in a spanking new theater with my 17 year-old son, my cell phone in my pocket, a 7th Star Wars movie being previewed up on the screen, thinking just how far away that whole time period seems, and I felt old.

But the film also takes place in San Francisco.  I lived in the Bay Area for 25 years, visited 3-4 times a year for the next 7, then lived there again part-time for the next 3. But in the last year-and-a-half, I’ve been there once; last April, on business.  And I miss it, damn do I miss it.  Don’t want to move back, but I miss my friends, my old haunts (especially in Santa Cruz), my favorite restaurants, and the unbelievably, eye-melting beauty of it.  Lord it’s a beautiful place, and I do miss it.

And finally, it made me depressed.  Partly because I can’t watch this film with the same low expectations (thought I was going to say “innocence”, didn’t ya?) I brought to the first one, partly because it reminded me of things gone, or things changed, and partly because this was probably the first time I’ve taken The Boy to a movie he has been hugely looking forward to that he was . . . disappointed by.  It was “Okay;” it was “not bad”.  But it  also “didn’t make a whole lot of sense”, which for him was a combination of the time travel stuff confusing him, and the plot holes.  (For me there was also, “WTF happened to JK Simmons’ character?”)  I was already pretty bummed, but seeing my boy not excited, in fact seeing him experience his first real movie “let down”, was a massive bummer.  Two weeks in a row we’ve gone to movies that he’s really anticipated (and he loved Chris Pratt in “Jurassic World”; the “Terminator” folks should take a lesson as to what a lively actor can bring to a film) and have fallen short.  You’re stealing my son’s innocence, you movie-making boneheads!

Well, okay, that’s a bit harsh, but you see what I mean.

What’s funny is that in a way, we live in a Golden Age of Sci Fi, only it’s mostly on TV.  “Orphan Black” is a wonderful, wonderful SF show with a complex plot line and (imagine it!) a woman in the lead role.  Ditto the two new shows on SyFy, “Killjoys” (interstellar bounty-hunters, sort of “Cowboy Bebop” in a different solar system with a woman playing Spike) and “Dark Matter”, a kind-of “Farscape” where the whole crew has amnesia.  Very faithful to the whole “Firefly”/”Han shot first!” vibe.  And there’s been “Continuum” (with a female lead!), the more fantasy-esque but still fun “Lost Girl” (with several female leads!), the Halle Berry vehicle “Extant”, and on and on.  And we’ve had “Eureka” and “Marvel’s Agents of Shield” and “Warehouse 13” and even all the comic-book originated one like “The Flash” or “Arrow”—some not so great, sure, but the volume is really incredible.  (And remember Sturgeon’s Law!)

Maybe it was just ahead of its time by a decade?
(Photo courtesy of Giles Bowkett)

Really, in this kind of environment I’m surprised that so few folks have the balls of a Wachowski or Nolan to make an original SF movie, and that the sequels rolling our way (“Jurassic World”, say) seem so flat.  Perhaps it’s as some say: That the episodic nature of TV lends itself better to SF.  Or that Hollywood has run out of ideas.  Or the public has become jaded.

I don’t know the answers.  All I know is that it made me feel old, depressed, and homesick.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll have a drink, one  of my morphine tablets, and re-watch “The Terminator”.  Or maybe “Kingsmen”; I hear that’s kind of fun.  Hope springs eternal.

Sexism, Comic Book Movies, and Executive Stupidity


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Scarlett Johansson
Scarlett Johansson, prepared to kick ass (Photo courtesy of The Daily Mail)

Despite the fact that right-wingers firmly believe that Hollywood is controlled by socialist/communist gay and lesbian pornographers, the truth is that, like most rich folks, rich Hollywood execs tend to be pretty conservative.  Sure, some directors, actors, etc. are liberal, absolutely; but do you think the (American) folks in charge of Sony or Disney or other big multimedia companies are liberals? Ha, it is to laugh!

I mention this as a prelude to my main theme here:  The fact that these conservative, hide-bound, and almost-certainly sexist media execs refuse to green-light big summer movie projects starring women.  My particular peeve is with the huge increase in comic-book super-hero movies, which are getting the biggest bucks and most attention right now and where the problem is especially acute, but feel free to extend it to basically every other movie genre.

This topic has come up in the media (finally!) in the wake of the release of Joss Whedon’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, a huge hit (apparently).  For those who don’t know, Whedon is very vocal about being a feminist, and is widely regarded as a writer of strong female characters, and is generally the go-to person for nerds to point at as an example of a man who is bucking the sexist trend in the nerd (comic books, sci-fi, and the movies based thereon) culture.  While this is perhaps true in broad outline, I think Leah Schnelbach does a great job deconstructing this claim (on the site), without being at all unfair or doctrinaire as so many folks can get on this topic.

However, Whedon is taking some flack on this particular film because of his treatment of the character of Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson.  For just a quick recap of the arguments:  There have been 11 “Marvel Cinematic Universe” (MCU) comic-book films, of which all have starred men, often multiple men.  These films rarely pass the Bechdel test (if ever); the presentation of the women in group/team posters is significantly different from that for men; women characters are often treated as plot devices or standard tropes (the damsel in distress, for example); and on and on.  It’s pretty ridiculous.

Gee, what do you think they’re trying to draw your attention to?
(Photo courtesy of Zimbio)

(I will here make a brief nod to the TV end of things, where there are a few more solid characters: Peggy Carter (with remarkably her own show); Karen Page, Claire Temple, and Vanessa Marianna in Daredevil; Skye, May, & Bobby in Agents of SHIELD.  And DC has the wonderful Felicity Smoak in Arrow, a character so awesome they keep having her show up in their other series, The Flash.)

Specifically to the most recent MCU film “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, the one true strong female character is Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson.  And as Leah Schnelbach points out in the post referenced above, while Black Widow has now been in four MCU films, hers is the only character who takes time out of a film to lament how she can never be a parent.  Thor doesn’t whine about whether or not to be a daddy, nor does Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, Tony Stark, or anyone else (though Captain America laments not getting to dance with Peggy Carter during World War II).  She is the only Avenger whose character is defined—and only in this film!—in terms of her sexuality and gender.

Now, if there were as lot of interesting female characters in the MCU, maybe we could give this one a pass.  Or if Black Widow was about to get her own film, as nearly every other Avenger has (hell, Ant Man is getting his own film before he becomes one!).  I mean, geez, Hulk has had, what, two (really bad) films?  Captain America has had two with another one coming.  Thor has had two; Iron Man three.  Black Widow?  None.  With none on the horizon.  And if that isn’t bad enough, there isn’t even a female-starring MCU film planned until 2018 . . . eight more films down the line.  A second film about the Guardians of the Galaxy, a property that hardly anyone gave a damn about, sure (which, to be fair, was a film I enjoyed a lot); another Captain America film, another Avengers film, yet another reboot of the Spider-man franchise, even.  But a film about Black Widow?  Heavens, no; that’s a terrible idea!

Do we really need another one? (Photo courtesy of Wibblyspider on DeviantArt)

One could argue, and some do, that female-led super-hero movies don’t make money.  But if you take a gander at the hacked emails by the studio execs, who complain about “Supergirl”, a bomb from 30 years ago, it’s pretty clear we’re dealing with nothing but blatant sexism here.  After all, way more male-centered super-hero movies have bombed than female-centered ones.  That’s sexism, kids.

And not only is it sexist, in the case of Black Widow—a well-established character played by a bankable actress that the public is actually asking for—it’s downright stupid.  Let me just run a few facts by you, here:

  • Black Widow has now been in four MCU movies and has actually established a considerable fan-base; there are fan sites, a twitter hash tag, a petition, etc. etc.
  • The Motley Fool does a good job pointing out the factual basis for expecting a positive result from a Black Widow film.
  • There have been far more giant flops in big Super Hero films starring men than those starring women.  Seven vs. three, if memory serves.  And it’s important to note that films like “Catwoman” genuinely stunk.
  • Scarlett Johansson is almost ridiculously bankable.

Let me throw you some numbers on that last point.  And this is where it connects to my opening about folks on the right, which is:  The right-wing simply can’t do math.  (I did several posts about this on Salon which I will re-post here at some point but in the meantime, take my word for it.  Two words:  Laffer curve.)

They just can’t do math; don’t blame me! (photo courtesy of Democratic Underground)

  • Luc Besson is a director with a lengthy Hollywood career, and whose biggest film up until last year was “The Fifth Element”, starring Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Milla Jovovich, and (God save us) Chris Tucker.  On a budget of $93 million it made $263.9 million, or $170.9 million.  His newest biggest film?  “Lucy”, starring Scarlett Johansson; on a budget of $40 million it made $458.9 million, or $418.9 million.
  • Films with Scarlett Johansson have made a total of $2.393 billion dollars domestically, and a brain-melting $5.844 billion world-wide. “Well, okay,” I hear you say; “But she hasn’t starred in all those, some are ensemble films that made tons of money.  How does that compare to male stars?”  I’m glad you asked! Let’s look at the money with regard to those who have been in big budget films themselves.  (Figures from Box Office Mojo)
    • Chris Hemsworth (Thor): $1.622 billion
    • Andrew Garfield (Spider-man):  $587 million
    • Tobey Maguire (also Spider-man): $1.535 billion
    • Chris Pratt (“Star-lord”): $848 million
    • Chris Evans (Captain America): $1.909 billion
    • Paul Rudd: $1.143 billion
    • Ahnuld: $1.794 billion (!)
    • Harrison Ford: $3.925 billion
    • Bruce Willis: $3.186 billion
    • Brad Pitt: $2.610 billion
  • And those comparisons are apples to apples—lifetime totals of all films made by folks who have starred in blockbusters.  (I could do it in dollars adjusted for ticket price inflation but trust me, other than with Ahnuld, it doesn’t make a lot of difference in demonstrating the basic point.)  When you look at those comparisons, also consider this:  Bruce Willis is 60, Schwarzenegger is 67, Harrison Ford is 72, heck even Brad Pitt is 51.  Johansson is 30.  30!  You’ve got to think she’s going to blow those other guys out of the water by the time she gets to 40, let alone 60.
  • Speaking of “well known”; I like Paul Rudd as much as the next guy, but he’s not exactly Bruce Willis or Ahnuld or even Brad Pitt when it comes to big, summer, “tent-pole” action/adventure extravaganzas, is he?  Had anyone heard of Chris Hemsworth before they handed him “Thor”?  Eric Bana before he made “Hulk”?  While Chris Evans was not exactly unknown, he wasn’t a household name either when they made him Captain America.  And what about those total unknowns they handed Superman’s cape to?  On the other hand, Johansson is well know, with a huge built-in fan base.  How is a film starring her as a (now) well-known character more of a risk than “Guardians of the Galaxy” starring Chris Pratt or “Ant-Man” starring Paul Rudd?  I mean, c’mon!

So honestly, given all this, ask yourself two things:  Can the lack of female-starring big-budget movies be anything other than sexism, and can the lack of a big-budget, Johansson-starring Black Widow movie be anything other than profoundly stupid sexism?

I think you all know what my answer is.

Yeah, you got it (Poster courtesy of LemonPunch on Tumblr)

So there it is, you dim-witted, right-wing, major studio honchos (and you, Kevin Feige, you bonehead):  Women can make you tons of money.  It’s only your backwards attitudes that’re stopping it.  Get a grip and start making those movies!

The Stupidity of Workplace Discrimination


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Blindfolded man with "prejudice" text on the blindfold
Image courtesy of Ackerson Law Offices

Recently one of the transgender Twitter accounts I follow pointed me to a post by NPR about the discrimination that trans folks face in the workplace.  The gist of the post (and associated NPR audio piece) is that it really helps, especially when transitioning (i.e., transitioning from one gender to another), to have allies at your workplace.  And there’s some information as well about the discrimination trans folks face on a regular basis.  (As well as some pretty scary statistics about suicide rates for trans folks—statistics that I believe should shut up any transgender-exclusionary radical feminists, that is radical feminists who believe that it’s okay to exclude trans men/women from men/women-only spaces, but I’m sure won’t.  But that’s a topic for another day.)

It got me thinking that while trans folks face a terrible burden, there are other discriminations in the workplace (some of which I’ve written about), all of which are blatantly and profoundly stupid.

See, here’s the thing:  In high tech, it’s hard to find the right people for the job.  Really hard, honestly.  Yes, there are plenty of good programmers out there, plenty of good QA people, marketing people, technical writers, etc.  Sure.  But it’s not just a matter of people having the right raw materials for the job; they also need to have the right level of experience—sometimes you want that person with 25 years of experience, and sometimes you want someone fresh out of college—the right set of skills, an ability to work in the types of groups you have at your company, a track record of accomplishments in the appropriate areas, etc. etc. etc.  Not to mention someone who can add to your group’s dynamic; for example, if you have a bunch of really shy people on your team, maybe you need someone more extroverted.  Or maybe you work at a company where everyone is expected to work very independently, and so that experience you’ve had as a manager is important.  Whatever.

(Yes, I acknowledge that this can lead you straight down that slippery slope of only hiring white folks because you only “feel comfortable” with your “type of people”.  That’s not where I’m going with this.  In fact, I’m going in the completely opposite direction.  I just want to note that there are other factors besides raw experience that come into the hiring mix.  And so no, I tell you three times and what I tell you three times is true:  It is NOT okay to use “they have to fit in with the group” to excuse bigotry.  Not okay, not okay, not okay!)

So in this situation, I am constantly puzzled by people discriminating against potential hires because they are transgender.  Or women.  Or Asian or of African descent or from South America.  Or who speak English with (to my ear) funny accents.  Or who are gay or lesbian or bi.  It’s hard enough to find good people; ruling people out just because they sleep with people of the same gender or hail from Kerala instead of Colorado strikes me as self-defeating.

And specifically when it comes to transgender folks who transition while they’re in the job, it makes even less sense.  This is a person you’ve worked with, established a relationship with, whose strengths and “areas for development” (corporate-speak for “weaknesses”) you’re familiar with;  why should you give a damn if you find out that, “oh my heavens, his father is actually a black guy!”?  What does it matter if they worship God on Saturday morning in Hebrew rather than Sunday morning in Latin or English?  Who cares if Adam sleeps with Steve, as long as Adam continues to deliver code?  Does it make a difference that Ashok is sometimes hard to understand (when my wife has trouble understanding my Aunt Maureen from Boston) when he’s completing projects like a madman?  Why should you give a crap that you report to Deanna instead of Douglas as long as Deanna is a good boss?  What the heck difference does it make if Mark transitions to Margaret so long as they continue to crank out work?  I find it insane.

I will say this in defense of high tech:  I’ve met many, many, many bigoted people over the years who suck it up and deal and get along just fine with folks they’re bigoted against, when those folks are delivering.  (When they don’t, yes, it can get ugly.)  I can’t relay to you how many times I’ve had conversations with people along these lines:

“Man, I get so tired of working with [minority group] sometimes.”
“But [name] is a [minority group].”
“Oh, [name] is cool; I’m talking about in general.”

Yes, we have to move to a place where this conversation doesn’t even happen because CoWorker realizes, like I state above, it doesn’t matter.

A couple of other points to consider when thinking about this stuff:  As the world grows more interconnected (especially in high tech), you’re going to find yourself working for people who are not native Americans, or not white, or not straight, or not Christian, or not cisgender, or not [enter minority here].  And when (not “if”!) you do, how well do you think your bigotry is going to fly with them, hm?

Something else to consider is the extension of the workspace from “everyone come into the office” (which I’ll post about soon) to “distributed teams”, i.e. teams where people are spread out all over the country, or the world.  On such a team, are you going to discriminate against Yung just because she’s in Taiwan, or Ivanov because he’s in Ukraine?  Not only would that be self-defeating, it’s genuinely silly.

In movies (and sometimes real life), people say, “It’s only business”.  Now I personally don’t like this saying; too often it’s used by someone who just has, is about to, royally screw someone (or groups of someones) over.  (“Yes, we’re laying you all off, but it’s only business.”  Yeah, tell that to my mortgage company, you jerkweed.)  This is the corollary; if it’s only business, then the only thing that matters is what happens on the clock for the company, and if they’re getting the job done who cares if someone was hired wearing slacks and T-shirts and is now coming to work in heels and a skirt-and-blouse combo?

So stop discriminating, people; you’re not just hurting other folks, you’re hurting yourself and your business.  Knock it off!


Support Your Local Female Tech Professional


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STOP doing this! (Image courtesy of

I’ve written a few posts about women in high tech, and if you follow my blog at all you’ll know I’m pretty critical of how the high tech industry treats women and behaves around women.  I completely dismiss the argument—and you can see it practically anywhere—that women just have to “suck it up”, that they’re treated “just the same” as men, that they need to “fit in better” to the industry’s culture.

To which I say: Hooey.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot.  One thing that irks me about many columnists is that they spend a lot of time complaining about something, but then when it comes to making suggestions as to how to fix the problem they just spent 15 paragraphs identifying and excoriating, they bail.  “How this will resolve Remains To Be Seen.”  (“Remains to be seen” is a common sign-off line on TV news, and is basically the same as saying, “I have no effin’ idea where this is going, so this piece was pretty much a waste of time.”)  I try to suggest solutions to the things I talk about in my posts, even if the solutions seem silly.  After all, silly or not, any suggestion could get a conversation started, and that’s when better solutions may come up.

But my suggestions for the sexist culture in high tech and what to do about it have been pretty limp and unsatisfying.  At least to me.  Which is why I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and the more I do the more I realize that while yes, we have to get more women into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers, and yes we have to help women throughout their path into these fields.  But we—and by “we” here, I men “we men of the male persuasion”—need to do a lot more than passive cheer-leading and supporting our daughters working towards their C.S. degree.

We need to be proactive.

Now before you become untethered, let me be clear:   I’m not talking about some kind of “affirmative action”/quota kind of thing—though I believe that’s needed—nor am I suggesting that people “carry” poor performers just because they’re women.  (Although I also firmly believe that way too many men use the “she’s a poor performer” excuse as a cover for sexism, similar to “she didn’t quite fit in” or “she was a distraction to the team” or “her style wasn’t compatible with the organization’s needs”, or some other BS excuse that boils down to “We’re a boys club and don’t feel comfortable with girls around”.)

No, what I’m saying is:  We need to be proactive.  We need to actively support the women with whom we work, rather than telling them that they’re “acting bitchy” or “need to suck it up” or “work harder to fit in”.  Or almost as bad, just sit there passively when we see blatant sexism acted out right in our faces.  Let me give you an example:

You’re in a meeting.  There are 10 or so people in the room, and maybe 2 of them are women.  One of the women—the QA manager, say, a relatively tall, quiet, middle-aged woman with over 20 years experience in high tech—speaks up about a problem she sees from her vantage point in QA.  Before she has a chance to finish, some 20-something guy interrupts her, and then basically expresses her exact point.  What do you do?

I’ve seen this hundreds, maybe thousands of times.  You know what usually happens?  Nothing.  Women have had it hammered into them since birth to be quiet, demure, to not object; when they get run over like that, they often just shut up and remain quiet, because that’s what society teaches them.  And if they speak up, if they push back, if they ask (respectfully) to please be allowed to finish, many of the 20-something men (and alas too many of other ages) will complain to their boss or co-worker about what a “bitch” they work with.  She’s “too aggressive”; they “don’t feel comfortable with her on their team”.

Right now, any woman who’s worked in high tech is nodding her head while reading along, thinking, “Well, duh!  You might as well tell me rain is wet.”  While I guarantee you the majority of guys—even the ones guilty of this behavior!—are thinking, “Well, I’m sure that happens sometimes, but I don’t ever do it!”  Yes, you do.  I think about this stuff all the time and sometimes I still blow it.  It’s easy to fall back on the socially-dictated patterns.

What should you do?  Dude, it’s so easy; ask the rude interrupter to please let the woman finish.  “Okay, Biff, but I’d like to hear the end of what Jill was trying to say.”  That’s what I mean by “proactive”.  Don’t just sit there and let some sexist dork be sexist; jump in!  It can absolutely be done without being rude, putting anyone down, or even implying Biff is being a sexist dork.

If you’re running the meeting, go even farther:  Make sure you actively seek the opinions of the women at the table.  Women in high tech have been so hammered on for so long that after a while, many stop trying.  Do you really want to write off 20% of the brainpower in your room?  That’s idiotic!  Ask their opinions!  And further, make sure they get the space to finish their thoughts.  It’s your meeting; if Jill gets cut off, tell Dirk, “Wait a minute please, Dirk; let Jill finish and then you can make your point.”  Not only does this get the opinions of the women out on the table, it also implicitly chastises people for rude and sexist behavior and provides them with a model for how to do it moving forward.

(I believe the person running a meeting should draw out opinions from all those at the table, no matter their sex, but that’s a different topic.)

But don’t stop there.  Recommend (qualified) women on your team for high-profile projects, projects that will give them visibility and responsibilities outside of their immediate job area.  Recommend them for training—management training, technical training, whatever.  Be active in helping them advance their careers.  Trumpet their accomplishments to the org at large.  Mention them to upper management.  And on the flip side:  Mention the negative, sexist behavior to management as well—though I would recommend on first offense to limit it to not mentioning the particular perpetrator.  Something like, “Mr. VP, I’ve been noticing some fairly bad sexist behavior among some team members.  Perhaps you could make some kind of overall policy statement about BigCorp’s policy of inclusiveness and having a friendly and non-hostile work environment?  Maybe an email, followed by a few words at the next all-hands?”  Everyone screws up once in a while, and someone should establish a pattern before being called on the carpet, IMO.  But of course if Mr. VP asks, that’s a different matter.

I would also recommend that, should you be in management, you take some time to educate yourself on how men’s and women’s socialized responses differ, and adjust your behavior and expectations accordingly.  For example, when men get pissed off, they frequently yell, punch things, throw tantrums, etc.  Most men overt the age of, say, 25 are more controlled than that, but if you’ve been in high tech for any time at all, you’ve probably seen it; some VP is frustrated, and he yells at someone, or cusses them out.  Or even throws things at the conference room wall.  I’ve seen it happen.

(Yes, I know this isn’t true across the board, and certainly not true for trans and gender fluid folks.  What I’m talking about here are what society and our culture consider “typical” male and female behavior and responses.)

Women, on the other hand, often respond to anger with tears.  These are not tears of sorrow; they’re tears of rage and frustration.  But many men viscerally respond to tears with a subconscious diagnosis of “weakness”, and of course in business, weakness is death.

Unfortunately, women are in a double-bind here.  If a woman yells, curses, and rages, she is “a bitch”, “too emotional”, “needs to dial it back”, etc.  So she can either act like a woman and be punished for it, or act like a man . . . and be punished for it.

To repeat:  The solution is to educate yourself and be more cognizant of how sexes respond differently.  I think one of the best books on this topic is Deborah Tannen’s “You Just Don’t Understand”, but there are plenty of good ones out there.  But if you’re too lazy to read a book, all you have to know is:  Men and women frequently react differently.  Learn to roll with it, and stop putting the women on your team into an impossible double-bind.  Further, when you see them being so defined by others, point it out.

I’ve gone on at length here (and haven’t even touched on other land-mines like how women are supposed to dress, and how men can get away with flirting at work but women can’t, and many other areas), but the bottom line is actually pretty simple:  As men, we’re too lazy and been too passive, and we need to get off our flat behinds and get involved.  We need to work to help women be treated equally.  We need to act.  It’s on us, too.

So get out there, and act!

PS: For some of my other opinions regarding women in high take, feel free to surf on over to:

Business Meetings: Minimizing their Pain



Dilbert copyrighted by Scott Adams, all rights reserved

On LinkedIn, Jeff Denneen had a post wherein he opined that we should Kill the Weekly Meeting.  In it he talks about the time wasted in pre-scheduled, regular weekly meetings, has a couple of suggestions for making meetings less painful in general, and at the end asks, “Do you have other techniques for making meetings more effective?”

Oh hellz yes; I have a list.

I have long wondered about high tech’s love of regular meetings.  It’s something I noticed almost from the beginning of my career, and a part of the industry that I came quickly to genuinely hate.  But as a modern, 21st Century guy who’s spent plenty of time with various therapists, rather than sit back and seethe and simmer in my meeting rage, when I had the opportunity to run my own meetings—either through being a project lead, a manager, or just because no one else in the room wanted to take charge—I came over time to learn some tactics and techniques to make things better.  At least, I think they do.

In huge, cross-team projects involving dozens or even hundreds of people, all working toward a specific goal of releasing on a given date, you do have to have some regular meetings just so everyone is on target.  Really, you can’t avoid it; you can’t do everything by email or IM.  But when you are forced to have those suckers, make them as painless as possible.  Here’s some ideas to chew over, play-tested out in the real high tech business world:

  • Have an agenda, or at least a list of topics that you need to cover in the meeting, even if it’s only scribbled on a piece of scratch paper.
  • Avoid the “round-table status review”. I’ve been in high tech for 27 years and, while I have on occasion needed to know what my coworkers were doing, I never needed to know what they were doing on a low project level. Round-table status is too often used for people to simply puff up their own importance, and tends to waste time.
  • Start your meetings on time. This should be obvious, but alas it is not. (Don’t be a jerk about it like George W. Bush was, though, who apparently locked the door at the appointed time. That’s childish.)
  • Keep track of the time, and help folks be aware of it at need. “We need to pick up the pace in order to finish.”
  • Avoid going down conversational rabbit-holes, finger-pointing, and arguments. If there are disagreements that can’t be resolved in a reasonable (few minutes) amount of time, table the discussion and figure out another way to resolve them.  “Let’s take this off-line” is the common phrase in high tech.
  • Make sure to recognize and draw out opinions from the shyer folks in the room. This is a learned skill, but you have to watch for subtle clues that someone wants to talk, but is too shy or reluctant to “interrupt”. But they’re in the meeting; if their opinion wasn’t wanted, they shouldn’t have been invited. So be sure to try to spot them and give them the space to talk.
  • Deliberately make extra effort to pull the women in the room into the discussion, and protect their speaking time from over-bearing, interrupting, ‘mansplainin’ men.  Our business culture is flamingly sexist, and women are often ignored, interrupted, dismissed, and otherwise relegated to “outsider” status. Don’t let it happen; plenty of times, they’re the smartest ones in the room.  They usually haven’t had a choice; like minorities, they’ve had to be better than most just to get a place at the table.  Get their opinions!  (For more on my take about sexism in high tech, feel free to read High Tech Sexism.)
  • Related to the three previous items: Don’t be afraid to be a bit tyrannical in running your meetings. Don’t let people ramble on to no purpose–cut them off. Don’t let folks be rude or obnoxious to other folks in the room–cut them off, too, with a warning that that kind of thing isn’t productive. Shut people up when they interrupt a speaker who hasn’t finished making her point.  Keep people focused, on task, and ready to listen.  You don’t have to be a douche about it, but be firm.  Very firm.  Exceedingly firm.
  • Let meetings end early. In fact, make it a personal goal to end meetings early. There are few things in business that make people happier than ending a meeting early.
  • Before ending the meeting, go over the action items that came up during the meeting. Make sure people assigned to action items are aware of them. All action items should have a priority associated with them, and a time-frame for completion.

And on a personal note:  Learn how to take notes.  Everyone finds a different note-taking style that works best for them, so find yours.  Mine is based on my observation that for me, meetings have three things I need to keep track of (four if it’s a “bad” meeting):  General notes, questions I want to ask but don’t want to interrupt, and action items I’m given.  I usually start out each meeting by creating three sections in my notes file (I use Evernote) for these three areas.  (The fourth area is “Comments”, i.e. snarky comments to myself that come to mind while being stuck in a terrible, boring, endless meeting from which there is no easy escape.  This section keeps me sane in those situations, especially those where you can’t, for example, play Infinity Blade III or check your Twitter feed or whatever.  You know what kind of meetings I’m talking about.)

Like everything else, running a meeting is a skill. Some people have a natural flair for it, and others struggle with it. But as far as I can tell, everyone needs more practice. Think about some of the above points the next time you call a meeting. Believe me: You end a meeting early with clear action items, people will love you.

The Frustrations of a Long-Distance Tech Writer

Image courtesy of Neil Newton

I’ve mentioned before that I am one of those lucky few that (in general) actually enjoys his job.  I like working in high tech, being around smart people, playing with cutting-edge (“bleeding-edge”, we like to joke) tech, while at the same time not writing code or designing hardware, two areas in which I studied and got a degree but for which I am depressingly untalented.  Writing about tech stuff, though; there, I seem to have a degree of ability, thank goodness.

That doesn’t mean, though, that the job doesn’t have frustrations.  Now yes, “Check your privilege”; these are first world problems, and for a cis-gendered, straight, white male.  I don’t have to deal with the rampant sexism in my chosen field (though I try to mitigate it where I can).  I don’t have to deal with racism, except in those rare cases where I have worked in a majority non-American environment (it happened a couple of times).  I don’t have to deal with homophobia or transphobia, and as I don’t go around wearing a yellow Magen David and don’t particularly “look Jewish”, the minor amounts of anti-Semitism I’ve encountered haven’t been a big deal.  Duly noted.

But in nearly three decades of professional tech writing, I have to admit that I’ve gotten pretty tired of some things that happen consistently, again and again and again, no matter how much I try to fix them.

In the high tech world, I should tell you that tech writers are pretty low on the totem pole.  Engineering believes that Marketing, Support, and QA are in the same region, but as Marketing knows they’re not, it never hurts their feelings.  I have on the other hand commiserated plenty with Support and QA folks, who are treated as (at best) necessary evils.

You see, the engineering attitude is, if they write awesome code, there’s no need for Support or QA; why test and provide support for something that’s awesome?  And Marketing?  Ha!  My code is so awesome that it will sell itself; what do I need those suit-wearing, MBA jargon-spouting fools for? (Of course, since Marketing feels similarly about Engineering—”Don’t those idiots know that if we don’t sell their product they wouldn’t even have jobs?”—that part kind of evens out in the end.  And besides, it’s the Marketing folks who tend to move up the ladder and become CEOs.)

Technical content?  Despite the fact that we supposedly live in an era where “content is King”, most people believe that it’s easy, that it’s just “cut and past from the specification”, that it’s just “ink on the page”, that “one of my engineers can do it”, that everyone can write the content if they didn’t have to spend their extremely valuable time writing code/being a manager/doing important Marketing work/whatever.  It’s like breathing; everyone knows how to talk, so everyone knows how to write technical content, right?

Well, um, no.

Like everyone else in high tech, technical writers have spent years (or even decades) honing their skills.  While everyone theoretically can write, the number of people who can write clear, concise, correct colloquial American English is pretty small.  People assume that that because they can speak, they can write. It’s simply not true.  The number of people who can do that and comprehend high tech concepts, software, and hardware is even smaller.

Now then, let’s look at me.  I spent 4 years in college—and plenty of time in high school too—learning computer technology.  I started when I was 15, and got a degree in computer science.  I did the work of going into a job as an engineer.  There’s not too many people who do that and then don’t become engineers.  I also had some inherent skill at writing, and since entering the field, I have spent more than 20 years working on my tech writing skillset–not just my writing, but theories of organization, information architecture, web page design and layout, editing tools, publishing tools, source control tools.  And I’m hardly atypical.

Despite this, tech writers constantly have to remind people of their ability.  I’m often tempted to say, “Hey, I don’t lean over your shoulder and tell you where to put curly brackets and semi-colons in your code, do I?”.

Tech writers also have to teach every new product team that, yes, we do understand technical issues and yes, we are professionals on par with them in our own branch of the high tech industry and, finally, yes, they have to take us and (more importantly) what we do seriously if we want to get the durn product out the door.

And finally, it becomes very tiresome to have to behave like some kind of fascistic, yard-stick weilding equivalent of a Catholic school knuckle-smacking nun in order to get you to do that part of your job that intersects with mine.  Yes, I read the specs; yes, I try to use the product myself; yes, I attend the appropriate training classes (when they exist; for new products, they don’t).  Yes, I do all that.  But I also need a couple of things from you: When we ask for some of your time, rather than being grumpy, snarky, suggesting (either implicitly or explicitly) that we haven’t done my homework, do us the courtesy of providing that time.

Because see, if you give us just a little bit of time, not only will we document everything you tell us about, we’ll probably find other stuff that you and QA missed but that the customers won’t–I have an amazing gift for breaking software and finding odd corner cases–and we’ll document that, too.

Truly:  30 minutes of your time now will save you hours of hassle later.  I’ve been doing this a long time; I know. (Also, it provides you with some good CYA.  “I met with Doug on this; isn’t it in the product documentation?”  See?  Off the hook!)  Wouldn’t you rather spend that time chatting with me instead of arguing with trolls on the forums, dealing with irate customers via phone, or having an exec email you demanding you fix some problem?  It’s a good investment!

The other thing we ask is that, when we send you something to review, review it.  Look, I know reading technical content is the last thing you want to do.  I know it’s dull.  I know you think your time is too valuable for it, that someone else should be doing it, that I should have gotten it right the first time, that there’s no time in the schedule for you to review content.  I’ve heard it all, believe me.  (And if there’s no time, please tell me; I will go all the way up to executive VPs to get time built into your schedule for it.  Trust me; I’ve done it.  Ask my friend Margaret.)

But unless the experts—”subject matter experts” we call ’em, or SMEs (because in high tech it’s not important until it’s been assigned an acronym, even when that acronym is made up of other acronyms)—go over my content, it’s going to be wrong.  I’ll catch most stuff; hell, I’ll think up plenty of stuff you folks never would (remember my lecture on how much experience I have earlier on?).  But there are technical minutae that I will miss.  I can’t help it; you’ve been coding that project for six months and I’ve only been playing with it for a few weeks; how could it be otherwise?  If you didn’t know more about it than me, we would be switching jobs no matter how lame my coding skills are.  That’s what review teams are for: To catch the stuff I miss.

(And by the way, don’t worry about my grammar, punctuation, and other writing-specific things.  I know there’s a terrible temptation to mark those things up; it’s easy, it’s obvious, and it gives you a way to get back at the person who’s “wasting your time”.  Resist.  I know you can do it.)

So there you have it.  As writers, we don’t ask much.  Just

  • Treat your content people as fellow professionals whose time is also valuable even though they don’t code or design hardware
  • Give them the time they ask for (and if they’re asking for too much, go to their managers)
  • Give them the feedback they request

Do that and not only will your content person be really happy with you, they’ll do you favors.  They’ll post bugs that they found in the product that everyone else missed; they’ll help you re-word that email to the exec to help you get off the hoook for that major screw-up; they’ll advise you on your resume when you’re ready to head on to new challenges; they’ll give you solid advice on your web site that you never would have thought of.  This is the kind of stuff we do.  Leverage it.

The few; the proud; the technical content creators.  It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.  No, seriously.