A user's guide to Death Valley

Friends, I am off to run the Flying Pig (half) Marathon in Cincinnati, Ohio. Let me leave you with a memento, in case the natives impede my escape.

Last Wednesday, I gave another speech at our weekly Toastmasters meeting. You're supposed to prepare for these things. Oops. I had an hour before I had to give my five to seven minute talk, but nothing prepared.

Easy, let's talk about Death Valley. I had been writing about my first trip to Death Valley in February 2005 anyway. I grabbed some photos, jotted a few notes, and hey presto, the following 7:30 off-the-cuff presentation.

Sure, look through the slides. Whatever. The real presentation is in the audio. I only added the words to this uploaded version so you wouldn't get completely lost.

When I get out of this cubicle job, I am going to do something where I can get up and talk to people. Damn I love this stuff. I rely too much on preparing too little. Next stop on the speech train: preparing, polishing, improving, etc.

Audio: A user's guide to Death Valley

PS: Sorry for the background whirring noise. There is some deconstruction going on in the building.

PPS: Thank you to David Battino of O'Reilly Media for writing the tutorial, "Build a Better Web Audio Player." That is how I embedded the mp3 file above.

PPS: I'm reading some desert books now: Beyond the Wall and Down the River by Ed Abbey. Cantankerous and excellent and gives me itchy feet again.

The expert's new clothes

This post was a featured post on Brazen Careerist on 14 April 2010.

(With apologies to Hans Christian Anderson)

BarCamp Boston is coming up this weekend. Perhaps I'll see you there. This week I have been thinking of what I could present. (For the uninitiated, BarCamp attendees are also the presenters.) But this voice in my head gets in the way.

This is the same voice that has been blocking me for a few years, the same voice that kept me on the sidelines at BarCamp Houston in 2008 -- not presenting anything, not even talking. It's a voice that says, "You're not an expert, so sit down and shut up." It's a very convincing voice.

This time the voice is singing the same song, but it has added a few verses about how I'm never going to be an expert, never going to be any good at anything for that matter, etc. Well, that pissed me off. Time to fight back.

What is an expert anyway? Kurt Vonnegut, take it away:

"Nobody's so damn well educated that you can't learn ninety per cent of what he knows in six weeks. The other ten per cent is decoration."

"Yes, sir."

"Show me a specialist, and I'll show you a man who's so scared he's dug a hole for himself to hide in."

"Yes, sir."

"Almost nobody's competent, Paul. It's enough to make you cry to see how bad most people are at their jobs. If you can do a half-assed job of anything, you're a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind."

(Source: Kurt Vonnegut, "Chapter 22," Player Piano, 1952.)

I'm not railing against experts or so-called experts. I've met some exceptionally smart and experienced people in academia and industry that I think are the best of breed. I would mortgage my reputation to support them (they don't need it anyway). But, in my observation, they are a statistically negligible population. That is, there are no experts.

There are no experts. Everyone is an expert.

For example, in 2007 I led a workshop on designing CubeSats at the Vellore Institute of Technology in Tamil Nadu, India. It was ridiculous for me to be there because the students knew more about the technical aspects than I did, i.e., I had less electrical engineering experience than they did. What did they lack? Confidence. And their administrators and professors lacked confidence that they were going to be able to do something real. So I came to town with two Japanese friends and we instilled confidence in the guise of a technical workshop.

CubeSat workshop at Vellore Institute of Technology

Years and years ago -- the latest, in 2005 -- I was a staff member at Ingersoll Scout Reservation. That whole gig was about teaching confidence in the guise of technical skills. My absolutely favorite example was building a wigwam. I knew the utter basics about how to do this, i.e., what type of trees we needed to cut. I knew little about the rest. I presented the task to the twelve Scouts in our program. They completed it with just a little direction from Andy and I. At the end of the week, they thanked us for teaching them how to build a wigwam. The joke is that they taught us how to do it.

Building a wigwam

Both of these experiences were successful beyond my wildest dreams. I don't advocate pretending to be an expert. I advocate humility. But what is wrong with the world if people like me are allowed to teach skills to other people? Maybe nothing.

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

Archiva Digitalis LLC

Tuesday 6 April was my one-year anniversary of working at a very large company. To celebrate I incorporated a side project: Archiva Digitalis LLC 1.

I spend a lot of time organizing my photos. I want them to live forever. I worry about them. I see two problems -- two sides of the same coin. On one side, I have a box of physical photos. It is a limited number of photos, but they are just sitting in a pile in a box. On the other side, I have an enormous amount of digital photos, also in a pile in a box (my hard drive).

I consider this the same coin because, in either case, these photos mean absolutely nothing to anyone else but me, therefore they could easily be destroyed due to irrelevance and neglect. The physical photos will die from abuse or will be thrown away by someone who doesn't understand them. The digital photos will die because there are just too many -- who will take the hours to cull the good from the bad when it takes only seconds to dump them all? -- or because they are not stored properly.

Also, who are the people in the photos? What are the events? Where were they taken? What is the significance? All of those things exist in my brain only. Yet I see them as representing a piece, even if it is a small one, of our culture. It is a snapshot of how things were where I was when I was there. How do you pass that significance to other people? How do you keep that significance alive for generations you won't be alive to explain it to?

Archiva Digitalis was a project in the back of my mind to take care of this problem.

Archiva Digitalis is a service for duplicating, preserving, and archiving photos. You could probably do some of that at Walmart, but I'm thinking of this as a high end service. I want to talk to people and institutions with legacies to preserve. I want to talk to clients who are as serious as me about making their images -- and their associated context -- last forever.

Part of the problem is physical. Part is digital. I think the digital part is harder because the life of these digital images is uncertain. How do you keep them ahead of the wave of obsolescence? How do you ensure that the context of the image isn't lost?

My first client was the Sharmas. It was a trade: I got to practice and improve my techniques and processes, they got their photos duplicated and preserved. Win-win.

I was in no hurry when I started, though. Then I read "Everyone's model of work is a job" by Seth Godin. In it he links to an essay he wrote for Change This called "Brainwashed: Seven Ways to Reinvent Yourself." The key point I took from that was his emphasis on shipping, i.e. stop being afraid and start getting the product out the door.

If you can get something out the door while your competitors cringe in fear, you win. If you're the team member that makes things happen, you become indispensable. If you and your organization are the ones (the only ones) that can get things done, close the sale, ship the product and make a difference, you’re the linchpins--the ones we can't live without.

Shipping is difficult because of the lizard brain. The resistance doesn't want you to ship, because if you ship, you might fail. If you ship, we might laugh at you. If you ship, you may be held accountable for the decisions you made.

Then I went to the "Starting an LLC" Workshop on 30 March at Babson College. The key point I took from that was that the only thing that matters is doing. You must get out and work on the product, find customers, sell sell sell, etc. You can't do anything by thinking about doing it -- you have to do it.

So, when the archival materials I ordered came in last Friday, I tossed all of my plans for the weekend and finished archiving and preserving the Sharmas' photos. And I shipped them on Monday. It felt good.

Then I incorporated on Tuesday. I had been delaying this for months knowing that once I got started, I wouldn't know where I would go from there or where I would stop. Now I welcome that uncertainty.

Shipping the Sharma family photos

That leads me to: what's next? The next step is: find the next customer. How? I don't know yet. I live, literally, in a museum, so I'm going to go knock on their door.

Tangentially, this morning I read the following in an interview of Arthur van Hoff in Founders at Work:

Over the years, I've learned that the first idea you have is irrelevant. It's just a catalyst for you to get started. Then you figure out what's wrong with it and you go through phases of denial, panic, regret. And then you finally have a better idea and the second idea is always the important one.

I welcome that. I have no clue where this leads. It's just a beginning, but now it's business. Bring on the evolution of ideas.


1 That's Dog Latin for "digital archive."