6 + 1 x 0 + 2 / 2 = ?

It’s 7. It’s not 1, or 0, or 5, or 3.5, or any of the other answers people have imagined. This has been going round and round on Facebook, with over 300,000 responses last time I looked. Sadly, most of the answers are wrong.

There’s a thing called order of operations. Arithmetic isn’t a matter of opinion or voting. There’s a memory aid — Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally — to help one remember the right sequence: parentheses, exponents, multiplication and division, addition and subtraction.

Let’s apply that to 6 + 1 x 0 + 2 / 2:

  1. No parentheses. Move on.
  2. No exponents. Move on.
  3. Multiplication and division: 1 x 0 = 0 and 2 / 2 = 1. Now, our exotic puzzle becomes 6 + 0 + 1.
  4. Addition and subtraction: 6 + 0 + 1 = 7.

Smart and Stupid Calculators

My iPhone’s calculator app comes up with 7 because it uses the proper order of operations.

The calculator app on Windows 7 comes up with 7 because it also uses the proper order of operations.

My TI calculator from 20+ years ago gets 7. It, too, uses the proper order of operations. (Yep, I still have an old calculator, and it still works.)

However, I’ve seen cheap calculators that use the wrong order of operations. They act like everything is from left to right, no matter what. You enter 6 + 1, and they immediately show 7. Multiply by 0 and you get 0. Add 2 and you get 2. Divide by 2 and you get 1. I imagine this is why 1 is a popular answer, when people assume all arithmetic is strictly left to right, or they’ve been misled by a stupid calculator.

Counting Cookies

Here’s an illustration of why multiplication and division come before addition and subtraction.

Let’s say I’m counting my cookie intake over the last month. On 5 occasions, say I had 3 chocolate chip cookies: 5 times, 3 cookies, or 5 x 3. On 3 occasions, I had 2 oatmeal raisin cookies: 3 times, 2 cookies, or 3 x 2.

5 x 3 + 3 x 2 = ?

Do you think I had 21 cookies, or 36 (or some other number)? The correct answer, certainly, is that I had 21 cookies: 5 x 3 = 15 chocolate chip cookies, plus 3 x 2 = 6  oatmeal raisin cookies, for a total of 21 cookies.

If you do the arithmetic in the wrong order, like strictly left to right, you’d think I had 36 cookies. 5 times, 3 cookies = 15 so far. 15 cookies + the 3 times I had oatmeal raisin = 18 cookies so far. (Makes no sense now, right?) 18 cookies, times 2 for the two times I had oatmeal raisin = 36. Wrong!

If you think 5 x 3 + 3 x 2 = 36, try laying out pennies. Take 5 sets of 3, and then 3 sets of 2, and then count how many pennies you’ve laid out. You’ll get 21, not 36.

Or say the problem in a different order, oatmeal raisin before chocolate chip. 3 times, I had 2 oatmeal raisin cookies. 5 times, I had 3 chocolate chip cookies.

3 x 2 + 5 x 3 = ?

If you follow the proper order of operations, you’ll find that I had 21 cookies, same as before. If you pretend arithmetic always runs left to right, you get a different answer this time: 3 x 2 = 6, 6 + 5 = 11, 11 x 3 = 33.

If strict left-to-right arithmetic was correct, then I had either 36 or 33 cookies, depending on which cookies you count first. Does that convince you?

Vending Machines Help Make the Point

You go to a vending machine. The item you want costs 75 cents. You put in 2 quarters, 2 dimes, and a nickel. Does that add up to 75 cents? Only if you follow the correct order of operations.

2 x 25 + 2 x 10 + 1 x 5 = ?

The correct order of operations has us do the multiplications before the additions: 2 x 25 = 50, and 2 x 10 = 20, and 1 x 5 = 5. Then we add up 50 + 20 + 5 and get 75.

If you think arithmetic is only left to right, you’d get 2 x 25 = 50, plus 2 = 52, times 10 = 520, plus 1 = 521, times 5 = 2,605.

Which is it? Do you think 2 quarters, 2 dimes, and a nickel add up to 75 cents, or $26.05?

Now switch the order. If you take those same coins, but you put in the 2 dimes, the nickel, and then the 2 quarters, is it still 75 cents?

2 x 10 + 1 x 5 + 2 x 25 = ?

Of course it’s still 75 cents. The correct order of operations says so: 2 x 10 = 20, and 1 x 5 = 5, and 2 x 25 = 50. Then 20 + 5 + 50 = 75 cents.

If you use left-to-right order instead of the correct order: 2 x 10 = 20, plus 1 = 21, times 5 = 105, plus 2 = 107, times 25 = 2,675. You’d think you had put $26.75 into the machine this time, instead of $26.05 when you started with the quarters.

If you believe your two quarters, two dimes, and one nickel add up to 75 cents in any order, you just made a case for using the correct order of operations.

And that’s my $0.02.



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Why I Don’t Have 1.6 Novemdecillion Ancestors

I was going to call this “Fun with Genealogy, Math, and Data” but then I’d have even fewer readers. (Darn, I said it! There go the readers!)

Lots of Boxes in the Family Tree

The odd thing about family trees is that the number of people gets larger as you go back through the generations, but the population of the world is smaller as you go back through the generations. If my family tree had no repetition, meaning that every spot in the tree held a different person, I’d have 1.6 novemdecillion ancestors by the time you go back to about 4000 BCE. That’s 16 followed by 59 zeros, which is vastly, hugely, astronomically more than the world population 6000 years ago of around 7 million people. It’s vastly more than the estimated number of stars in the universe.

The explanation, of course, is that a family tree must have tons of repetition when you go that far back. Somewhere back in ancient Europe, where DNA testing places my heritage, there are couples who must show up trillions of trillions of times in my family tree.

The Crossover Point

The next question is: Where’s the crossing point between the size of my family tree and the population of the world? At which generation in the family tree does the size of that generation exceed the world population? It turns out to fall somewhere around the year 1100. I’m estimating 30 years per generation. Look back 28 generations before my year of birth and we hit the year 1118. That 28th generation of the family tree has more than a quarter of a million people in it. The world population back then was a little more than that, somewhere around 320 million. Look back 29 generations to about 1088, and we’ve got over half a billion people in the family tree, but the world population was smaller than that. That’s the crossover, then. Somewhere around the turn of the 12th century, my family tree is larger than the population of the world. There are more spots to fill than people to fill them.

What does that mean? Although anyone could have repetition in the family tree more recently than that, it’s guaranteed to happen by the time you reach back to the Middle Ages. It also means that if your ancestors and a friend’s ancestors were from the same general region back then, there’s a very real possibility that you’re very distant cousins. If two people today have an ancestor in common from 29 generations ago, they’re 28th cousins.

That crossover point is where your family tree must have repetitions. Most likely, you’ve got repetitions that are much more recent, because you’re not descended from everyone who was alive back then. Some of those people didn’t have kids, or didn’t have family lines that survived until the present day, and some simply aren’t your ancestors.

Repetition in Our Family Trees

Both my wife and I have known repetitions in our family trees. Phillip Harmon (1803-1853) and Nancy Jackson (1801-1885) are my 4th great-grandparents in two different places. Their daughter’s son married their son’s daughter – cousin married cousin – back in southern Indiana. In my wife’s family tree, Pierre Georges Riffaud (1834-1890) and Marie Elisabeth Zélie (1833-1893) are her great-great-grandparents twice over (life on a small island, Martinique). Two of their descendants got married and became my wife’s ancestors.

We also found potential common ancestors in medieval Europe (because European nobility and royalty kept careful track of their lineage). Our evidence isn’t rock solid every step of the way, but it’s mostly pretty good, so we might well be distant cousins through some medieval ancestor. The math above makes this a rather unsurprising result. Just about all of European royalty was descended from Charlemagne, and there’s a decent chance that if you have European heritage, you’re descended from some European royal too, and therefore also from Charlemagne. If you have French heritage in particular, you’re probably descended from Charlemagne. Roughly 30% of today’s African-Americans also have European ancestry, so if you’re descended from slaves in the US, you too could be one of Charlemagne’s descendants.

If you are indeed descended from Charlemagne, you’ve got lots of repetition in your family tree. If he’s there at all, he’s probably there in multiple places.

30 Years per Generation?

Earlier, I estimated 30 years per generation. That’s a common genealogical estimate, but can we test it? Sure, with more math and more data! Yay! The average generation interval between an ancestor and a descendant is: (descendant’s birth year – ancestor’s birth year) / (number of generations between them). My 3rd great-grandfather Mathias Becker was born in 1814. I was born in 1958. That’s (1958 – 1814)/5 = 28.8 years. That’s one line. When I average out the 4 generations behind our kids, I get 30.4 years. Our family trees have complete birth info on everyone for those 4 generations. Our info gets more sparse as you go back. When I average what we have for 5 generations, I get 30.6 years. When I throw in the 6th generation, where the birth dates fall in the late 18th century, I get an average of 29.8 years. Those averages are all in the neighborhood of 30 years, so the estimate seems like a decent one, at least for the last few centuries of European heritage.

To go back farther in time, I looked at the oldest line I could trace with any kind of data, to Pepin of Landen, Charlemagne’s 3rd great-grandfather. (Once your family tree ties into European royalty, the family tree grows a lot.) For the sake of the exercise, let’s accept the path leading to dear old Pepin without pointing out where the weak links are, and see what this does to the average generation interval. He was born in about the year 580. In the family tree data we’ve accumulated, he shows up 24 times as an ancestor of my kids: 4 times as their 41st great-grandfather, 15 times as 42nd, and 5 times as 43rd. He’s 43-45 generations behind my kids. Five of those 24 ancestral spots are on my wife’s side, 19 on mine. He’s probably there in a lot more places that we don’t know about.

For my youngest, the average generation interval between her and Pepin of Landen is 31.4, 32.1, or 32.8 years, depending on the path you take. A rule of thumb of 30 years per generation still seems about right, all the way back to the early Middle Ages.

Genealogy. Math. Data.

Genealogy. Math. Data. This is how I have fun.

Thank you both for listening.


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“Apply the Genealogical Proof Standard to Internet Quotes” — Albert Einstein

A lot of quotes get attributed to Albert Einstein. It seems he didn’t say any of the following:

  • “If a man is kissing a pretty girl while driving safely, he is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.”
  • “If the bee disappeared off the face of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left.”
  • “Evil is the absence of God.”
  • “Computers are incredibly fast, accurate and stupid; humans are incredibly slow, inaccurate and brilliant; together they are powerful beyond imagination.”
  • “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
  • “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
  • “I wish I was as smart as Jim.”

These quotes get passed around a lot, but “Frequent repetition doesn’t prove anything.” — Abraham Lincoln (who also posts a lot on Facebook)

“No, Lincoln didn’t say that. I did.” — Benjamin Franklin

Enter the Genealogical Proof Standard(GPS) as a way to weigh evidence. I do lots of genealogical digging, and I find that lots of family tree info posted on the Internet is either unsourced or it’s clearly rubbish (a child born before his grandparents???). The difference between the good info and the bad info is whether the person posting it followed the GPS. Quoting from the official GPS description: “The GPS consists of five elements:

  • a reasonably exhaustive search;
  • complete and accurate source citations;
  • analysis and correlation of the collected information;
  • resolution of any conflicting evidence; and
  • a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.”

In short, the GPS means you build up enough evidence to say that this is probably true, and the alternatives probably aren’t. It’s not proof beyond all reasonable doubt, but it’s stronger than saying something is merely plausible or that you hope it’s true or you think it’s true.

The problem with the quotes that keeping getting attributed to Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, and others is that they miss on all counts, just like the lesser genealogical contributions posted online.

Take the insanity quote. I’ve been unable to find any verifiable source for the quote. I haven’t found any original sources. I haven’t found anyone who said, “It’s in this book/paper he wrote, which you can look up; see page x.” Nobody has said, “He said it during an interview held on mm/dd/yy, and a transcript/recording is available.” Nobody has said, “It’s in this letter he wrote, which has been verified, and here’s where you can find the letter.” Whether or not my search for a source counts as reasonably exhaustive, I haven’t uncovered a single source that someone could look up. So far, assigning the insanity quote to Einstein falls short of the mark for the first three of the GPS guidelines.

How about conflicting evidence? Sometimes, the insanity quote gets attributed to Ben Franklin, and sometimes to more recent figures. Take a look at the discussion on the Benjamin Franklin Wikiquote page. For the insanity quote, conflicting evidence about who said it is at best unresolved, and maybe even tilted away from Einstein. This falls short of the mark for the fourth GPS guideline.

Without hitting the first four guidelines, I can’t offer up the fifth: a “soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion” that claims Einstein is the source of that definition of insanity.

An additional element of genealogical research that’s useful outside of genealogy is evaluating the quality of a source. The merest rumor or vague recollection can be a source, but they’re not very good ones. A low-quality sources gives you something to check out if it seems plausible, but it’s not strong evidence.

The best genealogical sources were created at the time by someone who was present and well-informed, like a marriage record created at the time. The worst genealogical sources were created long after, by someone who wasn’t there, who got the information from someone else who wasn’t there; the focus is often more on what sounds cool than on what’s accurate. Lots of the Einstein quotes getting passed around online are like the worst genealogical sources.

Why do I care? “Does it matter who said what, if it’s a good quote?” — Dalai Lama

I don’t want to add to the flood of misinformation on the Internet. I don’t like passing around rumor as truth. The ability to draw a sound conclusion is terribly important in the world today, so I’m disappointed when I see a disregard for accuracy, even on something as mundane as a good one-liner. Or look at it this way: if you were playing a trivia game, it’s the difference between right and wrong … unless the trivia game itself did a sloppy job of verifying its answers.

I’ll end on a legitimate quote from Einstein:

Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” — Albert Einstein


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Be Nice to Your Executors

Serving as the executor of my parents’ estates has brought to mind things I wish my parents had done and things I’m glad they did.

My Estate Tips

Here are my tips from this experience:

  • Make a will! You should have a will if you have kids, property, or a life partner of any sort, or if you want to control who gets what, or if you can fend off potential squabbles among your heirs. Find at least two people who’ll agree to be your executors: a primary and at least one backup. Sign your will in front of a notary and two witnesses who won’t inherit anything. Make a new will if you’ve had family status changes since the last one, or if your kids were minors in the last will but they’re not minors now.
  • Register your will with your county Register of Wills. It doesn’t cost much, and it becomes an official copy your executor can retrieve readily when you’re gone.
  • Gather your records so your executor can sift through them. Even a few clearly marked boxes like “Insurance Policies” or “Tax Returns” will be better than nothing, even if the boxes are a disorganized mess internally.
  • List your accounts (bank accounts, loans and mortgages, investment accounts, utilities, credit cards, phone, Internet, cable, etc.) so your executor can handle notifications, final payments, and so on.
  • List your insurance policies so your executor can file the appropriate claims.
  • List your main assets like property, vehicles, and valuables: not just what they are, but also where they are and how to retrieve them.
  • List anyone who should be notified of your demise. This could include healthcare providers, accountants, your kids’ schools, religious organizations, clubs, relatives, and friends. You could list newspapers where you want your death notice to appear.
  • List your social networking sites: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or any other site where your executor would need to announce your death or close down an account. More on this below.
  • Important: Protect the above lists. Don’t open yourself up to identity theft. There’ll be a lot of PII (Personally Identifiable Information), maybe some PHI (Protected Health Information), and certainly some TMI (Too Much Information, stuff that most people shouldn’t know about you). Don’t send sensitive info by email. (Note that your bank won’t email your account details to you, even with your permission.) Maybe you’ve got a fireproof, waterproof safe or lockbox at your house where you can store paper copies. Maybe your executor has one. Maybe you’re using a secure web-based storage site where you can keep these things (more info below). Check with your bank to see if you can let your executor get to your safe deposit box. You might be tempted to store your lists on the electronic storage media du jour, like CDs or USB flash drives, but you may well outlive the currently popular storage media.
  • Important: Tell your executors where to find the above stuff. Your executor will need to know where to get all this info.

Because I’m also an IT kind of guy who’s also steeped in information security matters, I offer some technological tips below.

Social Dying: the Social Networking Sites of a Deceased Person

In general, contact the site’s customer service to find out what your options are. Typically, you’d need to provide evidence of death (copy of a death certificate or a newspaper death notice) and evidence of your right to speak for the deceased person (letter of adminstration identifying you as the executor). Some sites will just close down the account, some will grant you access, and some – like Facebook – will let you create a memorial page.

Facebook lets you report a deceased person’s Facebook profile, which you can remove or turn into a memorial page. You won’t get the person’s Facebook password.

Google can give you access to a deceased person’s Gmail account. Google makes no promises, though, so there may be situations in which they won’t grant you access. Talk to Google’s customer service people if you also want to get access to the person’s other Google services (Google Docs and so on).

Twitter lets you deactivate a deceased person’s Twitter account. You won’t get the password though, so you won’t be able to create a memorial Twitter page along the lines of Facebook’s memorial page.

Similarly, LinkedIn lets you deactivate a deceased person’s LinkedIn profile. The profile will be removed, not turned into a memorial.

Yahoo‘s terms of service says “Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate, your account may be terminated and all contents therein permanently deleted.”

Storing Your Important Details Online (Or Not)

A secure, Internet-based location for your valuable information is certainly tempting. You can get to it from anywhere you have web access, and you can tell your executor how to get to it if you pass away. However, consider two things. First, who’ll live longer, you or the online service? If you expect to be around for another 30 years, for example, will the online service be around that long? (Go ask deathclock.com how long you might live.) Note that if the company goes into Chapter 7 bankruptcy, it immediately ceases operations, without advance notice to you, and all its assets are turned over to a court-appointed trustee for auction. Second, the companies providing these services aren’t banks. While it’s in their best interests to protect your data, a number of these online services are new or small companies that might not have lots of resources to put into data security. They offer up a secure web site, which is a good thing, but they might not have the staff time or the facilities for the best prevention, detection, and remediation of security breaches. “Encryption better than a bank’s” is a somewhat misleading advertising claim.

But if you take this path, you can go with an “online undertaker” service, or you can set up a more general cloud-based storage system.

Three “online undertaker” services appear to own the market: Legacy Locker, Asset Lock, and DeathSwitch. These services let you store the kind of info I listed above, including lists of online accounts and passwords. When the “inheritance” is triggered, the beneficiaries get access to what you stored for them. As I mentioned earlier, notifying an online service can result in the account being closed down and the contents deleted. These online undertaker services, however, simply let your beneficiaries use your accounts as they are now.

Legacy Locker  has free and paid services. You can identify beneficiaries for each “asset” you store. Your executor follows the notification process, and then your beneficiaries receive what you stored for them.

Asset Lock lets you store the same kinds of info. Notification is different, because a number of “Recipients” (you choose the number) must log in and confirm that you’ve died. That method doesn’t sit so well with me, because nobody is presenting direct evidence of your death, and it works only if the requisite number of recipients are savvy enough and responsible enough to carry out the task.

Deathswitch takes yet another approach. You store the same sorts of info, and you tell it how often to check on you (daily, yearly, whatever). It checks on you by sending you email asking you to verify you’re still there. If you don’t respond, it sends out the notices you established previously. What if you stop using that email address? What if it gets spam filtered? What if you go away for a while (vacation, sabbatical, coma) and miss out on the messages? You’ll get a notice too, but it seems it’s up to you to notice the notice, and log in to Deathswitch to say you’re not actually dead. The problem is that if you weren’t seeing the check-in messages in the first place, you probably won’t see the notice that announces your death.

By the way, there’s another such service called Slightly Morbid, but I get certificate errors when I visit the site. Bzzzt! Next contestant!

Plain old document storage sites like Dropbox and Google Docs let you store files, but there’s no mechanism for sending files to your beneficiaries. Instead, you might provide your executor with your login information so your executor can find whatever lists and instructions you’ve stored there.

In Summary: Make a Will

But really, my main piece of advice here is to make a will, and register it so there’s an official copy in a known place.


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Employers Asking for Facebook Passwords

In Protecting Your Passwords and Your Privacy (March 23, 2012), Facebook reports a rise in “employers asking prospective or actual employees to reveal their passwords.” Facebook’s good advice: Don’t do it, whether you’re an employee or an employer.

It’s a bad idea in so many ways, in addition to the obvious intrusion into your privacy:

  • You’d violate the terms of your Facebook account. Facebook’s Statements of Rights and Responsibilities says “You will not share your password” and you will not “let anyone else access your account.” I question the overall ethics of an organization that asks you to violate agreements.
  • It violates the privacy of your friends, too. Friends who thought they were sharing just with you or a limited group would be in for a surprise. And then what if your friend turns out to be someone the employer knows?
  • Virtually every set of privacy/security guidelines available tells you not to share your password. Keeping your passwords to yourself is a widely recognized best practice.
  • Using someone else’s password is identity theft. You’re not just getting access to their info. You are that person, for online purposes. Anything you do with their account will look like that person did it. What if you (as the employer) accidentally delete something on someone’s Facebook account? or post something when you forgot to log out of someone else’s identity?
  • It’s like asking illegal interview questions. As an example, take a look at Steer clear of these 10 illegal job interview questions. Every one of the 10 questions listed there – like family status and plans, religion, and age – is the kind of thing you could find out if you logged in on someone else’s Facebook account.
  • You can become a suspect. Twenty or so years ago, before Facebook of course, we had a team that used a shared ID and password instead of individual IDs. At first, they resisted the idea of moving to individual IDs. (Even that long ago, sharing passwords was recognized as a bad practice, so we stamped it out where we found it.) They didn’t want to hear about best practices or other noble purposes that interfered with their perceived convenience. What finally won them over? “What if something goes wrong, and we find out that account did it? If you use that account, you become a suspect.” That got their attention. They couldn’t get individual accounts fast enough. Bring that forward to Facebook. If an employer has access to the Facebook ID of someone who’s up to no good, the employer becomes a suspect. A malicious Facebook user only has to say, “It wasn’t me, but Company X uses my account too; they did it.”

For my part, I’ve never encountered an employer who dared to ask employees and candidates for their passwords to Facebook or anything else. I’m alarmed that Facebook is reporting an increase.

I don’t have particular heartburn over an employer seeing what you’ve posted publicly. You did, after all, make it public on the Internet, so there’s no expectation of privacy there. An employer who wants to see what you didn’t make public, and who wants not only to see it, but also to use your online identity, is an altogether different matter.


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When you’ve got bad news to deliver

Seven Rules to Remember When a Crisis Strikes offers good guidance for organizations in the news, but the guidance also jibes[1] with my own experiences in IT and on the board of directors of a member organization. When you’ve got bad or controversial news to share with your public, be up front about it, now, and address the situation from your audience’s perspective. In the long run, your target audience will think more highly of you if you’re frank, timely, and realistic about bad news. Even if your news won’t trouble most of your audience, you can still lose their confidence if they think you botched your communications to the angry few.

The “Seven Rules” would have been useful in some recent PR fiascos, like the continuing sagas of Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Rush Limbaugh’s comments on Sandra Fluke. Komen and Limbaugh have both lost a lot of support because they didn’t respond to the controversy in a good and timely manner.

In IT and in member organizations, my news has never been on that scale, with nationwide or broader coverage in news media and social media. But even when your public is smaller, sometimes the news will stir their passions and suspicions. You need to tell people what’s going on, as frankly as you can, with an understanding of how this affects them. Got a service outage? Just say so, even if you don’t know the whole story yet. Something sooner is better than everything later.

Did you just make a controversial decision? Say so, and say why, and show that you understand what it means to people. Start the conversation. Don’t wait until the angry mob is at your door with torches and pitchforks.

You aren’t sure it’s time to announce? If you’re wondering, it’s time. If in doubt, send it out.

If the news is something you saw coming because you created it, shame on you if you didn’t plan ahead for the likely PR backlash. I get the impression that Komen disregarded all seven rules when they announced their Planned Parenthood funding decision.

If the news smacked you unexpectedly, like the 2010 BP oil spill, shame on you if you didn’t have a boilerplate communications plan in hand for unscheduled challenges.

The Seven Rules to Remember When a Crisis Strikes are really just good common sense, but only if you take the long view. A natural reaction is to take the short view and try to avoid the initial unpleasantness, but that approach doesn’t pay off in the long run. In the long run, your audience will trust you more if you’re up front with them when you need to be.


[1] Footnote for usage fans: The word in this case is “jibes,” not “jives.” I often hear people use “jive” when “jibe” would have been the correct word.

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Visitors, Not Locusts

What’s the opposite of “a plague of locusts”? How about “an enjoyment of visitors”?

We returned, not long ago, from our second Caribbean cruise. As before, we deliberately chose a small cruise ship with a mere 300 passengers, instead of a large cruise ship with thousands of passengers. Also as before, we loved it, and much of our enjoyment came from being on a smaller cruise ship.

If the ship is small enough, you get to visit places the big cruise ships bypass. You feel more like a visitor than a plague of locusts. We had avoided cruises for years because we heard mostly about the big mega-ships with four digits’ worth of passengers, fixed dining times, Vegas-style shows on board, and massive crowds descending on big tourist destinations. None of those features held any attraction for us.

On our first cruise, the difference was illustrated clearly for me when the ship stopped at Saint Martin. We arrived in Marigot, the capital on the French side of the island – too small for big cruise ships. Our 300-passenger ship was the big ship in port. We had a pleasant visit walking around the town and stopping for a nice lunch of local food. There were no crowds and no rush. We felt like visitors getting a taste of the local culture.

Then we took a bus over to Philipsburg, on the Dutch side (Sint Maarten). Looking out into the harbor, we saw several big cruise ships lined up. We guessed there were 5 to 10 thousand tourists swarming the place. Philipsburg was picturesque and welcoming, but the tourist area was crowded, crowded, crowded. That made it less enjoyable for us. It was somewhat like a trip to Epcot Center – a busy tourist-ized emulation instead of the real thing. (We’ve enjoyed Epcot Center in its own way in the past, but it’s still an emulation, not a substitute for experiencing another country or another culture.)

Saint Martin was the starting point on our recent cruise. We flew in a day early and stayed in Marigot. Again, we had a perfectly delightful visit. We got to look around the town, check out the market, relax when and where we felt like it, and eat some good food. We had our pick of where we wanted to go, because we weren’t swept up in a locust swarm. We got to talk to locals.

Interesting side note: In Sint Maarten, I didn’t spot a single word of Dutch anywhere, except where a Dutch surname showed up in some company’s name. All the signs were in English: stores, restaurants, civic buildings, road signs, everything. The Sint Maarten constitution says Dutch and English are the official languages; nevertheless, I didn’t see or hear a word of Dutch anywhere.

The difference between big ships and small was illustrated for us again when the ship landed in Le Marin, Martinique. According to the excursion manager on board, there were about 10,000 cruise passengers descending on Fort-de-France, several miles away. In Le Marin, we were visitors, and ours was the big ship in port. We had the chance to interact with the local population. We got to visit places that the local population would visit. It seemed like the most frequently asked question from the Martinicans was an eager “Are you Americans from the boat?”

At just about every cruise stop, the tourist crowds were small enough to let us enjoy the local sights and culture at a satisfactory pace. And our “hotel” (the ship) was nearby. That’s what we wanted out of a cruise.


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10 Ways to Persuade Me Not to Take Your Cold Call

My job, IT Director, is a cold call magnet. Generally 9 voice mail messages out of 10 are cold calls from someone I’ve never done business with, who’d like “just a few minutes of your time” to tell me about their wonderful products and services and to quiz me about our upcoming initiatives. My phone rings many times a day, but I don’t answer it if I don’t recognize the number. When I review my voice mail, I delete a message as soon as I recognize it’s a cold call. You’ve already taken a few minutes of my time by making me wade through voice mail that’s 90% useless to me.

I did a Google search for inspiration on a voice mail greeting that would discourage cold callers without discouraging the welcome callers. My concern is that any greeting that says that some messages are unwelcome would discourage those I really want to hear from.

I didn’t have any luck with the intended search results, not that I expected any, but I ran across a site that offered 10 Ways to Persuade Someone to Take Your Cold Call. I read through it and mostly shuddered. This is what they’re telling cold callers to try? Yeesh. Let’s review…

“Name dropping.” Um, no – not unless it’s a real referral. It’s not a real referral if you cold-call Jane Doe, and she gives you my name. Pretending she has endorsed your call just about guarantees I won’t want to do business with you. It’s a real referral if Jane Doe tells me she recommends you.

“Offer information of value.” Nice idea, but I’ve never once heard a cold caller offer me information of value. You have no experience with me, so you wouldn’t know what would be of value to me anyway. Telling me you’re running a special or that you’ll be in the area isn’t of value.

“Phone ahead.” Darn tootin’, you’re wasting your time if you show up unannounced, but cold calling ahead of time isn’t going to get you a meeting either.

“Make them smile.” No, don’t. It’s a cold call, so by definition, you don’t know me. You don’t know what I’d find amusing. The moment I realize your attempt at humor was just a ploy to trick me into listening to a cold call, I won’t want to do business with you.

“Ask for information.” No, sorry, I’m not going to do your homework for you, and I’m not going to start sharing details about our IT environment with a total stranger. Ever hear of social engineering attacks?

“No selling today.” Fine. I agree. You’re not selling me anything today.

“Know your client.” Good advice. Many cold callers fail to do this. This is one of the two listed suggestions that don’t make me shudder. If you know nothing about us, I’ll have no patience for you. If you’re a well-informed cold caller, just maybe I’ll think you weren’t so bad. I can think of only one time in the past year or so when a well-informed cold caller had me thinking he was worth keeping in mind. We’re still not his customer, but if I’m in a market for his product, I’ll be willing to contact him.

“Peak their interest.” Okay, the word you want is pique (as in “Brightly colored objects pique a baby’s interest”). You could say, however, that my interest in your company did in fact peak in the first second or two, and then it was downhill from there. Anyway, how would you know what’s of interest to me, if you’ve never met me? In any case, an attempt to pique my interest with “Did you know” material could wind up looking like another ploy, which means you’ve annoyed me and wasted my time. I won’t want to do business with you.

“I’ll be back.” Oh great, threaten to keep calling until I return your call. Make it a contest of wills. That’ll win my business every time. There was one time this method got me to return a call, because the cold caller was leaving voice mail once or twice a day every day for a few weeks, letting me know he’d call again later. I was getting so annoyed I finally called him back. Do you think I called him back because I wanted to be his customer?

“Email introduction.” Now you’re talking. If you’ve got a good business relationship with someone whose recommendation I trust, and that person recommends you, I’m willing to consider you – when we need your products and services. However, if Jane Doe forwards an email saying “Got this out of the blue, passing it along in case you’re interested,” I don’t consider that an actual introduction.

Cold callers apparently use a mosquito larvae strategy: Crank ’em out by the zillions, and if a few survive to adulthood, that’s success. I understand that, but it means I have a pest control problem.

My advice to cold callers: Don’t call me. Do your homework about what kind of organization we are. Send me an email that gets to the point of what you’re offering that’s relevant, and tell me where I can get more info. If I need your stuff, I’ll consider you. Done.

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Liberal, Lefty Hollywood or Stodgy, Conservative Hollywood?

“Hollywood” often has a liberal, left-leaning reputation.

But an interesting take on this is the Bechdel Test. It looks in particular at the female presence in a movie. It involves three simple requirements. The movie must have 1) at least two women, 2) who talk to each other at least once, 3) about something other than a man or men. Some versions of the test go a little further and ask that it’s two women with names, or two major female cast members. Notice that the test doesn’t say anything about whether the movie is any good, or what the women talk about outside of men, or how the movie portrays women. It’s only an indicator of the female presence in a movie. A badly done, boring movie that portrays women very negatively could still pass the test. A timeless classic with a great female character could still fail. All the test asks is whether the movie has enough female presence to let two women talk to each other about something other than men, at least once. It seems like a pretty low hurdle to jump, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t lots of movies pass?

Well, it turns out that lots of Hollywood movies fail the test – not just war movies, but also movies like Bambi, Shrek, Ghostbusters, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Princess Bride, The Lord of the Rings (all three movies) and Toy Story.

How many movies should pass or fail the test? The answer is in the comparison. Flip the genders, and look at whether a movie includes 1) two men, 2) who talk to each other at least once, 3) about something other than a woman or women. If movies pass at about the same rate for both genders, the movie industry would seem evenhanded. If not, movies are overrepresenting one gender and underrepresenting the other.

Guess what. A lot more movies pass the “two men” test than the “two women” test. Try it yourself. Pick ten movies you’ve seen, or the next ten movies you watch, or pick from one of the AFI top American movie lists. Ask yourself which ones pass the male version of the two-character test and which ones pass the female version.

You’ll probably find a lot more male presence than female presence.

How about basing the test on race or some other ethnic group? You might consider a test like 1) two characters of a given race, 2) who talk to each other at least once, 3) about something other than a member of another race or race relations in general. Few movies pass … unless you’re talking about whites.

What would be fair for black representation vs. white representation? According to the 2010 US Census, the US is 72.4% white (“white alone”) and about 12.6% black (“black or African-American alone”). That’s about a 5.7 to 1 difference. In other words, if movies that pass a “two whites” test outnumber movies that pass a “two blacks” test by about 5 or 6 to 1, the movie biz represents blacks and whites fairly (in proportion to the overall population). If the results are very different from that, moviedom is lopsided.

Take the AFI Top 10 American Sports Movies, for example: Raging Bull, Rocky, The Pride of the Yankees, Hoosiers, Bull Durham, The Hustler, Caddyshack, Breaking Away, National Velvet, and Jerry Maguire. It seems to me that all ten pass a two whites test. Therefore, a result of two for the two blacks test would be the evenhanded result. As near as I can tell, 0 out of 10 pass. Lopsided.

What it comes down to is that mainstream movies are largely about white men, plus some others who interact with white men. Liberal, left-leaning Hollywood can still be very stodgy and old-school. Some would claim that movies just reflect what the public wants to see, but to me that’s like the excuse that “all the other kids were doing it,” as if that gets you off the hook for being unfair to someone.

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Invisible afflictions

A Facebook status that sometimes makes the rounds tries to make people aware of invisible afflictions.

Here’s my invisible challenge: My hearing is mostly gone in my right ear, as of a couple of years ago. My right ear also has a constant, maddening 24×7 hum.

Most of the time, my hearing friends and colleagues wouldn’t notice the difference. My left ear hears just fine (“for someone your age,” as one specialist put it). As long as my left ear can hear you, all is well.


If you’re speaking quietly on my right side, I probably won’t hear you.

If you’re speaking normally on my right side, but there’s noise to my left, I might not hear you. You might not even notice the other noise, tuning it out automatically. For me, even a smallish noise to the left can start canceling out what you’re saying on my right. Have you ever been on a conference call, calling into a room where people were gathered around a speakerphone? It’s like that. If someone shuffles papers near the speakerphone, people in the room barely notice, but you have trouble hearing whoever’s talking because those little noises drown out the rest.

One weird effect of unilateral hearing loss is that all sounds come from one direction – my left side, the hearing side. In other words, I don’t know which way a sound is coming from, unless there’s some visual hint. In the car, when I hear a siren or a horn, I have to look all around because I don’t know where it is. If I hear someone say my name, I have to look all around if I don’t already know where you are.

If a cell phone or wireless handset rings and I don’t know where it is, I can’t follow the sound. I can experimentally move in a random direction to see if the next ring seems closer or farther, but that takes longer than instantly knowing which way to look.

Stereo and surround sound don’t do me any good.

Noisy rooms are very challenging. With all sounds coming from one direction, a noisy room becomes a large, undifferentiated cacophony of sound. I have a terrible time trying to focus on any one person talking, and I might have to lean my left ear closer to the speaker’s face. I become desperate to get to a quiet space.

Here’s another weird thing. If you talk to me when I can’t see you, I might not realize you’re talking to me. Apparently, normal bilateral hearing helps one come to that realization quickly. Without it, I keep failing to realize that someone is talking to me. I hear the sounds of someone talking, but it doesn’t sink in that it’s aimed at me. While that could happen to anyone with normal hearing, I find it happens to me a lot more often since my hearing loss. It takes longer for me to realize that the words are intended for me; in effect, I’m ignoring you, but it’s unintentional. People wind up looking at me funny, wondering why I didn’t respond sooner or why I don’t know what they were saying. Even though I try to be alert to this because I know it can happen, it keeps on happening. It’s a weird and frustrating effect. So here’s a tip: If I can’t see you, say my name to get my attention, or I might not realize you’re talking to me.

Sounds are sometimes harder for me to identify. For those of you with normal hearing, you know which way a sound came from; you look that way and see a likely candidate for making that sound, so you quickly figure out “That book fell over” or whatever. In my case, I don’t know which way to look, so there may be a lot more candidates that could have made the sound, which makes it harder to figure out which one it was.

Anyway, there’s one silver lining. If there’s noise while I’m trying to sleep, like heavy wind and rain, I sleep on my left side. My good ear is mashed into the pillow, and my right ear is pre-muffled. Personally, I’d rather just have normal hearing, but I’ll take the silver linings where I can.

I have no idea if this is going to get better or worse. The good news is that the doctors “ruled out some very bad stuff,” but the bad news is that we’ll just have to see how it goes over time.


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