Why liberal arts education matters: the story of a Drucker (mis-)quote

When I did the Pando Monthly interview last week, I was asked to talk about the one thing I believe that almost no one else believes. I said that a liberal arts education is as important, or even more important, than a math and science education (here’s the clip).

Some people thought that I was taking a shot at math and science, but not at all. I just think that being successful in a modern society requires a broader understanding of humanity and people, and the liberal arts and humanities are important ingredients (Before the interview, Sarah Lacy and I talked about how you could learn everything you need to know about personal relationships in failing startups by reading Shakespeare’s King Lear). There wasn’t much time left in the interview, and my job was to give a pithy answer, but a number of people have asked me later why a liberal arts education matters to a CEO. I had an experience this week that illustrates why in a small but important way.

I spend a lot of time thinking about company culture, and talking with other people about the topic. Culture is critical. In his book Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner wrote: “culture isn’t just one aspect of the game — it is the game.” As you probably know, Gerstner is credited with one of the great company turnarounds with IBM in the 1990s. One question I hear and think about often is: how do you change aspects of your culture if you’re not satisified with them? As I thought about the topic, I was reminded of a quote I’ve seen attributed to Peter Drucker:

Company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try, instead, to work with what you’ve got.

If you search Google for the quote, you get 128,000 results. It’s a great quote. The implications of the quote are absolutely profound for anyone leading a company or a team. Does he mean you should simply accept the culture wholesale? Was Drucker suggesting that culture change was a hopeless endeavor, or was there some other context to the quote? How did he define “culture” anyway? I wanted to read the primary source material that surrounded it to understand why Drucker said it. I’ll admit I was surprised to have never come across this quote in all the Drucker I’ve read over the past few years. I set out to find the original source material.

What I learned is that it doesn’t appear Drucker ever actually wrote or said those words. I started my research by asking my Fancy Hands assistant to find the primary source for the quote. (Fancy Hands could be the most useful service EVER on the Internet, but I’ll save that for another post.) The assistant came back with this article, which attributed the quote to The Daily Drucker, a compendium of Drucker readings for each day of the year. In the article, the author writes about how he gave his nephew a copy of The Daily Drucker, and asked him later to list some of his favorite quotes, which included the culture quote. I have a Kindle copy of The Daily Drucker, and it turns out that the quote doesn’t actually appear in the book. (This made me laugh. The nephew clearly conned his uncle by not reading the book and doing a little Googling for quotes while saving the rest of his time for other pursuits.)

That aside, even if the quote had been in The Daily Drucker, it wasn’t the primary source material, so I asked the assistant to dig deeper. Awash in 128,000 meaningless Google results, she picked up the phone (gasp!) and called The Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University. Very quickly, she was on email with Dr. Joseph A. Maciariello, Director of Research and Academic Director of the Drucker Institute. When asked about the quote, Dr. Maciariello pointed us to a piece Drucker wrote for the Wall St. Journal on March 28, 1991 with the title: “Don’t change corporate culture: use it,” on page A14. I won’t go into the hoops we had to go through to get a copy (it is surprisingly difficult for a regular person to buy articles from the WSJ archives). I read the article. Drucker writes about “cultural change” as the latest management fad and the need to change behaviors to achieve desired results. But he said that shouldn’t be confused with changing culture. Here’s the closest I could come to the quote in the actual written text:

What these [business] needs require are changes in behavior. But “changing culture” is not going to produce them. Culture — no matter how defined — is singularly persistent. Nearly 50 years ago, Japan and Germany suffered the worst defeats in recorded history, with their values, their institutions and their culture discredited. But today’s Japan and today’s Germany are unmistakably Japanese and German in culture, no matter how different this or that behavior. In fact, changing behavior works only if it can be based on the existing “culture.”

The sentiment of the quote is roughly the same as the one that has been incorrectly attributed to Drucker 128,000 times but the power of the actual writing and ideas is in the nuance. In particular, the examples of Japan and Germany are uniquely powerful. (The rest of the piece goes much deeper on this but unfortunately it is not linkable). As I read the text, I had a moment of much clearer understanding where Drucker’s point on culture resonated in a way that the misquote simply didn’t deliver. As Gerstner wrote, matters of company culture trump just about everything else when you’re running a company, so this insight is incredibly important to the work I do on a very practical level. It explains why “Code as Craft” resonates so strongly in Etsy’s engineering culture, even though there was near-total change in how the team operated over the course of a few years. The actual text provides thoughtful, inspiring, and tangible examples (post-war Germany and Japan), whereas the misquote is negative and even defeatist (“Never try to change one” and “work with what you’ve got.”)

It’s a little disturbing that so many people could misquote Drucker for so long without any of the quoters realizing it, and I’m sure this quote has been bandied about in board rooms to justify all kinds of plans. I’m certain I have engaged in the same practice with other quotes if only because it takes a lot of work to find the original context, as this experience demonstrates. Misquoting is particularly rampant on the Internet and I’m not the first to write about it by any means — see “Falser Words Were Never Spoken.” But each time we do it, we lose the opportunity to really understand what the person being quoted was really trying to say. We lose the deeper lessons of the text and only get the relative emptiness of a pithy headline that may have removed the insight of the original author. Taking a critical stance on that quote and having the tools to dive down into the primary source material took me from simply having a snappy out-of-context quote to a much deeper insight on a critically important subject.

When I got the first email from my Fancy Hands assistant pointing to the reference to The Daily Drucker, I wasn’t satisfied. I remembered how my professors emphasized the importance of correctly citing primary source material, and I became a pro at using the library and information sources in general. I learned how to look deeper into the text and ask the right questions to really get to the heart of an idea. I ended up with more questions, but much better and more informed ones. These are all skills I learned from my liberal arts education, and they are essential to the work I do every day. That’s the point I was trying to make.

Side note: Two blog posts in a few days? Having a kid has rearranged my schedule and my commitments so thoroughly that I’ve found a little time for writing. I hope to be writing more.

LBJ on the use of power

The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro’s five-part (though the fifth has yet to be written) biography of LBJ, is an incredible chronicle of a truly complex leader, one who clearly cheated all along the way to the presidency but also showed incredible leadership in passing landmark civil rights legislation.

This passage from Caro’s fourth volume (The Passage of Power) shows one of LBJ’s more noble and inspiring moments, just four days after he assumed the presidency after the JFK assassination in Dallas. It says a lot about what it means to truly lead when the road is treacherous.

. . . although the cliché says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said, but what is equally true, is that power always reveals. When a man is climbing, trying to persuade others to give him power, concealment is necessary: to hide traits that might make others reluctant to give him power, to hide also what he wants to do with that power; if men recognized the traits or realized the aims, they might refuse to give him what he wants. But as a man obtains more power, camouflage is less necessary. The curtain begins to rise. The revealing begins. When Lyndon Johnson had accumulated enough power to do something — a small something — for civil rights in the Senate, he had done it, inadequate though it may have been. Now, suddenly, he had a lot more power, and it didn’t take him long to reveal at least part of what he wanted to do with it. On the evening of November 26, the advisers gathered around the dining room table in his home to draft the speech he was to deliver the following day to a joint session of Congress were arguing about the amount of emphasis to be given to civil rights in that speech, his first major address as President. As Johnson sat silently listening, most of these advisers were warning that he must not emphasize the subject because it would antagonize the southerners who controlled Congress, and whose support he would need for the rest of his presidency — and because a civil rights bill had no chance of passage anyway. And then, in the early hours of the morning, as one of those advisers recalls, “one of the wise, practical people around the table” told him to his face that a President shouldn’t spend his time and power on lost causes, no matter how worthy those causes might be.

“Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” Lyndon Johnson replied.

The next day, Johnson went out and said to Congress, “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.” After a lot of wrangling, the Civil Rights Act was passed and enacted on July 2, 1964 — but it may never have happened or happened much later had LBJ listened to “one of the wise, practical people around the table.”

Source: Caro, Robert A. The Passage of Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson) (Kindle Locations 194-201).

Thanks, Dad

The past year has undoubtedly been one of the most deeply interesting years of my life. Being a first-time CEO and turning 40 (just on Friday) have been two major events in the past year, and throughout it all, I’ve been thinking a lot about my dad’s incredible influence on my life. As I was thinking about what to do for Father’s Day for my dad, I wanted to write down what I’m thankful for, because it’s something I think about a lot in my daily life but have never really written down. These are the things that you shouldn’t keep to yourself, so here are some reflections on my dad. I’m writing it publicly because I hope it encourages anyone reading this to show their appreciation for their fathers more often than I have.

Aside from being a father, my dad is a civil engineer and has been the county engineer for my home county (Pitt County, NC) for as long as I can remember. Before that, he ran his own engineering and land surveying business for many years, so he understands both business and government. He worked his way through engineering school at NC State and it took seven years because he kept running out of money, so he would work for a while and save money, then go back (if I remember correctly, he did everything from tobacco farming to being a short-order cook to selling cookware door-to-door). I wasn’t born yet when all of this was going on, but I know from my time with my dad that no one is more determined than he is, and no one will work harder than he does to achieve a goal. He’s not flashy about it and he literally never complains, but underneath that quiet demeanor is a bulldog who will blow through obstacles, over and over again. He’s a nice guy, but anyone who mistakes that for softness or lack of determination will be surprised, and in a big way.

In his work life (from what I can tell mostly from the outside), he approaches things with a lot of practicality, always seems to find win-win situations, and is incredibly solutions-oriented. That’s good and all, but the one thing that stands out from my childhood and even now when I visit home is just how much affection people have for my father. We can’t go anywhere without someone coming up to him with a big smile, always glad to see him and always with a story for me of something nice he has done for them. In his professional work, his work with the church, and in his day-to-day life, he is extremely generous and thoughtful. People love my dad in a way that is really remarkable and hard to describe in words, but if you know him, you totally understand why.

My dad is a doer, through and through. He gets things done and I think about the way he does it in everything I try to do. In a talk I gave in Sydney recently about courage, I made a reference to Teddy Roosevelt’s “In the Arena” speech. Here’s a key excerpt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

When you read this, it’s easy to think of TR’s speech in the context of grand political figures and epic battles, but when I read it I don’t think of it that way. I think about my dad and how it reinforces something that my dad consistently taught me in word and deed, something I think about every single day: when a hard job needs to get done, you’re always going to have people who criticize how you’re doing it, but the important thing is getting the job done. You should always be on the side of getting a job done, not just talking about how it should be done or passively criticizing the people doing the work. That just doesn’t help move things along (not to mention it’s just plain annoying.) Pick up the shovel and dig. If you’re a leader, show how to dig with the shovel in hand. Not only does this help get the job done, it builds loyalty, trust, and greater capabilities in people. I learned that from my dad. He always does what he says he’s going to do. It’s a high standard that I aspire to in my daily life.

My dad recently won a national award from NISH (an organization that helps create employment opportunities for people with significant disabilities) that shows so many key aspects of his personality that make him a great father and overall person. I found a press release in an MS Word document but decided to post it on my blog to make sure I never lost it. Here’s the gist:

“Phil Dickerson may be known locally for his engineering expertise and dedication to effective County Government, but few citizens are aware of the impact his soft spoken words and energetic deeds have had on the lives of people with significant disabilities,” said Bob Jones, ECVC President [ECVC is a a non-profit with a social mission “to help people with disabilities attain a higher quality of life through achievement of their vocational goals.”] “Repeatedly over the years, he has acted in the best interests of the county while also helping to create jobs for people with disabilities. He is deserving of this award because of the longevity and consistency of his advocacy for the employment of people with disabilities throughout Pitt County.”

Thanks to Dickerson’s involvement, ECVC’s custodial, recycling, and prevocational operations provide 51 full-time and 29 part-time jobs for people with disabilities. While ECVC has benefited directly via a county contract to process 48 million pounds of materials annually, the benefits of the ECVC and Pitt County partnership work both ways. ECVC’s recycling operation produced approximately $600,000 in cost savings last year for the county.

“Phil Dickerson is a remarkable advocate for both Pitt County government and people with disabilities who are striving for the independence and respect they earn from employment,” said Bob Chamberlin, President and CEO of NISH. “It is the commitment and support of community leaders such as Phil that are so essential to the success of the AbilityOne Program and its mission to provide meaningful employment opportunities for people with disabilities.”

There was also a presentation at the local county commissioner’s meeting, and one sentence in the minutes of the meeting (PDF) in which the presenter of the award described my dad says a lot about him: “Mr. Dickerson not only designed the system, he wore coveralls and work gloves while helping with the manual labor needed to construct the system.” That is how he operates, and part of what makes him a great man, as a work colleague, a member of the community, and as a father.

The award and the program behind it also shows his thoughtfulness about people and doing good in the world, all while making sure the numbers add up. When you look at the award, he did a set of truly innovative things in such combination that it is almost startling when you look at it:

  • created 80 full and part-time jobs for disabled people
  • saved $600K annually for local taxpayers
  • delivered a recycling program where the county has consistently been number 1, 2 or 3 in volume of waste per capita recycled in North Carolina for ten years

So he built a program that both did good for the community *and* delivered stellar bottom-line results that anyone would be happy with completely independent of the social good. (It’s this kind of example that really inspired me in working to help Etsy become a Certified B Corp, which I talk about here). This didn’t happen in San Francisco, Seattle, New York, or Portland. It happened in Greenville, NC and my dad made it happen (along with many others he carefully thanked, as the meeting minutes show). Again, a high standard to aspire to.

Throughout my childhood, I helped my dad on many things, and we were never without work to do. I wrote about my dad and how he taught me about business in my note to the Etsy community last August:

As a kid growing up in North Carolina, my older brother and I ran a very successful lawn care business, often working six days a week in the thick North Carolina heat. (Sunday was for church. We mowed the church lawn for free, so even on our day of rest, we knew that 100 of our fellow church-goers would be critiquing our work.)

My dad didn’t just give us the equipment to start and run our business. He explained the basic principles of business to us when we started out, loaned us the money to buy our lawn mowers and operate the business, and made us pay the money back from our earnings — with market-rate interest! We carefully saved our summer money because we knew my dad was expecting payments throughout the winter when the grass didn’t grow and we had no business. Those were good life lessons, and I can’t thank my father enough for that experience. (Thanks, Dad.)

We were expected to earn our keep, and throughout all of it, my dad always told me that he was going to make sure that my education was paid for. My dad was a licensed land surveyor and we surveyed vast quantities of land together on weekends when I was in high school, literally chopping through woods with machetes and fording streams, stepping on snakes and encountering all sorts of other wildlife in the process. I complained frequently and my dad mostly (and rightfully) ignored my complaints, gently reminding me that we were making money to send me to school. He absolutely delivered on that promise, sending me to an expensive private university even though our family didn’t have a lot of money. While we were out there surveying, my dad even made sure to teach me some trigonometry despite my complaining, which made my later trig classes make total sense (while others were staring at shapes on paper, I was envisioning plots of land!) He was a patient teacher, despite the fact that I often didn’t deserve the patience.

I could go on and on because my dad has done so much for me it is incalculable. Suffice it to say that my dad is a remarkable man and an inspiration to me, and I appreciate everything he has done for me in my life. Thanks, Dad.

Continuous Deployment and Basketball

Anyone who knows me well knows that I love basketball and I love documentaries, so basketball documentaries are the best. Today, I watched one from ESPN’s excellent 30 for 30 series, “The Guru of Go,” produced by Oscar-winning director Bill Couturié. Here’s the synopsis:

By the mid-1980s Paul Westhead had worn out his welcome in the NBA. The best offer he could find came from an obscure small college with little history of basketball. In the same city where he had won an NBA championship with Magic and Kareem, Westhead was determined to perfect his non-stop run-and-gun offensive system at Loyola Marymount. His shoot-first offense appeared doomed to fail until Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble, two talented players from Westhead’s hometown of Philadelphia, arrived gift-wrapped at his doorstep. With Gathers and Kimble leading a record scoring charge, Westhead’s system suddenly dazzled the world of college basketball and turned conventional thinking on its head. . . .

Wessthead (who was also a Shakespeare scholar in addition to a basketball head coach) built a system that he called simply “The System.” It’s a beautifully-told story (with deep tragedy), and highly recommended (you can buy it on iTunes). What struck me about “The System” that Westhead created was how similar the language could be to how we at Etsy and others talk about our own system of continuous deployment and “The Etsy Way.” In one segment (starting at 17:47 in the iTunes video), the coach and his players talk about how their seemingly chaotic run-and-gun system (disparagingly called “roller derby in shorts” by ESPN announcer Dick Vitale) was actually quite well-thought-out:

A lot of people say, well, that wasn’t basketball, that was like street ball. Well, it might be street ball to you, but to us, it was orchestrated. (Paul Westhead, coach)

It looked like absolute chaos (Tom Peabody, player)

. . . but it’s very much a structured way to play. (Bo Kimball, player)

The “some people think it’s crazy but this is actually carefully thought out” attitude resonated with me, and reminded of discussions I’ve had about the structured chaos of Etsy’s deployment process, which I detailed in my Optimizing for Developer Happiness talk from Railsconf last year (see the bit about the “push train” starting at 17:58 in this video).

Like I’ve learned at Etsy, talent and culture mattered most in “The System,” too. Without that a great system doesn’t work — see this from the director’s personal statement about the film:
Paul’s system was magic (and big fun to watch) – if you had the right players. Without them, the system looked like crap.

Since Westhead is also a Shakespeare scholar, Shakespeare quotes are sprinkled throughout the film. At one point, Westhead says, “People ask me my favorite Shakespeare quote. It’s a simple one-liner about basketball and maybe your life, from Hamlet: ‘The Readiness is All.'” In Westhead’s system, players were expected to push the ball down the court and be ready to shoot quickly. Readiness is a key aspect of continuous deployment, too. In slide 43 of my talk at SXSW about Continuous Deployment at Etsy, I quote Etsy engineer Lacy Rhoades: “Not being in a state to deploy is a matter of liability. It’s like having the only fire exit blocked. You ignore it at everyone’s peril.” Yes, readiness is all.

When I see connections between basketball, leadership, technology, and Shakespeare, I just can’t resist writing them down. Thanks for indulging me.

Here’s a clip from the film:

My field notes

I spend quite a lot of time reading and linking disparate ideas together in the general course of my work, often when I’m trying to put something together — a blog post, a presentation, or an email about something I’m working on. Not all of the material is available on the Internet, so I have to manually input or scan quotes. I do my best to go to the best source for whatever I’m working on, not just the easiest one to get digitally. In the course of putting my “optimizing for developer happiness” keynote at Railsconf, for example, I:

I’m always looking for new ways to share the information I pull together, and I’ve tried all sorts of approaches over the years: Moleskine notebooks, Devonthink (one of Steven Johnson’s favorites), Evernote, assiduous note-taking on a Kindle (if you do the same, be sure to read this from Fred), and pinboard, just to name a few. Most of that ends up in my own private archives, and even when you share something via a service like pinboard, you’re assuming there’s a URL to link to (which there wasn’t in the case of Drucker’s Concept of the Corporation, which blew my mind in how prescient it was.)

I use Twitter a lot, but don’t find it very useful as a place to keep snippets while I’m working on something. On my blog, I’m a little old-fashioned and mostly like to write fully-formed pieces when I do write, so it’s more of a place for introducing relatively complete ideas. I felt like I could use something in the middle to keep the dribs and drabs along the way and get some (hopefully) interesting things on the Internet in the process, so I’m giving Tumblr a try.

I’m calling my tumblog my “field notes.” If you look at the wikipedia page for “fieldnotes” (one word), you’ll see one definition of the term:

Emerson (1995) defines fieldnotes in ethnography (a term referring generally to descriptive writing in anthropology, and also to subfield of sociology) as ‘accounts describing experiences and observations the researcher has made while participating in an intense and involved manner’.

That describes the spirit pretty well. So, we’ll see how this goes (some music might also slip in there now and then). Follow me if you’re interested. (here’s an RSS feed)

Making things, infinite games, and Fred Brooks

Caterina’s post “Make Things” is so awesome and spot-on. You should read it. Here’s a taste:

There are so many conferences these days, so many voluble, charismatic leaders, and so much noise. I talk to a lot of entrepreneurs in their 20s who are knowledgeable about the valuations various Y Combinator startups have attained, know the names of all the angel investors in the Valley, have in-depth knowledge of the Facebook diaspora and their doings, have opinions on various Zynga acquisitions, and know exactly how to get Andrew Mason on the line…it boggles the mind. These are good things to have in your tool kit. But I want to hear about things out there that they love. About loving the thing they’re building. There’s less of that.

I think part of what Caterina is saying is that pure focus on networking and IPOs and fundraising and valuations and acquisitions neglects the core sense of play that got most of us into this world in the first place.

This is something I was thinking about earlier this week, when I was talking with a team at Etsy about our mission and values and the importance of a sense of play came up. On that theme, I suggested that the folks in the room read James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility (a book Caterina recommended to me years ago). I won’t summarize it here (that’s your second reading assignment of this post!) but you can cheat a little with Wikipedia:

In short, a finite game is played with the purpose of winning (thus ending the game), while an infinite game is played with the purpose of continuing the play.

The inside cover of the book gives you a little more flavor:

The rules of the finite game may not change; the rules of an infinite game must change.

Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.

Finite players are serious; infinite games are playful.

A finite player plays to be powerful; an infinite player plays with strength.

A finite player consumes time; an infinite player generates time.

The finite player aims for eternal life; the infinite player aims for eternal birth.

(I see Etsy and the dynamics of the community that drive it as having strong characteristics of Carse’s “infinite game.” Running any good company is like an infinite game, which is why this Onion story is funny: “Corporation Reaches Goal, Shuts Down.” This may be the subject of another post.)

When I think about what motivates me and attracts me to companies and people in my life, it’s always been the same sense of joy in creation that Fred Brooks described so eloquently in The Mythical Man-Month, the joy that Caterina wants to hear from more entrepreneurs. Brooks’ book is primarily known for identifying and explaining the basic fallacies in project planning that give the book its name and a law named after Brooks. It’s rarely (if ever) credited as such, but I think it’s really a paean to creativity and the inherent problems encountered when trying to break what is essentially creative work and creative people into interchangeable functions and parts. It makes it all the more powerful that he wrote the excerpt below in 1974 (and led with it on page 7), long before most regular folks had even thought about computers, much less that making them work was even remotely creative (note the pinball machine and jukebox references!):

Why is programming fun? What delights may its practitioner expect as his reward?

First is the sheer joy of making things. As the child delights in his mud pie, so the adult enjoys building things, especially things of his own design. I think this delight must be an image of God’s delight in making things, a delight shown in the distinctness and newness of each leaf and each snowflake.

Second is the pleasure of making things that are useful to other people. Deep within, we want others to use our work and to find it helpful. In this respect the programming system is not essentially different from the child’s first clay pencil holder “for Daddy’s office.”

Third is the fascination of fashioning complex puzzle-like objects of interlocking moving parts and watching them work in subtle cycles, playing out the consequences of principles built in from the beginning. The programmed computer has all the fascination of the pinball machine or the jukebox mechanism, carried to the ultimate.

Fourth is the joy of always learning, which springs from the nonrepeating nature of the task. In one way or another the problem is ever new, and its solver learns something: sometimes practical, sometimes theoretical, and sometimes both.

Finally, there is the delight of working in such a tractable medium. The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures…

Yet the program construct, unlike the poet’s words, is real in the sense that it moves and works, producing visible outputs separately from the construct itself. It prints results, draws pictures, produces sounds, moves arms. The magic of myth and legend has come true in our time. One types the correct incantation on a keyboard, and a display screen comes to life, showing things that never were nor could be.

Programming then is fun because it gratifies creative longings built deep within us and delights sensibilities we have in common with all men.

I, along with Anil, am optimistic that we can make this mindset the default.


I’m headed out of town today and am planning to (mostly) unplug until January 10. I’m really, really looking forward to spending time with family, some quiet reflection/writing/guitar-playing, and lots of reading.

Why “mostly”? I have a feeling I’ll do things like fire up Netflix and upload photos from my travels to Flickr. I’m not planning to get anywhere close to Facebook, Twitter, or email.

So, see you online and elsewhere again on January 10! Happy holidays, everyone.

Blog moved

I’ve been really busy with this other site I’ve been working on, and I haven’t been keeping my WordPress install up-to-date (which is dangerous), so I just moved everything to the WordPress.com infrastructure.  My blog is now at https://blog.chaddickerson.com/, thanks to the sub-domain mapping service that WordPress offers.

I also pointed my Feedburner-powered RSS feed to the new blog.  If you have any trouble with RSS or anything else, let me know!

NYC Century: the 55-mile route

(This will be probably be the last biking post for a little while, then back to regularly-scheduled tech! Thanks for indulging me.)

Before the NYC Century ride, I couldn’t find good maps of the 55-miler, so I tracked the route on my Garmin yesterday so I could share it later. I think we got off the official route a few times for short periods, but here it is (of course, it changes frequently and could be different next year):

Enjoy. I’ll add the elevation profile and all that when I have a little more time. There was about 1400 feet of climbing.

It was a really awesome ride, as much for the sense of community among the riders as the ride itself.

Remembering 9/11

On September 11, 2001, I was living in Berkeley, California. One of the things I remember most is the generous outpouring of sympathy for New York and the United States at the time, with Le Monde in Paris writing beautifully Nous sommes tous Américains: we are all Americans (translated version). Having lived in New York for two years now, what I didn’t fully appreciate then was the intense love that New Yorkers feel for the city. The towers themselves could be seen across the East River from the bedroom of my apartment where I live now in Brooklyn, which I know now because I see the Tribute in Light from that spot today. The city has become my own in the past two years of living here and I feel the impact of 9/11 in a way that I didn’t then.

Like most people, I had good friends in NYC at the time, and I caught a close friend working in midtown on IM that morning shortly after the second tower fell. I saved the transcript, and reading it now brings back the chaos and worry of that morning, the feeling of not knowing if the people you cared about were ok, and concern for the people who experienced such horror, mixed in with the human spirit of dark humor from someone who was in a frightening situation. I was lucky that my friends and loved ones were ok, but felt such a sense of sympathy and concern for those who weren’t sure about their love ones.

me: everything ok where you are?
friend: or relatively so?
friend: pendemonium
friend: i'm shaking so hard i can't even see straight
me: i was glad to see you pop up on IM.
friend: thx
friend: i'm looking for [friend of his]
friend: who works downtown
friend: classic [big company] internet moment. i can't post new content to [the web site he was working on]
me: the internet is pretty much hosed right now.
friend: i was on the subway right as it happened, evidently. 8:45
friend: i was just in the WTC on Monday
friend: labor day
me: i'm staying at home. . . not risking driving over the bay bridge today.
friend: i'm gonna be sick
me: is there any way to get back to queens?
friend: don't know, the bridges are closed
friend: nothing stop sspam. i just got 3 mails to enlarge my breast size
me: not surprised.
friend: was outside. so much chaos
friend: not safe to walk around even up here
me: why is it unsafe there? just too much panic?
friend: too much panic and confusion and emergency vehicles

Our conversation ended then, but I at least I knew he was ok at the moment, if not very shaken.

At that point, the news from CNN got to be overwhelming and I hopped on my bike to ride up into the Berkeley hills from the flatlands where I lived. When I got up there (about 1300 feet above sea level), I took some deep breaths and took in the views of the bay that had 101-0102_IMGalways had such a calming effect on me. That day, I remember gazing at the Golden Gate Bridge and taking a photo of it knowing that it had been evacuated out of concerns that terrorists might fly planes into it or blow it up. Would I be one of the last to see it intact? I took some other photos that day, in part to document what that day was like but also because I was legitimately wondering if something might happen to alter the landscape that I was seeing, not to mention the lives of those living in it. I thought of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. These were strange and frightening feelings, but I had seen the towers fall on TV just hours earlier and the rumor mill of what might happen on the west coast was going at full throttle.

I visited NYC about six weeks after 9/11 and the memorials around the city brought me to tears many times. I remember coming across a donation station for food and treats for the dogs who were still looking for victims, and there was still smoke in the air downtown as the remains of the building smoldered. The city was very much in mourning.

My heart goes out to those who lost friends and loved ones that day.