Saturday, December 30, 2006

Product endorsements, unsponsored

It's a materialistic world. Buying good things gives us pleasure, sometimes out of all proportion to the relative merits of what we bought over its competition. Careful manipulation of brand image by manufacturers makes people feel better about their purchases - for example research shows that car ads are read more carefully by people who just bought the advertised car than by people in the market for that car.

Nevertheless, there are things that the Halfwise household has acquired in the past year or so whose essential goodness delivers satisfaction every time they are used. They are from suppliers who do not advertise much, if at all, so it's not as if relentless advertising has hauled me through my post-purchase remorse into a zone of rationalizing a poor purchase.

Here are my top 5:
  • Ohm Acoustics Micro Tall speakers. Read this review. Enjoy
  • HSU VTF-2 powered subwoofer. Affordable, magnificent, customizable sound down to 25 hz. Read this review. Enjoy
  • VigorFit 3000 Home Gym. Like the infomercial one featuring Chuck Norris and Christie Brinkley, only better in every way and only 1/3 the price. Buy one on eBay
  • Industrial Lite folding ladder. Like the Little Giant infomercial one, and again only 1/3 the price. I got mine at Home Depot
  • Creative Zen MP3 player. A gigabyte of good portable sound, the size of a Bic lighter, with tremendous features that put it ahead of better known alternatives
Are there products out there that you are genuinely pleased with? Let me know.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Alexander Pope, on year-end reflections

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the skeptic side
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest.
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer,
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

Percussion instruments the form of two big congas and some egg shakers have entered my home, along with a silver shaker.

And on their way are a vibraslap, maracas, a triangle, an afuche, a cabasa and an agogo.

I hope I can keep them straight. They all make noise, all are played by hand, all sound like fun to me. The idea is to get going on some kind of drum circle.

I tuned the congas to the same interval as "here comes the bride". Is that a fourth? Then I tuned my bongos to the same interval but a higher pitch. It's actually amazing to me how much pitch variation can be achieved on a conga - the edge of the drum delivers notes that are so high, the centre much lower, and a strike with the heel of the hand lower still.

It's been hard trying to play along with music on the stereo. I keep listening for the rhythm and trying to match it, which of course puts me behind the beat. And the people that play drums for a living? They're good drummers. This old guy that doesn't play drums for a living, or even very often just for fun? He's a wannabe.

It seems to me that the drum circle has more potential than trying to play along with the stereo. The rhythm is in the room, in the group, not coming out of a machine. And the group can go anywhere with it, whereas the stereo just keeps going on the song that is playing at the time, until the song ends. The group's response is irrelevant to the stereo, but it is the very essence of the drum circle.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Plasma or LCD?

'Tis the question of the season.

The Halfwise household may well capitulate early in the new year, and buy a TV that is bigger than my stereo speakers. What a concept. I don't know if that's even legal. 42" wide space is all I have to work with.

Still ruminating over the decision of Plasma vs LCD. LCD has higher resolution, lower power consumption, lighter weight. Plasma has more contrast, generally faster response times. Most program sources can't make use of the higher resolution available on the LCD. Longevity is guaranteed with neither. Prices are comparable.

Any thoughts on this critical issue? Any brand names to avoid, or seek out?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Performance Appraisal Time

Companies like to have things on file about employee performance and plans for development. People like to know how they are doing. You'd think that these two forces would combine to create a mighty force for good.

It hardly ever works that way.

The worst systems are the ones that force people to be put onto a bell curve. It's not that employee performance does not fall onto a curve of some sort; of course it does. But the point is that the curve is irrelevant.

The reality of human beings working is that there are three different things they can be measured against:
  1. Their own potential contribution
  2. The requirements of the job
  3. The performance of their peers
The most basic thing is how well people do against the requirements of the job. I say that it's impossible to fit these results onto a curve in a really big organization where subjectivity enters the picture. The next most important thing is how people do against their own potential -- supervisors need to find ways to unlock and unblock the energy and satisfaction trapped inside their people.

The least important thing is performance against peers. Customers don't pay more for this kind of performance, they pay for performance against their requirements. And employees don't remain loyal to companies merely so that they can score higher than their peers. So why measure it? Simple answer - it enables the salary admin people to ascribe some sort of structure to how they hand out merit increases. Not a good enough reason.

Guess what? Most people think they are a little bit above average. Not superstars, and they could do even better than their actual performance. But a little above average. Why adopt a systems that forces supervisors to tell their people that on average, they are average? While it may be statistically true, it is not organizationally useful. Frankly, it pisses people off.

Lucky you, if you work in a place where the supervisor is allowed to tell you how you are doing against the requirements of the job, and is encouraged to figure out with you what could be done so that you can use more of your natural talents.

If you work for a force-fit-to-a-curve company, too bad. If you have employment choices, think about using them. Because if their HR policies are that short sighted, chances are their marketing and operational strategies are flawed too.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Don't blame Global Warming for London's Tornado

Tornados in Britain can be as powerful and destructive as the infamous twisters of Tornado Alley in the American Midwest.

In July 2005 Birmingham was struck by one of the most brutal tornados recorded in this country, with wind speeds estimated to have reached over 225km/h (140mph), which blasted out shop fronts, roofs were ripped off, buildings collapsed, more than a thousand trees were felled, and 19 people were injured. The damage was estimated at £39 million.

In 1954 another violent tornado appeared in west and northwest London. A huge thunderstorm drove in from the South Coast, the sky turned ink-black and a tornado touched down at Bushey Park, near Hampton Court, smashing down trees.

At about 5pm, the storm reached Chiswick, in West London, with a huge conical cloud hanging from the sky, green lightning flashing from its sides and a deafening roar like an express train. The tornado blew Gunnersbury station apart then demolished two factories and drove on through Acton, not far from BBC Television Centre, to Willesden, near Kensal Rise.

Roofs on houses were ripped off, chimneys crashed down and walls collapsed. A car was hurled through the air while terrified people outside ran for cover as bricks, glass and wood shot through the air like missiles. Newsreels of the day show a scene of devastation described as looking like something from The Blitz. In all this mayhem, it is incredible that there were only a few minor injuries.

The past few years have seen a number of notable tornados in Britain. However, there is no evidence that the number or intensity of tornados is rising here or elsewhere in the world, because of global warming.

Tornados in Britain

  • The highest death toll from one tornado in Britain was six, at Edwardsville, a mining town in Glamorgan, on October 27, 1913
  • Two people were killed in Guildford, Surrey, on August 2, 1906
  • On May 21, 1950, a tornado extended from Wendover, Buckinghamshire to Ely, Cambridgeshire, a distance of 68 miles (110km)
  • Selsey, in West Sussex, was hit twice, on January 8, 1998, when Patrick Moore’s telescopes were damaged, and again on October 30, 2000, when caravans were turned over at a caravan park. Selsey is particularly prone to tornados because it is downwind of the Isle of Wight which, like a rock in a river, helps to set up turbulence in winds from the South West
  • A tornado struck Boarhunt, a village in Hampshire, last month, throwing two ponies into the air and leaving a trail of wreckage. Sheds were flattened, trees uprooted and power lines came down. No one was hurt
  • Nineteen people were injured, three seriously, when a tornado ripped through the streets of Birmingham in July last year. The Met Office estimated the wind speed may have reached 130mph

Made-up names for clumsy tradesmen

I am not very good at certain tasks. One group of tasks falls under the banner "Finishing Carpentry". If I were to attempt to make my living as a Finishing Carpenter, truth-in-advertising rules would force me to change my name to Brad Puller.

If I were to try to make a living tuning musical instruments, I might do so using the name Miles Sharp.

Got any suggestions along these lines? Send 'em in.

Spider bites

There are a lot of choices a person can make, in terms of how to use his time. The ones that - in hindsight but not at the time - bother me the most, are the ones that were fascinating but completely useless.

At the current head of my list is Spider Solitaire. I have wasted hours on end playing this fool game. The lack of new postings on this blog is testament to what else I could have been doing.

It's made worse for me when the game keeps score of winning percentages. When I started playing Spider, I worked up to the Difficult level and managed to figure that game out. I quit playing it when I had managed a 16% winning percentage. But I couldn't stay quit, and wasn't happy with 16% either. Lately I fell back into playing and managed 35% over my last string of 100 games. Impressive, except that when you consider each game can take 10 - 15 minutes, that is a big piece of my life gone forever. And the previous Spider binge had been 3oo games.

Yeesh. Other time consumers in the puzzle and game area are FreeCell and Sudoku. I rationalize this as being good for my brain. It's true, just not good for my life.