Contributing Editor at Inc Magazine. Also writes for Fox News, Wired.com, Popular Mechanics, Mental Floss, Grapefruit Dieting Today, Cats Suck Journal, and several other fine outlets. Oh, and this blog.
Walt Mossberg, the renowned journalist who writes for The Wall Street Journal, was waiting for his luggage at the Sahara Casino in Las Vegas.
We were both there for a reason. Back in the heady days before the Sahara turned into a ghost town blocked by do-not-cross signs and barbed wire fences, when the carpet wasn’t caked with tequila stains and coffee burns, this fine establishment was as close as you could get to the Consumer Electronics Show without having to hail a taxi. In the morning, you could sit down for a $15 leisurely breakfast buffet before taking a walk up to the show. Rooms were $89 a night, sans cockroaches.
I was waiting for the valet. Back then, I had made arrangements to test out an Infiniti G37 during the expo, which someone had driven up all the way from LA. I noted the difference in our attire. I was wearing dress pants and a suit-coat, a clear sign that I was either a well-paid public relations staffer or a clueless blogger. And, I wore dress shoes and black socks.
Mossberg was wearing brown khaki pants and running shoes. They were not the expensive kind, probably Brooks or New Balance.
He seemed relaxed and unencumbered, likely because it was only Day Two of the convention and he was already headed to the airport. This could only mean one thing: he had probably arrived early for NDA meetings, knocked off a few booth tours, and had already seen everything worth seeing. I was barely even cognizant I was in Vegas, let alone at CES, with a full plate of meetings set for days to come.
Coincidentally, his taxi pulled up at the same time as my Infiniti. I thought, this is my chance. I’ll explain that I’m also a journalist visiting the convention for a few days. I had the conversation all planned out.
“Well, originally I had arranged a Mercedes S550, the model with attention monitoring, but I was more impressed by the lane-keeping intervention system of the G37,” I’d say, showing my automotive acumen.
“I never imagined!” he’d say with awe and possibly a hint of jealousy.
“You learn the tricks,” I’d say. “Takes a while. You have to call ahead first and make arrangements. Explain your testing regimen.”
He’d smiled knowingly at my journalistic foresight. As you can guess, The Wall Street Journal does not employ schmucks. Mossberg would know all about a testing regimen, having received so many early peeks at Apple products and written so convincingly about laptops and tablet computers. He’s in a different league, the kind that stays at the Sahara Casino knowing you can walk to CES. The kind that wears running shoes.
“I’d stay and chat with you, Walt, but I have a meeting with Microsoft in a few minutes. I’m cutting it close, but I don’t mind keeping Steve Ballmer waiting. Keeps him curious, you know?”
Of course, I'd be lying through my teeth.
The truth is, when I have meetings with Microsoft, they are usually to see new keyboards. The closest I’ve come to meeting Steve Ballmer was that one year, when I sat in the fifth row during his keynote address. And, honesty, I usually have to buy Apple stuff. I’m one of the minions with enough name recognition to get a CES badge and a two-day with Infiniti.
I do have a few journalist goals, though. I want to make my mark on this world, have my day in the sun. In other words, stop using so many cliches.
A friend of mine likes to joke with me about how many products I’ve tested over the years. I keep saying 12,000 but it is probably more. One goal is to test a refrigerator in my own home. That’s unlikely, given the shipping costs. I might have to settle for a dorm model. (Ironically, that almost happened this week; it's a long story I will probably tell in my next post. Bated breath, right?) My other goal is to write for the New Yorker, probably a fiction piece or possibly something on conflict minerals in smartphones.
Anyway, to finish my story, I never did have that conversation with Walt Mossberg. He slid into the backseat of his taxi, and I plopped my bags into the trunk of the Infiniti. He drove off, and I could still sense his jovial mood – whisked into the fast lane, spirited away to the big time.
I saddled into the G37 and thought about my lot in life. See, for the first three or four years of my writing career, I was the freelance router guy at LAPTOP magazine – the kind of lofty position you dream about in grade school. I didn’t have to call people about testing a new router model, they called me. I had a rigid testing criteria that involved producing robust benchmarks and reporting on all of the sanguine details. There are people who still talk about my reviews from back in those early days, usually with an airy fondness.
Eventually, I landed a few more gigs. I’ve written for both Pop Mech and Pop Sci. At one music magazine, I’ve been a reviewer for so long I’ve had two editors named Tyler. I once interviewed 50 Cent, and I almost interviewed Tim Tebow. But in terms of any grand journalistic gesture, a magnum opus if you will, I’m still waiting for that to happen. Some 8,000 articles later, I can say I have my picture in a national magazine every month. I took it myself.
Journalism is a bit like pushing a large boulder up a street. You keep one eye on the business at hand, and one on the road ahead. You're always pushing, trying to get somewhere, but you're not always sure where.
Someday, I'd like to find out where the heck I'm going.
But here’s the funny part of my story. I was fresh out of cash that day when I picked up the G37. So I had to apologize to the valet. She gave me a death stare and walked off. Seated in the G37, I clicked into drive and edged away from the valet stand. But I had forgotten to close the hatch. The valet clerk was pointing and laughing at me. And I think I heard her say something…
I mean, whoever came up with the idea that it makes you stronger? Kelly Clarkson? Feedback is sometimes just a pointless smackdown.
See, back before the dawn of time, and before I started writing full-time, I worked as a customer service representative for an exercise machine manufacturer in Chaska, Minnesota. Subsisting as part of a team of under-paid and overworked corpodrones, I dispensed carefully worded instructions about how to repair the machines while playing Snake on my Nokia cell phone and eating free tacos from the company snack bar.
Meanwhile, up in the hallowed halls of the marketing department, there was an advertising director who had heard about my forays into the world of repair manuals. (She was also aware that I had been hired because my dad knew the president of the company.) Over the course of a few weeks and months, she stopped by my cubicle (actually, it was more like a hermetically conjoined desk in a row of cubicles, but let’s go with it) and gave me a friendly hello. Usually, the conversation went something like this:
“What are you working on today?”
“Oh, I thought I would try my hand at creating a 3D perceptive drawing of the chair assembly using the new version of Adobe Photoshop.”
“That sounds really dull.”
In some ways, she was right. The director was pleasant enough, middle-aged and slightly jaded by the world of Pantone colors and desktop publishing software. We forged our relationship with awkward conversations about the tedium of repair instruction booklets and Mac software installation. One day, she stopped by and asked if I had loftier ambitions.
“You mean to travel the world and address concerns over world hunger in a tangible way? You mean to express myself artistically?” I asked.
“No, I mean – writing advertising copy,” she said with a soft chuckle.
Honestly, I had not thought too far beyond the snack bar offerings. My wife was a stay-home-mom at the time, which meant she was running things and doing the real work. My daughter was only about two-years-old, barely out of diapers, and I was happy to have any gainful employment. There was something alluring about her proposition, though. I dreamed of spinning a fantastic yarn about taking total control of your weight loss regiment, or some crafty-sly verbiage about steel crossbeam supports.
“Why don’t you try a press release about our new factory?” she asked.
Right then, a sense of excitement filled me to the core. (Looking back, it might have been the tacos.) I agreed to the terms of our agreement: I would research the new plant, check in with several high-ranking officials, and fashion a glowing press release about our expansion plans. I was careful to avoid asking too many questions about what she wanted, but I did manage to clarify the word count. “Oh! I can write a 400-word press release in my sleep,” I thought. “That’s nothing compared to a 50-page manual!”
That night, I started crafting my prose. A stellar opening line. Quick facts and figures. A brilliantly summarized explanation of why the company needed the second plant facility. The next day, I put my press release text onto a floppy disk and sauntered up to the marketing department.
“Here you go,” I said with a faint smile.
A few days went by. Then a week.
“John, can you come up to my office?” asked the advertising director, who had called me by phone. That was my first sign that something was rotten in Chaska: her office was only up one flight of stairs.
I headed up to her office, expecting a rash of accolades and possibly even a promotion. I knew the marketing department was looking to hire a new copywriter, and I assumed I was an easy candidate for the job. When I got to her desk, I felt the wind being sucked out of my chest cavity.
“This just isn’t going to work,” she said, flatly. “Can you take this back and do a revise? I need to make sure this follows our corporate standard, and I don’t think you bothered to check on that.”
I took the disk back and retreated to my cubicle.
She was right, of course, I had failed to read any of the previous press releases. They followed a distinct format. I should have known that. The next day, I tracked down a few of the older press releases in a back office somewhere and re-crafted mine. I edited out a few of the extraneous bits and saved the document back to the floppy disk.
She still hated it. “That’s not going to work, either,” she said. I needed to go back and tighten up the wording, remove some of the extra verbiage. It needed to be more professional and business-friendly.
After a few more passes, she eventually decided it wasn’t working. We never sat down and looked at the exact problems together. Each meeting was a mildly painful exercise in learning about my own ineptitude.
But there was something more. It wasn’t really feedback at all, it was more like a block. I was never really going to write that press release.
Maybe she wanted to teach me that I was destined to write repair instructions for the rest of my life (she was wrong about that). Maybe she wanted to show me that there was more to writing a press release than just the words. I understand that now – you have to understand the big picture of the company marketing plans and long-term goals; you have to live the press release. Maybe she just wanted to make me squirm a little.
Feedback that is not specific is not that helpful. It’s like a swipe to the back of the head, thwonk. You don’t see it coming, and it doesn’t really help you learn anything. It just hurts. I suppose true feedback is like a construction project: when someone tells you how to redo the scaffolding, that’s helpful. When they tell you the building design is horrific and possibly dangerous, without saying why that is, it’s a complaint. It's a swipe.
I didn’t learn much from the press release exercise. Maybe that I didn’t want to work in advertising. Maybe people have unclear motivations. I never did write anything other than manuals at the time, and in some ways they didn't help me get anywhere either. I eventually left to work in a graphics department at another company. But there was one lesson: feedback is not always constructive, and not always helpful. Sometimes, it’s just annoying.
Pins of Pinterest! Pinning our hopes on Pinterest!
The Year of the Pins!
Okay, I’m getting a little tired of the buzz.
Granted, I’m not in the demographic – e.g., surly journalist who last did a craft at summer camp when he was 12. I’m also not clear about why there is so much fuss. So you can look through a bunch of pins and find cool stuff, then buy that cool stuff? Sounds a bit like Amazon.com.
To me, the most curious development is that we’re all talking more about Pinterest now than ever before. Apparently, millions upon millions of people (let’s be honest for once: most of the users are women) got hooked on pinning this last year, and now we’re starting to analyze why.
The same thing happened when I was a kid. Everyone got hooked on Pop Rocks. Oh, I’m telling you. It was fantastic. We’d walk into the 7-11 and buy a weekly supply. You put them in your mouth and, good Lord! A mysterious burst of explosive kinetic energy for only 50 cents a pack.
Now, I’m a big fan of Nassim Nicholas Taleb and his books about random events, but I’m not sure if even the Great and Mighty could tackle this epoch in history. And Pop Rocks are almost exactly like Pinterest. They are cut from the same cloth. What causes rampant fascination with one thing and not another? Is there something mystical about thumbnail-sized pottery photos?
Of course, anyone who has kept up on my blogging these past few weeks (thank you small number of people in Des Moines and my good friends in Portland!) know one thing. I have an opinion.
And here it is: Pinterest is a zeitgeist. I mean, seriously: there is nothing else that summarizes our current mindset. We have a 4-second attention span, or about the load time for a page full of kitten sweaters. We don’t read, we browse. Random pictures of random things by random people. That’s us.
I just pulled up the Pinterest home page right now. Holy Mother of the World Wide Web, there is pork tenderloin. It looks amazing, dripping with butter. Wait, hang on. Bob curls? I’m seriously going to tell everyone I know about this. Abstract poem about a random topic I don’t understand? Pinned.
Here’s a top ten list from someone. It’s from 2010. Who cares! I don’t mind if this stuff is woefully outdated, I just like top tens. Let’s see. Bride gowns, check. Zombie Apocalypse Guide, ordered. Random saying about giving joy to the world in a pin that looks like a present, Facebooked.
So, scrolling down. Josh Brolin, cool. I really can’t stand Katy Perry, but…this Peek-a-Boo Kitten photo is hilarious! Now, more scrolling. That Unreal picture of a bridge is unreal. Links aplenty. Pins galore. Random posters of seals and possums being playful. Poetry, crafts, quilts, mesmerizing.
But I still don’t get it. I guess we’re curating and dissecting in real-time. We have too much information at our disposal so we need something to guide us. Internet time moves at a faster pace, no time for reading. Yet, after browsing through page after page of pins, where is the depth? Where is something I can add to my formation as a human being and lock into my psyche for long-term benefit? Where’s the meat? (I mean other than that pork tenderloin, because I am planning on making that for lunch.)
There is something both fascinating and disturbing about this trend. We see, we click. And maybe this is all making us smarter, despite what the one dude says about Google. We’re certainly exposed to more style and fashion, more opinions, more interests. (Get that? More interests? I might be onto something there.) We have formed a collective consciousness that feeds into the mother hive, there are new strands of connection, we're a hypercell.
But Pop Rocks, they have no intrinsic value. If you lived on Pop Rocks, you would die. I had an editor once who called me a Grandpa, and I am learning to embrace that term (not literally, though – I have nothing to announce). I’m clinging to the hope that human beings can connect on a deeper level. I think the main reason I don’t get Pinterest, other than my complete disinterest in crafts, is that I don’t see the value. I’m sorry if that is offensive. Let’s say you use Pinterest 15 hours in a day: you are getting a good finger workout. Some small business owners are raking in the cash by posting their stuff on Pinterest. I get that. And, honestly, I have other ways of mindlessly browsing random links – and I’m to blame for making some of them.
But enough already. Pinterest is a zeitgeist but it is not deep. No one will write a book about how Pinterest changed their life. (Oh crap, someone wrote a book about how Pinterest changed their life.) We're not talking about cell replication and human cloning here. There's no discussion about the eternal beyond or why the ice caps are sinking so quickly. (Unless you count the pins that explain how the ice caps are sinking, which are cool.) I think Pinterest will have a good run, but being a zeitgeist does not mean you will usher in a new age of enlightenment with a kitten photo.
Wait, I need to go back to the home page again. Someone just posted one.
I’m a product testing machine. Even the FedEx driver knows this. She smiles when she hands me a box, sometimes giving the package a playful jiggle-jiggle. In the warmer summer months, small children walk by and point at me, whispering “testing machine” in hushed tones (not really). I have so many boxes in my office, I can barely sit at my desk (that’s not even remotely true, but creates a funny word picture at least).
I’m amazed by how many products I’ve tested – somewhere around 8,000 in the last ten years. Gulp. You do the math on how much FedEx makes off me.
It wasn’t always like this. Back in the early aughts, I was not as prolific. A few days would go by and UPS would barely darken my doorstep. Now, when brown-shirted drivers arrive at my office, some of them give a doggie treat for my Border Collie mix. (If you must know, her name is Abby.) I am thinking of having them over for the holidays to drink the eggnog they delivered. We have bonded in a way only a journalist and a delivery person can.
How did this happen? Back in my corporate days, I developed a penchant for testing out anything new. Random stapler in the office supply cabinet, I’m on it. Fax machine set up in the break room, I’m there. Someone has a new laptop, I would weasel my way into their good graces and have a go. I have an insatiable need to test things out and see if they work. As a child, my parents would often find me in the bowels of our local Target store, staring up in dazed wonder at the Lincoln Logs. Given free rein to seek out new products on the Internet, I frequently find them and ask to test them. (I curse you, Uncrate, for you have turned me into a monster.)
Since this is the time of year when I start looking back at the many, many FedEx and UPS deliveries of 2012, my almost daily ritual ripping open packages and smiling at my wife as I remove the bubble wrap and reveal a brand new Linksys router or some handy-dandy Bluetooth earbuds, it’s only fitting that I pick my favorites of the year. Yes, obvious plug alert. If that link were any more obvious, it would blink red and make a funny fart noise.
Picking my favorite gear is a bit like picking my favorite children. It is kind of hard to do. I recall setting up that Samsung monitor late at night, steaming cup of coffee at the ready. As I slowly plugged in the DVI connection to my homebuilt desktop, I fired up the machine to a brilliant array of high-density pixels. Booyah. I savor the first time I donned a pair of Sony headphones and played Alt-J in a pure unadulterated state. Only someone who remembers Lincoln Logs so specifically could be this oddly enchanted by shiny objects.
So what does it all mean? Where will this lead? Why do I know FedEx is going to give me a holiday card? I’m not sure. Yet, I keep e-mailing Sony, asking about their new 4K television. I have started pestering Philips about their new app-controlled lighting kit. I’m thinking of getting my own UPS shirt.
Yet, someday, I will probably say goodbye to this occupation. I’ll receive my last iPad delivery by FedEx Express, the one that comes with a $25 gift card and a hand-written note from Apple PR (I'm trying to hold back the tears here). I’ll shake hands in a hearty, meaningful way with both of my close friends, Bob (UPS) and Katie (FedEx). Thank you for being you.
I’ll walk back to my office, reach up to my computer monitor (but not the Samsung, I have to send that back) and hit the power button. I’ll nod appreciatively at the Microsoft keyboard the public relations agent said I could keep for myself way back in ’09, which I have declared on my taxes and to the FTC. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll be ready to go back to my normal way of life: stealing stuff from an office supply cabinet.
Oh yeah: Zombie infestations, long-period comets, massive solar-scale destruction. Frankly, it’s a good diversion from testing laptops.
Apparently, and I did not know this either, the Mayans used something called a Tzolkin Calculator to keep track of their schedules and stay on top of things. “Honey, I’m running late for my meeting with the Ajaw!” “Did you check your Tzolkin Calculator?” “No, but thanks for reminding me!”
The Mayans predicted, as every Wal-Mart clerk knows, the world will end on December 21, or shortly after the last episode of How I Met Your Mother airs on CBS. More specifically, they predicted the planet Nibiru would collide with Earth and bring about a Total Cataclysmic Event.
Except, they didn’t predict any of that. The calendar runs out and then starts over. That’s it. As NASA space scientist and astrobiologist David Morrison pointed out to me earlier today in an interview, the rumor of our impending demise could only have spread in modern times on the Internet.
Why is that? Two words: free access. Anyone can set up a site like DecemberKillAll2012.com and post whatever blather they want. And I’m not against providing a forum for folks to share their disparate views. What I am against is hysteria and fear-mongering. (Also, bad Web site design.) If you say a massive solar storm can kill millions of people, you should probably have some anecdotal evidence. Has a massive solar storm ever killed anyone before? Was that recently? Do you have pictures?
The other thing I am against, while we’re on the subject: scientists who go on tirades about those who are spreading the Mayan Apocalypse rumors. Lighten up a little! We’ll all get back to worrying about climate change soon enough. We all know an asteroid is not going to take out Cleveland. While the chances are slim that a major solar storm will occur on December 21, at least we can all talk about solar storms, and maybe improve the profit margins at Home Depot when a few of us buy back-up generators.
There is a slim chance we could all wake up on the morning of December 22, blink a couple of times as we take our last breath, and stare off into the deep black void of space and realize that the Mayans were onto something. When you start reassuring yourself there is no possible way the Earth could explode, that becomes a fallacy as well. Things do explode occasionally. Few of us can say we understand exactly what is in the molten core of the earth, besides Hell and a guy wearing a red jumpsuit.
I’m more worried about nuclear catastrophe myself. Some slight shift in the radioactive balance of the universe. Maybe a shift in the space-time continuum. Or maybe Rosanne Barr will become successful and break out of the late-night cable television circuit. Who knows?
Something else I am worried about: the Internet. We use it too much. We’re being sucked into a void, one Web server after another. We’re seriously addicted to Pinterest. We need help. Forget celestial objects making a dent in South Dakota. The Internet was supposed to help us send e-mail and check the weather, but enough is enough. We login before work, during work, and after work. We get up in the morning and jump online, then we go online as we fall asleep at night. We surf while we watch TV and while we cook. We play Pandora in the car. We’ve lost balance. The digital realm has started to erode our collective consciousness – we’re being dumbed down.
So here’s an idea: maybe what we should do is, instead of panicking about the collapse of the universe and the end of days, we should all band together on December 21 and declare a no Internet day. Let’s get out and enjoy some sunshine (but not too much) and walk the dog. Leave the laptop lid closed! Put your smartphone on the shelf for the day! Engage in conversation! Take the bus! And if you do, send me an e-mail or Facebook.
“Do you know why the CardMunch app won’t install on my iPad?”
I was speaking with Mark, an employee at Apple’s Santa Monica store a few blocks from my hotel, while visiting LA. He had that unimposing surfer-dude vibe you can only find within scent of a California ocean.
“That’s a good question,” he said, adhering to the unspoken code of conduct among all Apple employees: always compliment the customer first before you instruct them gently from your vast cornucopia of knowledge.
As we all know, the congeniality of an Apple employee is without equal in all of retailing. You can expect a pleasantly rigid demeanor from the employees at an Ikea store as they exhibit a vaguely Scandinavian curtness. We accept that because few of have actually been to Sweden. But Apple employees? They glide six inches off the ground. They glow like heaven.
Eventually, Mark tapped on my iPad screen. His fingers seemed to have their own Bluetooth signal. The fluidity, the fluttering grace, the symphony of precision. I was caught in raft attention, like a disciple of Mozart watching the master compose a concerto. Then he stopped, suddenly.
“Nothing,” he said, with a hint of confusion. I quickly explained to him the app works fine on my iPhone 4. That I was really hoping he could figure out what was going on, because I needed to test the app. Really, I was grasping at straws because the problem had confounded me all day.
Mark shrugged and tapped the shoulder of another employee.
His name was Tom, and he was a Genius.
“I bet it’s an iOS conflict – something to do with the camera,” Tom intoned. Of course! CardMunch uses the iPhone camera to snap a photo of a business card, but the iPad is not supported. I felt like an ingénue, some hapless minion who belonged at the Microsoft Store or worse: Radio Shack.
Tom’s answer fell from the skylights like a feather from the golden goose. He nodded at Mark. The two of them exchanged some electrostatic union of sorts, a kind of Apple virtual handshake, an iOS mind-meld.
Tim smiled at me. “That could be the problem, although – have you downloaded the latest system update?”
I have to admit some embarrassment here. On a few of my gadgets, the ones I don’t use as often or that I don’t use in public, I’m not perfectly attuned to the latest OS updates. There are times when I even let my gadgets languor for a time, using them with careless abandon.
Having an Apple Genius catch me in this unforgivable act of technological ineptitude was almost unbearable. I felt a cold, lingering chill.
“Ah, not really. Is there a new one?” I offered, a weak stab in the dark.
“Always!” he joked, and punched up the About menu.
Still stinging from the discovery, I watched as Tom quickly updated my iPad – in seconds, not minutes! – and searched for the app again. No luck.
“It must be the camera on the iPad,” he said. “You might want to check with the developer, but I have a better idea.”
He paused, letting his Genius sink in a little.
Pulling up the search box, he tapped in a phrase. It was an app that does almost the same thing as CardMunch, only with more social network integration and full iOS 6 support. We installed the app, basking in the glow of the warm LED lights above. I made a few jokes about the Microsoft Store. We chatted about the weather. And then Mark and Tom both said their goodbyes, having successfully resolved my iPad problem and, as it happens, realigned my consciousness. I was ready to take on the world. Again.
Slogging my way through a convention this week in Los Angeles, I had a brainstorm. The clouds parted, the sun came out, and little bluebirds flapped away into the horizon. I had to sit down. My brain weathered the storm, thankfully, but not before a few cells wafted up through my cerebral cortex.
This does not happen every day. The longer I keep doing this job, the more infrequently a brainstorm occurs.
In the early days, I had ideas coming out of my ears, which must have looked weird. Why can’t someone make a hotel door key that is impervious to magnets and cell phones? What would it take for a car to understand the context of your day (e.g., running late for a meeting) and offer to help? I’m always analyzing and inventing. I study casino carpets in Vegas and Segway rental agreements in San Francisco. Put something in front of me and I will immediately start trying to decipher it and make it better.
But this brainstorm was different, it had more weight. It hit me that every company except Apple, who can do whatever they want and treat customers like tree stumps, lives and dies based on how customers interact with employees. Let me explain that a different way. The employee is the company. Meet someone who treats you like you are a visiting alien from Uranus, and you will have a low opinion of the company. When a salesperson is rude, the company is rude. But when an employee provides outstanding service, we view the company itself as outstanding.
This will not make any sense if you think about products and services as being an extension of the company, an entity that exists at a street address or as part of a tax arrangement. Meaning, if you think of a company as a conceptual brand apart from the employees, it will be hard to grasp the idea that every point of contact gives customers a good impression or a bad one. I like how Jason Fried puts this: everything you do is marketing. I might extend that a bit and say everything you do is the company.
Okay, here’s why I felt this way at the convention. It’s an auto show, where I am covering the technology (of course) but also gawking at the Jaguars. (It’s a win-win for a geek/motorhead like me.) Every car company is here, selling their five- and six-figure wares. You walk into the Acura booth, get one impression, then walk over to Audi and get a different impression. Sadly, a few booths are ghost towns: dust blowing through, a crotchety old-timer leaning against a fence post. A few are brimming with excitement. The product is front and center. But you know what? The people in the booth are the company. I mentioned that this is not true of Apple, but it is true of every other company. Land Rover, Acura, Infiniti – they are all here, and none of them are impervious, not even BMW.
I first realized this at the Bentley booth. The woman who greeted me had a broad smile and a firm handshake. She knew her stuff. She mentioned that one model was for the high-tech grandpa, one was for those who want to scare the crap out of passengers (a sporty model), and one was in between. Brilliant. She had a well-rehearsed line that helped me get the big picture in a short time.
Then I went over to the Lincoln booth.
They had a secret new car that was hidden (not that effectively) behind two glass doors. There were two women guarding the car. Neither were armed. I asked to gain entrance into this (ooh, ahh) secret chamber, and they said no – you had to check with someone on the PR staff. Okay, that made me a little consternated. I came back later. No PR staff present. I came back a third time. Sorry, we can’t let you in without permission. I thought about raising a big stink, but that’s not my style. (E-mail to the rescue!)
My takeaway? I don’t care anymore about Lincoln’s secret car or the secret chamber. I decided to visit booths that had cars out in the open.
In the end, each automaker gave me a different impression. Friendly, helpful. Elitist, rude. Excited, knowledgeable. These personal contacts were make-it-or-break-it moments for me, especially in such a foot-worn state. I now view a handful of companies as monoliths of innovation and design, and a few as crusty bloats. My perspective is not perfect. On another day, at a different show, I might view each company differently.
So what to do? I say: hire only the best. When employees at a company stand in a tight circle talking about what they are going to do after the show, they make the company look elitist. When a company has employees who know what they are talking about, smile warmly and greet outsiders, and are organized enough to follow-up with people and maintain the relationship, the company wins. No business is ever going to be 100% perfect. No person is 100% perfect. One step in the right direction: start seeing employees as the conduit for a successful company, and not as a means to an end.
In that space of time, entire Twitter trends came and went. I swear I missed the whole Jay-Z hashtag incident (you know the one), and probably at least four e-mails and a few Facebook posts. Google invented a new search engine algorithm, published it, upgraded it, and removed it.
“What do you do?” she said.
“Well, let me show you a few tips on this here thingie,” I said. “You drag up from the screen like this. That’s how you unlock.”
Cold stone silence.
“You drag up with your finger?” she asked, perplexed.
“Why do you need to do that?”
“I don’t know, that’s something you will have to ask Microsoft.”
Eventually, my wife unlocked the screen. She was using the new Windows Surface RT tablet. She asked about why you drag down from the top to close something. She asked about the difference between an app and a screen. She asked me what we were having for lunch.
The whole episode was starting to remind me of the drunk Jennifer using Windows 8 video. Or the other one involving a drunk guy using Windows 8. Or just getting drunk.
“How do you start an app?”
“Well, you have to swipe over to the right.”
“How do you shut down?”
This went on for about 30 minutes. Honestly, I don’t blame Microsoft. I blame the immigrants. You know the type. They were born when an IP address was something only a lawyer could love. The information superhighway was a phone book. When they posted something, it was on a fence post or at the grocery store. I’m talking about the immigrants who came to the Web as adults. Natives, per the Gartner Group terminology, are those who were born when the Web was alive and kicking.
I’m saying “they” but I mean “we” of course. I’m a hybrid. In college, I remember installing Windows 1.0 using 5.25-inch floppy disks, which is embarrassing to admit in public. The faint whirring sound you hear when you install a program from a 5.25-inch disk is a bit like the sound of your ego being crushed. Even at the time, I viewed this process as archaic and mind-numbing.
Natives understand Windows 8 just fine. Put one in the hands of a Tumblr aficionado and they will start flicking all over the place, pressing the brightly colored tiles and texting at the same time. Their synapses are wired differently. They use terms like lol and brb, and that’s when they speak out loud. Little flurries of neutrons spike in their brains and fill a vortex of gray matter when they use Windows 8. There is no “usability” of interface design for a native. There are multicolored tiles and you press on them.
I can relate to some of this. Like Jennifer from the Windows 8 drunk video says, I’m a cyborg. My immigrant brain has been partially rewired to understand technology. I actually like Bluetooth and near-field communication. If a speech recognition system falters a bit, I smile and say “nice try speech recognition programmers” and keep trying. I feel I’m standing at a golden archway, the intersection of natives and immigrants, with a pretty good handle of what it means to live in both realms.
At the same time, I understand why Microsoft made the switch to the colored tiles. Some of us just don’t understand what it is like to post on Tumblr and follow a Twitter trend at the same time. We were not born that way. And that’s why I don’t mind being left out. There’s a new generation of computer users. For them, this is all a natural progression. I don’t mind if Microsoft confuses me a little, as long as the natives are happy. Someday, they will drive me back and forth from the senior center.
As the door cracked open, I could see him sitting on a couch sipping a Diet Coke, waiting in a patient repose. The bodyguards didn’t say a word, ushering me into the room with an assured, military-like calm.
His assistant smiled with a dual-purpose intent: don’t make this difficult for yourself or him. I nodded knowingly, having spent a few short minutes with other world-renowned celebrities in my time, and took my seat.
Curtis James Jackson III, better known as 50 Cent, reached out and offered a warm handshake. We gripped and grinned, and I started setting up my recording equipment. “Just need a minute to setup here,” I said.
“Are you getting along okay?” he said, nodding in the general direction of the showfloor. I was attending CES for my tenth year in a row. The gala event, exactly like going to a Best Buy with better lighting, happens every year shortly after everyone in Las Vegas has worn off their New Year’s buzz.
To be honest, racing across countless red-carpeted hallways to meet with harried public relations agents who were only marginally interested in showing me yet another smartphone protective case was taking its toll on my psyche. In one booth tour, I was interrupted by another journalist who feigned interest in a Toshiba add-on battery pack. That’s right, the old ‘feigned interest in a battery pack’ trick. Nice. In another tour, my friend – a photographer who tags along each year for the free food – noticed that the woman demonstrating a Herculean touchscreen display for Hitachi was the same hired gun who got married in a mock wedding ceremony for Sony consumer products the night before. How convenient.
“It’s a bit overwhelming, all this chaos and confusion,” I said.
“For the grand purpose of it all,” he joked. And I understood what he meant. Middle-aged dad making his way through the dark recesses of a massive convention center in Sin City, scraping together notes about routers and tablet computers. Ostensibly, I was here to ask about a new pair of headphones. In my mind, I had another intent. Who was this man who had survived an attack by a crazed gunman and starred in one blockbuster sensation after another (who can forget Gun or Morning Glory?). What made him tick? What does he eat for lunch? What brand of socks does he buy?
I can’t say his albums The Massacre or Before I Self Destruct had a profound effect on my perception of reality or made me want to reevaluate my life choices, but this was Fiddy, the king of all gangland rap. We’re talking about a legend, a living rhyme machine. He opens doors and we walk through them. I sat in a mild stupor for a few brief moments, gathering my courage and my wits. He had one of those piercing stares. And then, a surprise.
He reached across the couch and rubbed my shoulder.
“So what do you want to ask me about?”
“Well, tell me about your new headset,” I said, a little stunned.
“What do you want to know?” he joked.
I picked up the headphones. Stalling, I started asking about the features. Pristine quality, he said. The bass moves you. He wanted to create headphones that matched the quality of his music.
“Have you been over to the Soul Headphones booth?” I asked, thinking on my feet. Wrong question. The company, fronted by another rapstar named Ludacris, also had a booth at CES, but it was much flashier and staffed by women wearing gold outfits and knee-high boots. “No,” he said. I wasn’t sure if I had offended him, or if there was a rift between Fiddy and Ludacris. I was not up on my gangland lore. In all honesty, I’m more of a Death Cab for Cutie fan. “Let me tell you something,” he said.
At this point, my friend gave me a few sideways glances. Fiddy started explaining how he got involved with a few start-ups and the challenges of stardom. He shared how the expectations are so high when you are famous. He said all of the business management stuff is harder when you’re on tour and writing songs. He rubbed my shoulder again. We laughed.
And here was my big surprise. 50 Cent, like other celebrities, understands the business of relationships, and he is remarkably profound. He knew his role – peddling a new set of headphones – was another step on the ladder of success, but he wasn’t taking the job too seriously. Maybe it all came easy to him, apart from the bullets and the bodyguards. But his main insight was that he didn't need to be insightful, he just needed to be Fiddy.
My take: he has a natural gift of persuasion, and it works equally well in the music studio as it does on the red carpets of Vegas. My ultimate response? After I left, I asked the public relations agent if I could test out the new headphones. Wow, Fiddy. The bass really does move you.
Well, that's only partly true. In 1988, after getting a degree in journalism from Northwestern, I got married and started working in a shoe store as a shift manager. One of the workers, we'll call her Nancy (since that was her name), kept complaining about me to upper management. See said I never did any work. That I stood at the counter all day. That I didn't reorganize the footwear properly. I once had a dream that I grabbed a pair of penny loafers from the rack and threw them at her in a fit of rage.
So, after working there for about 18 months, I was downsized. But hold on – this all sounds grim and hopeless, but it turned out to be a positive thing.
You see, eventually, after some soul-searching (get it?), I started looking for another job. My wife, about three months pregnant at the time, showed me an ad from the local job placement center with a position to work at a summer camp for disadvantaged kids in northern Minnesota. I thought to myself, I can work at a summer camp for disadvantaged kids in northern Minnesota. Why not? That's a perfect segue from my gig at the shoe store.
We were quite the pair. She wobbled around the camp scolding the disadvantaged kids, I ordered the food and made campfires. This was my dream job, a far better arrangement than the one I had at the shoe store with Nancy. We painted dilapidated buildings, learned how to cook spam and eggs, ingratiated ourselves to the local lawn maintenance company. (Full disclosure: they offered their services for free because of the whole disadvantaged kid thing.) Oh, and my wife gave birth.
Then I got fired. Again.
To this day, it all seems like a bad indie movie, the one where the puppy has to wear a cone around its head and two guys go driving off into the stark unknown. Life at 60 frames per second, you know? Except the guy in my movie was my wife and the puppy was a beautiful baby girl named Rachel. We had to move in with my parents, who would regularly tell us to move out. I thought about ending it all, aka working at K-Mart.
Somehow, by sheer happenstance, my dad started making friends with the CEO of NordicTrack. You remember NordicTrack. It almost seems like the company is still around. They made those cross-country ski exercise machines, the ones with the wooden planks you shuffled back and forth. Long before the Internet or Chipolte, this is how they used to make us exercise. (Little known fact here: the new NordicTrack is just using the brand.) Being a young father and inescapably destitute, my dad arranged for me to interview with the CEO, who offered me a job in customer service.
This is sort of amazing: I read about 50 books during my years of employment at NordicTrack, most of them while simultaneously answering the phone. I once talked to Mac Davis. I even heard that one of the other customer service reps had talked to Tom Hanks. (This may have been a rumor.) We all became cross-country ski machine experts. I mean, we could take them apart, build a wooden robot, dismantle it again, and put the ski machine back together again with a newly invigorated flywheel assembly.
Around this time, I discovered the Mac. Also, I realized that I hated working as a customer service rep and I had read enough books. I told my boss at the time, who knew all about the CEO connection, and he suggested I try writing some ski machine repair manuals in my spare time. I remember setting up a Mac next to my customer service terminal and a copy of Watership Down, loading the 24 disks for Adobe Photoshop 1.0, and playing around with flywheel assembly schematics. I became adept at explaining why the cock-arm rod needed a loving tap to fit into the forward handle bar kit. When anyone needed help explaining ball-bearing maintenance for the undercarriage unit, I was the man for the job. I stopped reading books and started crafting my own, complete with a 32 page visual guide to cardiovascular safety. Eventually, I moved on to greener pastures: a spectacular run as the copywriter at a lumber retail giant. A few successful years working as the technical writer at a company that made a proprietary sign-making device, eventually moving my way up the ladder of sign-making success. I even spent a few years in the corporate world.
Then I got fired. Again.
Oh, I can laugh about it all now. The twists, the turns. During these formative years, my life at home became much richer – we had three more kids, bought a dog. For ten years, I worked at eight different companies, and rose to the lofty position of documentation manager. Life was good. But I yearned for more consistency, which is one way of saying: I wanted to work for myself. I had this strangely clear picture of how this could work. I would get up in the morning, walk over to my computer, and start doing stuff. I would not have a boss who could decide my fate. I would control my own destiny.
This was in 2001. I was fired a week after September 11. Since then, by some surreal form of providence, I have written somewhere around 12,000 articles. I've tested 8,000 products. I have a close personal relationship with the FedEx driver. We have hugged. Just last week, I wrote ten articles. I'm not sure how. I'm amazed I even landed this gig, to be honest. Two decades ago, I figured I'd be working with Nancy in the shoe store, defending myself with penny loafers. Or maybe I'd still be at NordicTrack, explaining how to repair the seat cushion springs with a standard Philips screwdriver. Sometimes, you get fired for a reason. For me, what seemed like an incongruous path was actually all by design. It led me to freedom.