Consider this text:

Long emails get ignored and filed away. Short emails get read. People see the value without having to get out the reading glasses. A welcome email shouldn’t be a novel.

We used to have a really information packed welcome email for Basecamp. It had everything you’d ever need to know about your Basecamp account. And guess what? We got lots of support emails asking about the things people should have spotted in the welcome email. But they couldn’t see through all the fog we put in their way.

They provided all the necessary information but the customers “couldn’t see through the fog”?! They were too lazy or indifferent to read for their own good, is closer to the truth.

I’ve encountered this servile attitude quite often over the last couple of years, and I think it is harmful. A policy of licking customers’ boots is bad for the customer and worse for your own colleagues and employees.

Customers come and go, but capable colleagues should be retained for the long run. The person who put a lot of thought into that introduction e-mail will feel unfairly put down if her work is described as “fog”. Why should she stay?

Working in multiple contexts

I like this quote from Alex Garcia, who is a photographer at the Chicago Tribune. He’s commenting on the dismissal of the Chicago Sun-Times’ entire photography staff and points out that text-oriented journalists can’t just take over by taking some shots with their smart phones. Doing so they would compromise the quality of their work.

…the best reporters use a different hemisphere of the brain to do their jobs than the best photographers. Visual and spatial thinking in three dimensions is very different than verbal and analytical thinking. Even if you don’t believe that bit of science, the reality is that visual reporting and written reporting will take you to different parts of a scene and hold you there longer. I have never been in a newsroom where you could do someone else’s job and also do yours well. Even when I shoot video and stills on an assignment, with the same camera, both tend to suffer. They require different ways of thinking, involving motion and sound.

Gaming the System

There are people everywhere who like to “game the system”, by which I mean they adhere to the letter of a social convention in a way which defeats the underlying intention of the convention. There are countless different areas and ways this can be done, and there’s necessarily a wide grey area between what most people would consider legitimate exercise of rights and what most people would consider abuse of privileges. A lot of subjectivity which I won’t bother to cut through.

it happens everywhere but I think there are regional differences. In Europe I often get the impression people are cavalier about abusing insurance-type benefits and don’t see the harm in stretching their facts to fit the criteria for eligibility. In the US you see people targeting the “little things” in this area. Anyone disembarking from an aircraft at a port of entry will notice the armada of wheelchairs waiting in the bridge. People who were perfectly happy to rush through the duty free stores in Zurich to buy chocolate will descend into those wheelchairs to be chauffeured through O’Hare.

As I write this, a bevy of Louis-Vuitton- and Chanel-equipped “this is River North” women has taken a moment to relax in the Starbucks seating group across from me. One of them carried in a small snow-white long-haired toy dog with a large tag attached to its neck. It’s too large for the dog to wear comfortably. At first I thought it might be a price tag, but it’s an official-looking plastic tag reading “SERVICE DOG”. I don’t know what’s afflicting the owner but I suspect the tag is some sort of a trick to get the dog into places which don’t normally allow pets.

“No harm done”, one could say. It’s kind of amusing for observers, so everyone is better off in the end if we just play along. On the sad side, it’s undignified behavior.

Seaplane Training

Last weekend, I took my first shot at seaplane flying. I’d had business meetings at a research facility in Seattle, during which the other visitors and I were periodically startled by seaplanes suddenly appearing quite large in the window, passing very low overhead on their way in or out of the lake. It impressed me mightily and looked fun, so in the afternoon I got on the phone, rebooked my return flight and arranged some dual time over the weekend with one of the local FBOs.

The first introductory ride was easiest. The instructor had spared me the full preflight and was lenient regarding my takeoffs and landings which made me feel good about myself and confident I’d have it nailed in no time at all. The briefing essentially consisted of the airspeeds for this particular plane, and her instructions to treat the plane just like during soft-field operations on land. And a short introduction to the bilge pump (empty a total of 14 float chambers before flight), water rudders (retract before takeoff and landing) and the Johnson-bar-operated flaps: this was a 1964 plane without mod-cons. Everything worked fine, and I was proud of my results.

The second session cut me down a notch. It was a lot more work to begin with, a throrough pre-flight requiring almost an hour if you’re unfamiliar with the procedure. Many of the checklist items are the same, but you can’t walk around the plane so the workflow is very different. There are also additional checkpoints related to seaworthiness, and you need to learn how to turn handle the plane at the dock in different wind conditions. Knowing your nautical knots helps for handling, i.e. it helps to have done a sailing course before.

Some sailing knowledge also helps for understanding traffic rules on the water. Seattle’s Lake Union is densely populated by boats of all types, from kayaks to speedboats to seafaring yachts. Especially last weekend, as it was the official start of the boating season. With rowing competitions, water skiing and many other water activities. I found it unnerving to maneuver my propeller plane through the kayaks. At idle power, with water rudders, but without brakes!

Flying a seaplane in good conditions isn’t really much more challenging than a land plane. However a seaplane does handle quite differently – with a lot more control latency – both on the ground and in the air so flying it precisely is somewhat trickier than I expected, and it will take me some practice to achieve an acceptable level. There are also plenty of maneuvers related to less-than-ideal conditions which I need to learn if I want to get a seaplane rating, and a fair bit of practice regarding on-the-water handling such as docking (which again is quite like sailing except that the consequences of misjudging speed or distance are more interesting).

It’s a different style of flying. Much more “cowboy” in the sense that the result is important, not the straight-line precision of approach. In fact if I had to sum up the differences between land and sea flying in one phrase, I’d say: sea = curves. You have the freedom, and often the necessity, to change course at very short notice. Even during your takeoff and landing rolls! Indeed, one of the more interesting seaplane-only maneuvers is the special short-field take-offs and landings they can do by whizzing around a curve while landing or taking off, in a maneuver called a “step turn”. It’s great for getting out of a small lake which was big enough to land in, but not big enough to take off in a straight line.

I look forward to learning more.

Aeronautics and Superstition

They don’t mix well.

Aviation is founded on science. Flight owes a lot to physicists, but nothing at all to gods, saints, demons or their prophets or flying horses. So I think it’s odd when someone expects pilots to pray before a flight, or thank gods after a safe landing.

To prepare for picking up a plane for which I didn’t have the operations handbook, I searched for that type’s checklists on the web and printed them out. I didn’t check the source, and later noticed they were from Liberty University’s School of Aeronautics. The emblem in the corner should have been a clue, but I noticed when I went through the checklist and found this:

Prayer? Check!
Prayer? Check!

Pray? To whom? And for what? Good weather? I’d prefer the pilot to call Flight Service for a proper weather briefing, or at least look up the forecasts at

There’s a similar entry in the checklist for shutting down and securing the aircraft. I suppose that one’s to thank Zeus, Quetzalcoatl, Jesus, Poseidon, Vishnu and Allah for a safe return to the airport. I’d prefer the pilot to rely on proper preparation, good training and diligent maintenance instead of believing there were factors beyond his or her control. You can see what that kind of belief leads to on the roads in many developing countries. The supernatural world (responsible for fate, destiny, divine providence) is believed to be a powerful force which always thwarts human effort. Why should a taxi driver be so arrogant to think he can outsmart the gods?

I think a good pilot should be exactly that arrogant. There’s no point in thanking gods, spirits or demons for good outcomes, or blaming them for bad situations. It’s all physics, brought under control with training, preparation and good judgment. Believing there is a mysterious, uncontrollable factor undermines your trust in the things you do know and undermines you when you are faced with things or situations you don’t know. Yes there is “luck” (e.g. the terrain available for an emergency landing), but it’s important to view it in the same way you’d view a hand of cards. Training and knowledge help to make the best of the hand you’ve been dealt. No reason to thank anyone but the people in your present and past who helped you succeed.

Now I don’t mind at all if those Christians (I looked it up: Liberty University is a Christian “university”) deploy their prayer in emergency situations, but only after all rational options have been exhausted. So why don’t they move that checklist item into the red sections? Not into a section with lots of activity, but into “Wing Fire” for example:

Not much you can do, really...
Not much you can do, really…

There’s not much you can do, except blow a bit of air over the wing and call 121.5. After you’ve done that, if you’re lucky there’s plenty of time for prayer while you descend. Until you start preparing for your emergency landing, if applicable. Good luck! Not literally of course, so don’t put it in the checklist.

Flying conditions

I notice there is a remarkable gap between working conditions for pilots in different circumstances. At one end are the pilots flying for regional US airlines. They are exploited mercilessly. Here is a clip of a Frontline report on regional airlines. They are not exaggerating, I’ve heard confirmation from insiders.
At the other end of the spectrum are pilots with flag carriers or large cargo operations. They seem to have lots of protection, good accommodation away from their home base, good training, and very good pay. I suspect that this film is from one of them.
Does anyone know why there is such a gap between the two groups? They’re both well trained.

Old media invading the new

Is it just me, or has there been a significant increase in the amount of “forced” advertising on the web? By forced I mean ads which don’t just annoy you from the sidebars, but which you are expected to watch or click away before you can read or view the content you were looking for. YouTube is certainly doing a lot of this, reducing its appeal. It’s almost like TV now.

Hot Dogs

Gene’s & Jude’s is one of Chicago’s hidden cultural icons. It’s too far off the beaten track for most tourists to visit, but real hot-dog connoisseurs actually do travel to Chicago and then make their way West to Grand Ave & River Road just to eat one of Gene’s & Jude’s “depression style” hot-dogs.

Here’s one. It’s lurking beneath the fries.

The Gene’s & Jude’s hot dog was recently elected “Best Hot Dog in America” by subject matter experts who compared more than fifty candidates across the continent.

The award is instructive; it tells me I need look no further. That’s comforting.

If I had to select a “Best Hot Dog of Chicago”, the crisp G&J would be top of the list, followed at a distance by Portillo’s and then by Superdawg. But none of the three would be my first choice for dinner: I haven’t developed a taste for hot dogs. It’s not just the American kind I’m lukewarm about, either. I feel the same way about German Frankfurter and Swedish Korv.

The thing I find striking about hot dogs and other forms of Wurst served at fast food stands is this: out of all available choices, they are the food with the lowest value added by the vendor. I say vendor because “cook” is always the wrong word to describe what they are doing. They unpack portions of processed and preserved foods and assemble them into an end product which is warmed up and sold.

Not that hamburgers or döner kebabs are healthy, or require years of culinary training to prepare. But relative to a hot dog they almost look like they’re cooked to order with fresh produce.

But it’s never just about the food, is it. In the US in particular, I think, for many the hot dog has a special meaning which transcends the relish. Almost no-one who’s talked to me about hot dogs so far has done so without mentioning childhood memories. Regular Sunday outings to a hot dog stand close by the Sunday School, or that promised visit to Soldier Field in Boston which finally came true… that sort of thing.

I don’t think I have a “memory food” like that, so I can’t really empathize. But I do understand the value of history. Some of those iconic fast food places have been around for a while. G&J’s has an interesting history (see the Wikipedia entry). It seems the owners lost the original, centrally-located store “in a card game” in the late 40s. Which goes a way to explaining why their new store is far out West and is not much more than an improvised wooden shack with linoleum floors. Cool place.