Friday, June 26, 2009

DeBence Museum: Local gem

(News-Herald, June 25) When you visit friends in some exotic far-off locale, they’ll tell you about all the sights they never see except when they’re hosting out of towners. Every place, big or small, has these underappreciated gems that locals never get around to visiting.
One Venangoland version of that is DeBence Antique Music World.
Don’t be put off by the name. At some point somebody convinced the DeBence folks that the word “Museum” is scary, so they became a “Music World.” Yeah, sure. They’re a museum, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Most locals know the story. In a barn just south of Franklin, Jake and Elizabeth DeBence assembled the biggest collection of Cool Old Music Stuff that anyone has ever seen. When Jake died, Elizabeth was so committed to keeping the collection intact and local that she passed up chances to become a millionaire several times over.
Local investors and fans raked up the kind of money needed to keep the collection and to house it, creating a showcase that also rescued one of the better old storefronts in down town Franklin.
The collection includes old Nickelodeons, band organs, calliopes, plus an assortment of other oddities (a mechanical violin player?). Under the watchful hands of talented volunteers, DeBence has over 200 of these musical devices operating. These machines represent an era in music, not mention mechanical wizardry and inventiveness (historical side note—player piano technology became the foundation for beginning computers).
Creating a large collection of such amazing antiques requires determination and a certain amount of vision. Before something becomes a Valuable Antique, it’s usually just Some Old Piece of Junk. Most people don’t hold onto their junk long enough to see it become a valuable antique.
Several things make DeBence a museum unique not just in the state, not just in the nation, but in the world.
First, beyond the sheer size of the collection, there are machines here that are the last of their kind, the only ones left on the planet. Some are merely extremely rare. At DeBence you can see things you can’t see anywhere else.
Second—well, my father likes to tell the story of how DeBence contacted the Smithsonian for some assistance and expertise. All the DeBence folks ended up doing was upsetting the Smithsonian folks.
The Smithsonian’s idea is that these rare and valuable instruments should be wrapped in plastic and sealed in amber. Then the public should be allowed to glance at them through three feet of plexiglass.
The DeBence idea is that these instruments were built to make music, and so they should be played. There are other places where you can SEE some of these rare instruments, DeBence is the only place where you can actually HEAR them.
You can also watch them. DeBence is not only great for music fans, but for gadget fans as well. If you love seeing how things work, you will find the innards of these beasts amazing. Most were not mass produced, but were created from basic plans which the builders “reinterpreted” for each individual machine. This makes maintenance and repair an adventure.
Behind the scenes, the second floor has become a workshop that has become the go-to repair resource for amusement parks throughout the Northeast. And on the third floor, they have re-opened the only intact top-floor ballroom in Franklin (with the assistance of the ever-resourceful Rotarians). Once a month you can enjoy a DeBence mini-event in the ballroom, a small, intimate musical treat presented for free. They usually have cookies, too.
Until the end of October, the museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11-4. On Sunday it’s 12:30 till 4. You can find information about DeBence online at
In the interest of full disclosure, I should acknowledge my stake in this; since my father’s retirement, he and my mother have been heavily involved with DeBence. Their children are pleased that they have found a new hobby (hobby defined as “job nobody pays you for”) that keeps them off the streets and too busy to fall in with unsavory companions.
Like most museums of its type, DeBence survives on copious volunteer hours and contributions. Admission fees cover a tiny part of costs; contributions and memberships are a more important source of support.
People come from all over the world to see and hear this unique collection. If you’ve never made the short trip to check it out, or even if it’s just been a while, this summer is a good time to enjoy this really cool collection.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Committee Reporting and Vetos

(News-Herald, June 18) Everyone who has ever served on any kind of board knows the process:
There’s a new project that needs to be handled, so first, you beat bushes, twist arms and otherwise pummel folks with clich├ęs in an attempt to put together the committee that has to do the project handling. Then the handful of willing members (minus the ones who said they would serve but who will never actually show up) carve out time to meet, discuss, study up on their own, read old reports, consider alternatives, explore possibilities, etc etc etc and also etc. After many many many hours and perhaps more than a bit of soul-searching and heated discussion, the committee will finally come up with a plan.

At this point they will bring the plan back to the larger group, at which point they’ll get to field some questions. Some of these are legitimate:
“What were your criteria?” What yardstick did you use? Cheapest? Closest? Most gerbils per square hectare?
“How did your solution measure up?” Does this one provide, in fact, the most gerbils per hectare?
These are important and legitimate questions. A good committee presentation has already answered them; a bad committee can’t answer them. The worst illegitimate committee doesn’t know the answer. Instead, they picked their solution first, and then spent their time as a committee making a case to support that solution, the only solution they ever seriously considered.
They may try to hide their poor work by claiming that their solution is “just common sense” or “obviously, the only way.” All they’re really saying is, “We didn’t do our homework. We just picked the answer we like best.”
A legitimate committee can answer the criteria questions easily. But even if they navigate the legitimate questions, they’ll still have to deal with questions like these:
“Could you just walk us through the steps that got you to this decision” or some other question that basically boils down to “Tell me everything I’d know if I had sat through the hundreds of hours of meetings myself.”
“You really ought to consider Option X.” In this example, Option X will be something that the committee considered, discussed, and rejected two months ago.
“I don’t want you to do that.” This person just wants veto power over all decisions made by the group.
Maybe there’s no such thing as a stupid question. But there is still such a thing as questions that stupid people ask.
The people who ask these three questions will have one other thing in common—they will be people who had the opportunity to serve on the committee, and refused.
These are people who do not want to invest the time and effort in dealing with problems and issues, but they still want the power that comes with that investment.
They are first cousins to the people who take on a job, get someone else to do the work, and then come in at the end to pat everyone else (and themselves) on the back.
These are the folks who want veto power, who don’t want to help find solutions (that would be hard), but just want to be able to alter, edit or eject the solutions someone else comes up with.
(I’m not talking about bosses—actual bosses have the right and responsibility to alter, edit or eject. I’m talking about people who have not actually earned the right to take a hatchet to the work of their peers. Okay, maybe I am talking about one or two bosses.)
It’s tacky to try to cross the finish line when you haven’t run the race. It’s rude to make your premiere appearance at the theater on opening night and ask to play the lead.
And it’s the height of organizational obnoxiousness to avoid doing any of the work and yet show up to second-guess the people who actually got the job done. It’s a cheap way to avoid responsibility for the proposal while still claiming credit for involvement. It’s lazy. It’s cowardly.
The modern philosopher Stan Lee wrote “With great power comes great responsibility.” Power comes with a cost; if you aren’t willing to pay the price in time and effort, don’t try to swoop in at the last moment to steal it. Veto power is for people who have been involved in the journey, not for people who sat it out on the couch.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Cyber-lying in the workplace

(News-Herald, June 11) Saying that computers have changed the workplace is like observing that automobiles have changed people’s vacation planning. It’s more obvious than air.
What’s less obvious is exactly how computer technology has affected the kind of smarts needed in the workplace..
Sometimes what is needed is the ability to outsmart the computer. Last spring I made one of my semi-annual pilgrimages to Cedar Point. This trip was in the company of a group of high school students and upon arrival it was discovered that the computer responsible for issuing group discount tickets was having some sort of emotional breakdown.
In order to get us the appropriate discount, the sales rep had to tell the computer that we were not a high school group (I don’t remember exactly what we masqueraded as—a group of wheelchair bound girl scouts or geriatric hockey all-star team or something). The computer spit out some appropriately cheap tickets and all was saved.
This particular technique for dealing with reluctant computer technology is what we used to call “lying.” When you use this technique with humans, it’s generally considered Bad. But with computers, lying is often necessary, and also requires a fairly advanced set of lying skills. Every workplace needs at least one person who can lie to computers with a level of skill which, if used on live humans, would suggest some kind of sociopath.
A workplace without such workers can become even more ridiculous. I was at a grocery store a while back when the computers went down, and so could not give the usual card-swipy auto-discounts.
I watched a check-out person completely stumped by a buy one, get one free sales item. Without a computer to work out this tricky transaction, she was flummoxed, and she told the luckless customer that he would just have to pay the full price for both of his items. I don’t know if working out “get one free” manually was beyond her comprehension or her administrative powers, but it was still a sad moment to watch.
This wasn’t so much of an issue two decades ago. Back then, most software was still written by software engineers to be used only by other software engineers. Workplace desks included cheat sheets for when you couldn’t remember that getting the computer to add two plus two required selecting the drop-down menu under operants and then clicking on the base twelve tab and clicking through to the cgi bin sort descriptors and manually type in “xxC23g*vi\2.009”. You didn’t need someone who could lie to the computer so much as someone who could just talk to it.
Then workplace software evolved and software engineers learned to write software for purchasing agents. This software was also useless for the actual employees in the workplace, but it was generally much prettier. Sample conversation from this era:
Boss: How’s that great new widget software working out?
Employee: It takes me twice as long to complete the design drawings.
Boss: Yeah, but how about that cool alien ray gun effects that come with the screen saver?
In this era workplaces started needing someone who could trick the computer into doing what it had promised to do in the first place. The age of the gifted cyber-liar had arrived.
We already understand that by and large, lying to other humans is bad. Lying to animals is a bit fuzzier ethically—if I pretend to throw a stick and instead hide it behind my back, that counts as part of the game. If I trick Rover into going to the vet, that’s for his own good.
But a tool? I never had to lie to a hammer or screwdriver to make them work properly.
Of course, in my relationship with a hammer, there’s no question about who’s in charge. The new dilemma may not spring from any abilities of computers, but in the way we’ve given them authority in the workplace.
The Terminator movies imagine a future when computers become so smart and self-aware that they take over the world and start hunting down pesky humans. The scary face of the future, we’ve been told, will be Arnold Schwarzanegger coldly declaring “I’ll be back” and shooting up hundreds of hardened humans. It seems more likely that the real face of computer domination is a flustered cashier saying, “Sorry. The computer’s down, so I can’t give you your change.” Cyber-lying may be the next necessary survival skill.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Flaming Dead Possum followup

As a writer, you hope that someday you'll create something that will move others to their own special... well, after the column about incompetent bosses and flaming dead possums ran, this arrived from a fan of the column who works out at Polk, and words just fail me.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Graduation 09

(News0-Herald, June 4) I am a fan of Occasions. I think we are in danger of seeing every event as entertainment, but being entertained is not the highest goal humans can have.
Weddings, funerals, baptisms—nobody should walk out of these Occasions discussing if it was fun, amusing or entertaining. People should be moved, humbled, inspired, excited, saddened, touched by some sense of deeper human truths and beauty that surface in these moments.
Each of these should come wrapped in a Sense of Occasion, a series of cues that help us understand that we are witnessing a moment that is special, illuminating, a reminder of the grand trajectory of human life. That’s why we dress up, decorate, observe ceremonial acts that we can’t even explain.
Graduation is one of those Occasions. Why a funny hat and goofy gown? Why a long walk set to old music? Because they help create a Sense of Occasion. Our local graduates hear a lot of language about this big moment, this great transition, this complete change in their lives, and I believe wholeheartedly that every one of these homilies is true.
But I don’t think that’s the thing to remember.
Big Occasions are important, and it is right that we should honor them. But focusing on them too much leads some folks to imagine that these Big Occasions are sparkling islands surrounded by vast, flat, changeless seas.
We humans take comfort in routine, in the belief that between Big Occasions, things are Usually This Way or Always That Way. It’s just not true. I could talk about what I “always” do at Christmas. But I have only seen fifty-two Christmas’s and each one was different.
If you aren’t around teenagers, it’s easy to forget how quickly things change, how completely different ninth grade is from twelfth grade. Yes, the commencement ceremony marks a big change in their lives, but so has every single year leading up to graduation.
Decades ago in his book Future Shock, Alvin Toffler argued that too much change too quickly throws humans into a bit of an anxious tizzy, and I suppose he has a point. It may be comforting to believe that we are fairly stable people passing through a frozen and unchanging landscape.
It’s just not true. We are changing daily. The people around us are changing daily. The world around us is changing daily.
The advent of the oil industry created upheaval and disruption on the world. Whalers, once as much a part of America as apple pie and amber waves of grain, were thrown out of work. Later on, the invention of pipelines created a new industry and ravaged an old one.
The oil industry itself has never stood still. Pick any moment in its history—things were getting better or getting worse or some fundamental of the industry was changing forever.
When people make the oft-repeated comment that Venangoland must be revived by returning to the industry of yesteryear, I wonder exactly which year they mean. Do they want to return to a point when things were bad but getting better? When things were great but soon to turn sour? You can talk about the way things Always Were, but it’s just not true.
Every Utopia ever proposed assumed that a perfect society would remain locked in position, unchanging, unshifting. But no such static society has existed in human history. Not ever. Never.
It’s like watching a rock roll down a hill and saying, “Right there, when it was about halfway down. That was the perfect spot. I want it there.” You can’t have one moment without the whole trip down the hill.
We may fear change, want to avoid it, but it is the most unavoidable thing in life. We are in the car, and the engine is running and the car is in gear and we are headed up the road. We can try to steer, we can try to get someone else to steer, we can find ways to brace ourselves for impact. What we can’t do is stop the car from moving.
We’re continuously hitting a new stretch of pavement. We can celebrate Occasions to mark particular mileposts, but before and after that milepost, the car keeps moving and someone still needs to steer.
So yes, your Graduation Day is an Important Occasion. It is a unique once-in-a-lifetime day that may change your entire life. That’s is true. But here’s the thing—it’s also true for every other day that you’ll ever live.

From my Flickr