Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Posting schedule.

Ok, I'm going to try to post at least one essay every few days. What with the lack of employment at the moment, I should be able to keep that up for a while.

Slice of life stuff might happen more frequently than that. Or less. Or both.

On Polymathy, Entrepreneurs, and Recession

Ok, Polymathy is a little strong, but I was looking for something with more impact than Dilletantism, a less corrupted connotation than Jack-Of-All-Trades, Multi-Talented usually implies a limited, if broad skill set, and I've recently seen Renaissance Man repurposed to describe those who engage in serial soft polygamy, so I'm stuck for a word. The idea I'm looking for is someone who performs at a level of professional competence or even excellence across multiple areas of expertise. The guy who can reliably fill any role in an organization. Some places they're called the 'go-to guy', but that again has connotations of connections rather than skills, and I'm really talking about someone who can do any task set in front of them, not someone who can find someone who can do that task.

For the sake of argument, let's assume when I use the word Polymath, I'm referring to a 'field expedient Polymath (f.e.p.)'. Someone who can by dint of vast experience, mental acumen, psychological flexibility, or whatever, pick up any task fast enough that people think they're already an expert at best, or 'relearning' something they've done before at worst. Someone who can speak intelligently on a wide range of topics; business, the sciences*, popular culture**, interpersonal relationships, and art of whatever stripe***.

Now, some people are immediately giong to disbelieve. That's fine. Not only are there the examples of the 'real' polymaths to counter that, there are likely enough examples than given reader knows one or has met one personally. Successful entrepreneurs often are, because they need either that or top notch networking skills in order to fill all the roles a starting business needs with the limited number of personnel available. What often happens is that the entrepreneur hires specialists in the core areas of the business, then steps up and fills all the empty roles until the business can afford to fill them with specialists. Most mid-sized and larger businesses have individuals with that same type of field-expedient polymathy; their the ones thrown wherever the fire is hottest. Small businesses tend not to get them, not because they don't want them, but because the individuals are uncommon. Not rare, really, more on the one in a hundred scale, and with one in the driver's seat running things, the odds are just that the business won't get another unless they're specifically selecting for them. If they are, they'll have different problems.

I recently was talking with a friend (who qualifies as a field-expedient polymath and an entrepreneur). He made the following observation: "The trouble with someone who is good at everything is that they have no clue what they should be doing." I really wish I could claim that line, but such is life.

If you're only good at one thing that you enjoy that pays the bills, you know what you're 'meant' to do. If in a professional sistuation there are ten things that need to be done, but you only have the skills to do one of them, you know which thing you ought to be doing. If the other nine jobs still need to be done, you may try after the one you're capable of, but there's no sense of personal failure if the job you can do is done. You're going above and beyond, if you reach for the stars and fail, you were still doing more than you really should have had to.

Now take our hypothetical f.e.p. If there are ten jobs that need to be done, odds are he can do between six and eight of them well enough to get the job done professionally. If it's a ten man job, odds are he has a few coworkers, hopefully nine, although there are times when he won't. The guy who can fill in any of the holes has to wait for the other nine to step up before he can fill the whole. The hesitation is often taken as laziness or lack of initiative, but it's actually a strategic choice. Were our f.e.p. to step into a role prematurely and fill a role one of the other employees is capable of, there is now an unfulfilled role and an excess employee.

All of that is pretty straightforward. Most of you playing at home can see the best use for someone like that; keep them on the bench until you have a job no one else can do, then throw them in the gap until you can get someone new. When you do, return them to the bench until the next gap appears.

Now, the failure modes, and I've seen a few.

The first failure mode is a growth failure. When a business is growing, having one or more f.e.p.s is a must; eventually you need more than just the owner / entrepreneur. However, companies often try to keep costs as low as possible, and the failure mode occurs when leadership fails to replace the f.e.p. with a speicalist once the need is identified. Instead, more and more hats are stacked atop one another until the f.e.p. fails due to overload. In our hypothetical ten role situation above, instead of having nine specialists and one guy to fill in the blanks, the company sees an individual who can perform six of the roles and repurposes five of the other people. One person, if pushed to complete six persons worth of work, is eventually going to fail, and not just in the 'fail to cmplete the task' way. Since the failure is usually a component failure, rather than a task failure, and that component was tied to several key tasks, the results are often widespread and fairly serious.

The second mode, which is related, is a failure mode that happens frequently during Recessions. When companies cut back, they frequently do the 'everyone justify their existence' thing. Ironically, the f.e.p. is often caught out. There are two common reasons. The first is excessive cycling roles, which causes the 'by the time I communicate this back to you, two of these four items will be out of date and three more will have been added' situation. When the evaluator sees the justification, he sees a person not fully justified, despite being over one hundred percent workload. the second is excessive small roles, which causes the 'None of these are justification' response. When the evaluator sees the long list, by the time he hits the bottom of the first page his eyes have glazed over, but nothing has jumped out at him, so the f.e.p. is marked as unjustified. Note that in both cases, the f.e.p. is likely holding down multiple mission-critical roles; that's what they do. However, it's often a case of 'none of these files in the windows folder look important, I'll delete them to save space'. By the time anyone realizes what happened, an implosion is usually well under way.

The final failure mode is actually what I mentioned above, the company comprised of nothing but f.e.p.s. It sounds great; anyone can do anything! However, think about the 'who does what' scenario. Instead of everyone grabbing a chore, each of them is waiting for the list to narrow to what everyone else can do. In addition, the company often has no 'core competency', nothing they're better at than everyone else. That's not quite correct; they're often quite good at things that require massive flexibility and broad skillsets in very little time, like innovation and crisis resolution, since in the first they can fit pieces together in ways others woudn't think of, and in the second, assuming they have at least one person who can manage the crisis that person can throw anyone anywhere at any time for the duration.

Ok, it's late, I'm rambling a bit. Short version, for those following along: there are folks in any business that do whatever the business needs. Every business needs some, too large a percentage can actually be a problem. They can't do everything all at once or they'll implode, and if you have one, it's a bad idea to get rid of them because they don't do any single 'critical' thing.

*Gaps in scientific knowledge are ok as long as areas of knowledge appear to outnumber gaps.
**Same here, only applied to details of pop culture.
***Ditto, although applied to areas of art.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

More on unfortunate implications in SF

Here's the 'next' from the earlier 'more on that next'. For those who are interested, a rather demanding one year old can tie up enough arms to prevent typing for over twelve hours a day. This is partially a request for feedback, partially me thinking out loud. I appreciate any and all comments, critiques, and suggestions, but I don't really expect any.

That said, as noted before, one of my characters is a big, tough, masculine, gay, black man in a community where the last two but one (gay and black) are each enough to make him an outcast, or a victim of prejudice. Between the first two (big and tough) he's become second-in-command of that community. He's more or less happy in that spot because he's in got an unrequited love for the leader of the community. Not a character that I'd be embarrassed about.

Now for what happens to that character.

In the scene where he's introduced, he's taken by surprise and Colson's Law. He's a secondary character, which means his lot in life is to be beat about a bit, so I'm not too upset about this scene. It's certainly not something that would have been one whit different had he been some other race or orientation. Plenty of other characters get manhandled in that fashion; the character doing the manhandling is tyrannical and from a culture where casual physical violence is beneath the radar. Personal judgement: possibly unfortunate slapstick, but not as problematic as, say, the name Abdul.

The next scene where he makes an appearance is as one of three guys drafted as ammo mules. Now, this one could be taken the wrong way, but the qualifications for being one of the ammo bearers was being really strong, really big, a combatant, and running afoul of the main characters. Every character that matched all of those requirements got drafted, so I'm not upset there. There's some question of whether someone will be upset by a character of obvious African anscestry is being used to carry stuff, but two others (Mongolian and Irish) are being treated the same way. The Mongolian is a member of an elite monastic order. The Irishman is a mentally handicapped (environmental factors) but good natured hunter who has become more or less an adopted clan member of one of the main characters. Really, Abdul's involvement here isn't a racial slur; it's a comment on his size and strength. Personal judgement: no orientation implications, possible racial implications, but again less problematic as the name.

Finally, there's the scene that I reread and, frankly, shudder. In a large firefight, Abdul becomes the focal point of an illustration about courage. A man can be capable of dealing with enormous danger calmly, but faced with the unknown, he can still be intimidated. Abdul has been in more fights for his life than he can clearly remember, but they all involved muscled powered primitive weapons. The firefight he's in is firing off terrain changing explosions multiple times per second, and flechettes are flying like rain. He keeps going, but he's getting shocky. The main character realizes both that he's going tharn and the reason for it (fear of the unknown) and shoots him, once, in the calf. The suit he's wearing seals and anesthetizes the wound, so what he gets is a short stabbing pain followed by numbness. Now that the danger is made real, rather than being an unknown, he settles down and completes the mission. During the point where he's going all shocky, I was writing him as stuttering due to fear. The problem is that on rereading it, it doesn't sound like a fear shudder. It sounds like a bad 'old south on the plantation working in the fields' accent. Like I said, I'm shuddering. Personal judgement: a man being fearless in a known situation can be afraid in an unknown situation, no matter their race or orientation, but the accent Has To Go. Poste Haste.

In conclusion, my thoughts are that I need to change his name and how he sounds when near breaking. The feedback I'd like is whether I'm horribly off base, just about right, or somewhere in between.

Writing, SF, and the D word.

I've recently been rereading my completed novel (XLI), mostly to make sure there aren't any major continuity errors between XLI, Ordinal (book 2), and Hope (book 3 / prequel). During that reread, I came across a potential land mine, and it got me thinking. The landmine in question is related to both racial and sexual orientation, and how they relate to the needs of the story. I'm going to meander a bit in describing the land mine, so please bear with me.

At one point in the story, I needed a character who was a strong character in his own right, but who was unwilling or unable to hold a direct leadership position. As a note, the group he is the second in command of is a group of, for lack of a better term, neo-savages. Ergo I need someone who is too much of an oddity to lead the group, strong enough to earn a high ranking position despite that, and possessing a reason for unswerving loyalty to the character I'd already put together for the leader.

The setting is in the far future on a world settled primarily by a mix of European and Asian
cultures. There are some others, but they're decidedly a minority. There are valid story reasons for that, mostly to do with subcultures that currently match a variety of criteria. The combination, in case anyone is wondering, is a strong belief in pacifism, some degree of belief in the virtues of a simplistic or primitive lifestyle, and (this is the real kicker) possession of a fairly large amount of high value or potentially high value real estate.

Now there are a few cultures that sprang to mind immediately, and a few others I pulled in as well. Immediate ones I'm familiar with personally are the Amish, the Quakers, and American 'hippies'. The others I researched and pulled in were from various parts of Asia. I'm not an anthropologist, I'm certain there ARE some subcultures in Africa or Eastern Europe that qualify. I'm just not aware of them, and couldn't find enough information to even include them as a 'long ago and far away' kind of source. So, short story long, the world is a mix of northeast Europeans (English and German anscestry primarily) and Asians (a somewhat broader mix, including Indians, Thai, Japanese and Mongolian). There are some others, but they're far less common, mostly pulled in via that 'hippie' connection.

So, an easy way to make the character stand out was skin tone. Most of the world wouldn't care, but in that particular savage subculture, any difference is a reason for discrimination. So as I'm wont to do, I pulled together several actors or famous personalities to come up with a voice, a face, a body, and a personality. Kevin Grevioux for the voice was first, and him mixed with a bit of Michael Clarke Duncan for the look. Finally, for the personality, a stong dose of the public persona of Doctor Dré. That last was at least partially because one of the inspirations for the physical look of his 'liege' was Marshall Mathers (the other was Mark Sheppard) so he was right there to mind. Finally, for an additional reason the character is both an outcast and loyal is if he is deeply infatuated with his leader.

Ok, so I've got the bare bones of the character there. Physical description; big, black, very masculine. Personality; forceful, loyal, possible residual self-doubt from being several ways an outcast. He's a supporting character for a supporting character, so I've not really put much thought into whether he's worked that out or is just suppressing it, but a moment's thought tells me that introspection doesn't gel well with the rest of the character. He's a leader, they tend to be extroverts. Finally, 'additional information' about the character; he's gay, he's in love with his boss, he's from a culture steeped in primitive hand-to-hand violence, so he's got a lot of physical courage. He's also just a touch cocky, although there are strong arguments he has cause to be. Name drawn out of a hat came out as Abdul. A bit cringeworthy given everything else, but ok.

Not too bad for a secondary character, really. Might need to work on the name. Arthur? His leader is Angus, so I might go with something not so alliterative. Most folks on the world are some variety of religious, either Buddhist, Hindu, or Christian (mostly Mennonite derivative), so something Biblical could work. That would make him some form of lapsed christin, possibly 'second gen, as it were.

So I look through my world - is he possible? Yes. Is he likely? No, but that's part of the character requirement. So what's wrong?

A lot, I've found. More on that next.

Is this thing on?

Hello out there in the wide world. For those who used to follow me on LJ, welcome back, I'll try to post with more frequency here. For those of you just tuning in here at the new location, expect an eclectic mix of posts related to writing, philosophy, politics, pop culture, and whatever crosses my mind at the moment. I'll try to keep it interesting.

For any of you who might be of a literary bent, I may post snippets of my fiction; either parts of my currently completed works or portions of my WIP. The latter is likely an attempt to get feedback on some portion I feel needs work, the former is a blatant ploy to garner an audience of raving fans who would then entice some nice agent or publisher to contact me.

Bob's Head, now on Blogger

I've been intending this move for months, really. Like most such things, it took a pointed comment from my own personal beloved to boot my butt into gear long enough to actually put things in motion.

Amusingly, the thing that got in my way last time I tried was choosing a URL. I typically use the KennyCelican moniker, as BobRoman is taken in most venues. In this case, some cybersquatter had taken KennyCelican.blogspot.com, but not taken BobRoman.blogspot.com. Go figure. At any rate, I've claimed that URL as my very own and will start posting here going forward.