The No-Asshole Rule

That’s the name of the new book by Stanford engineering professor Robert Sutton. Guy Kawasaki blogs about it today, describing Sutton’s “Starbucks Test” for spotting jerks:

It goes like this: If you hear someone at Starbucks order a “decaf grande half-soy, half-low fat, iced vanilla, double-shot, gingerbread cappuccino, extra dry, light ice, with one Sweet-n’-Low and one NutraSweet,” you’re in the presence of an asshole. It’s unlikely that this petty combination is necessary — the person ordering is trying to flex her power because she’s an asshole.

Security expert Gavin De Becker dispenses similar — if considerably less lighthearted — advice in his book Gift of Fear: Survival Signs that Protect Us from Violence.

Whether you’re listening to an engineer or a security consultant talk about those who creep us out, you’ll notice a recurring theme: Jerks are not hard to spot. In fact, they’re glaringly obvious. The twist is that we are socially conditioned to “make nice.” We either ignore assholes (the typical male response) or somehow think we are being “overly sensitive” about their jerkiness (a typical female reaction).

Creeps in the workplace are bad news for your career; if you’re an entrepreneur or business owner, it’s even worse. One creep client, partner, or subcontractor is enough to sink your whole business — even take your personal life down the drain as well. (De Becker has a sobering story of a travel agency owner and his employee-from-hell.)

So…if someone you’ve recently met, or are considering doing business with, makes you feel sick to your stomach, or sets the hairs on your neck on end, there’s a reason. Chances are that he or she is on a course to violate your project, your bank account, your sanity, or you.

While Sutton’s book considers a range of assholes (from the harmless to the dangerous) and proposes a range of ways to deal with them, I have to admit I favor the De Becker approach to dealing with them: Don’t apologize, don’t explain, don’t engage, and don’t fight. Just….leave. De Becker believes that many creeps and jerks are encouraged by engagement — even what you or I would think of as a very unpleasant, negative response somehow energizes them.

Life is too short to spend it dealing with assholes. Unfortunately, a poll on Kawasaki’s blog found that 45 percent of his readers report that they work for bosses who are assholes.


One of my professional heroes is Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert and The Dilbert Blog. I have the deepest admiration for someone who has managed to be searingly funny on pretty much a daily basis for more than 15 years.

Adams is a highly acerbic writer; the blog comes off far scrappier than the strip or his many Dilbert books (though in the same vein) and there are times when the blog entries can be downright off-putting.

In fact, I’d say that The Dilbert Blog does a wonderful job of illustrating the differences betweeen reading a writer’s blog and reading his or her polished and edited works.

Adams had blogged a few times about a neurological condition he has (spasmodic dysphonia). It affects a part of the brain that controls certain types of speech. In his case, he could still do public speaking but found himself unable to speak offstage (such as on the phone). Oddly, though, he could still sing. And whisper.

The disease is considered incurable, but Adams embarked on Dilbert-like experimentation to find a cure for it. And eventually he stumbled onto a way he could trick himself into speaking normally. Needless to say, he’s delighted.

He blogged about his recovery, and then blogged about the consquences of blogging about it. In this quintessential Adams post, he describes learning that he is not quite famous enough, and his recovery is not quite interesting enough, to get earn him a spot on 60 Minutes.

But he’s thrilled to have gotten so much online reaction to his story, anyway, noting

I normally get about 25,000 hits a day on this blog. After the voice story posted, I got about 180,000 hits for each of the next two days.

I am more touched than a congressional page.

What does a writer look like?

Much has been made recently in the blogosphere about publishers’ preferences for books written by stunning young women and publishers’ tendencies to invest heavily in tours and advertising for said hotties.

This is good news for stunning young women who are aspiring authors, and bad news for the rest of us.

That said, what do real writers look like — and why?

There’s always been the tweedy, academic type (think of the fellow played so brilliantly by Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys). And there’s the femme d’une certaine age romance doyenne (Jaqueline Susann, Danielle Steel); the wry, sumptuously credentialled literary woman, always in black (Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood); and the endlessly exuberant world traveler (Bill Buford, Bill Bryson, the late R.W. Apple). And now we have the rumpled, ironic McSweeney’s dude (Dave Eggers, Nick Hornby, Jonathan Lethem).

In the mystery field you find guys who write about cops and wise guys who look like cops and wise guys and women who write about eccentric detectives with cats who look like…eccentrics with cats. In the science fiction world, I can think of a quite few authors who look like they’d be right at home in the Cantina scene from Star Wars, in an alternate reality, or running a top-secret laboratory. And, yes, in the romance field, there are still a few blow-dried 1980s hairdos and a lot of long, flowing tresses in general.

My theory about writers’ tendencies to look like stereotypes is this: It’s easy, and it’s timeless.

Writers mostly stay at home writing, so they need only a few outfits for going out or (if they are lucky) going on tour. Unlike people who work 50 weeks a year in an office, writers rarely wear out their “good” clothes — and they probably don’t see enough of the outside world to even notice when fashions change. With the exception of chick lit writers (who probably toss out their whole closets and write off seasonal shopping sprees at Prada as “research expenses”) I suspect authors just find something classic…and stick with it.

Even so, I really do need do something about the fact that the only black dress shoes I own are pre-2000 — and only one pair can be counted as “retro/vintage.” Maybe I need to start writing chick lit?

Your handheld may never forget you

Like most small business owners, I worry a bit about losing data from my computers, particularly when I travel with a laptop. As a result, I back up automatically with SuperDuper! every week. My Treo PDA/phone (aka “smart phone”) is part of my general sync-and-backup system, so if I lose the Treo, I can simply restore its data from one of the computers.

But today my husband pointed me to a story in The Washington Post (reprinted in the Seattle P-I) that made me realize there’s something that could be scarier than data loss. That’s data retention.

It turns out that even when you “hard reset” your old mobile phone or PDA to erase all the data when you sell it or recycle it, all that happens is that you, and the PDA, can no longer access the data. The actual data is still there, because the flash memory in the device stubbornly holds on to it. The erasure is limited to only the pathways that link from the PDA software to the data. So, of course, hackers have discovered that it’s easy to run special software on discarded mobile phones and PDAs that creates new pathways to the former owner’s data and make it once again accessible — to them.

The Post story describes a security company that bought 10 used smart phones on eBay and recovered troves of personal information about the previous owners. With more and more folks keeping business emails and personal finance spreadsheets on their PDAs, this is very bad news indeed.

The good news is that you can permanently erase data from your handheld device when you prepare to sell or recyle it. It just takes a bit more effort than you’d thought. The Post article advises checking the manufacturer’s site for information on how to perform not just a regular reset but a “zero-out reset” or “factory reset.” The “zero-out reset” overwrites all the data with “0”s and “1”s that won’t be of much interest to anybody.

Fiction writing: first or third person?

If you’re writing fiction, and have ever been tripped up by point of view, April Henry has some spot-on observations about the advantages of each.

When it comes to writing fiction, I’ve discovered that my weak point is point of view. Every novel-length project I’ve attempted (and one that I’ve completed) has at some point been rewritten to change the viewpoint from third person to first (or back the other way).

Much of the contemporary crime fiction I admire (by authors such as Michael Connelly, Reginald Hill, and Ian Rankin) is written in third person. Hill uses an omniscient narrator to shift back and forth between multiple characters — very tricky to pull off without leaving the reader feeling cheated. The best known of the female private eye stories (written by Sue Grafton and Janet Evanovich), use traditional private-eye first person. It’s colorful, immediate, and credible but runs the risk, particularly in Grafton’s alphabet series (B is for Burglar, etc.), of sounding whiney.

It was a relief to read this post from mystery writer April Henry in which she describes making the switch — one way for one of her books, and the other way for another. Both times she changed the point of view at the request of her editor, and both time she was glad she did.

If you’re writing fiction, and have ever been tripped up by point of view, April has some spot-on observations about the advantages of each.

Real beauty: The Sartorialist

Over at .Thought, Jeff Carlson covers an ethical issue that has created quite a bit of buzz in the design community: what the beauty industry and the design industry are doing to women’s physical and mental health.

This one-minute film (be patient while the flash loads) showing a professional model as she is made up, photographed, and transformed into a billboard (advertising makeup, no less) surprised me so much that I found myself crying at the end.

Now, for something on the same topic, but a bit more cheerful. Some months ago, I stumbled upon The Sartorialist, a blog by a New York City photographer who wanders around taking pictures of fashion (trendy, classic, eccentric) as it is interpreted by men and women on the street.

Last summer, the blog included some shots of Manhattan women in their 50s and 60s that were just stunning — tremendous fashion sense, natural gray hair. I wrote to The Satorialist asking for more shots of older woman (quite frankly, I was out to steal some of the clothing ideas for my own wardrobe). He wrote back saying he loves to do those shots but that most older women he approached declined to have their pictures taken. (I suggested MOMA around lunch time; he said he’d tried it.)

Before you click over to The Sartorialist, I should warn that he’s recently caught the attention of the fashion industry, and now, in his “real life” he’s taking pictures in Milan and Paris for various magazines. But he continues to post un-staged, on-the-street photos of natural style and beauty.

It’s not blogging if…

…nobody reads it.

According to an anonymous post left here yesterday, the font size for the blog entries in Writer Way was too small to be comfortably readable. I checked the template code (credited to Douglas Bowman of Stop Design, circa 2004, and subsequently updated by the Blogger Team). It was calling for an underlying font size of normal Verdana and Ariel at 100%. I’ve since adjusted that to 115%, which is similar to the look of my previous blog.

Please be patient as I work on the code for subsections of the page to adjust leading and padding to compensate!

If not now, when?

Creating Passionate Users is urging readers to “make something amazing, right now.” Ignore the constraints, lose the excuses and, as that old slogan goes, “just do it.”

There’s much to be said for this approach, particularly if you’re surrounded by ditherers in a hidebound traditional organization.

However, as someone who moves in entrepreneurial circles, I often find myself in exactly the opposite position. I see people leaping madly from project to project, enterprise to enterprise, today’s idea to tomorrow’s fancy. They don’t seem to produce much of anything, and often they acquire an alarmingly overdeveloped capability for…leaping.

Fortunately, there are some opportunities to do new things which are at once intoxicatingly challenging and realistically structured.

One of them is Seattle Mind Camp. Now in version 3.0, this is a 24-hour gathering of 250 self-selected technology types who take over a building full of meeting spaces in order pose and address questions all day and through the night. Inventions, friendships, and even companies, have emerged from previous Mind Camps. I expect I’ll have something more specific to say about Mind Camp after I’ve done it (Nov. 11-12); if you’re interested, sign up (50 spaces are available as of this writing) and I’ll see you there.

Another creative-but-structured challenge is the month-long NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. Thousands of aspiring novel writers participate, and fortunately they don’t have to spend all that time together in the same building. Instead, online and local support groups are formed in which writers cheer each other along. And each writer gets a page on the NaNoWriMo site to track word count and make exerpts available for others to read.

I’ll be “doing NaNoWriMo” for the first time this year. My plan is to overhaul and expand a New England crime fiction novel I’ve been working on sporadically for several years. This is the perfect opportunity to apply some of the novel-structuring techniques I learned in Matt Briggs‘ recent class offered through Media Bistro.

I expect that as I scribble my way through NaNoWriMo I’ll think back often on two old college friends, Ed and Michael. Ed, even at that age, identified himself as a writer. Michael was already a well-recognized folk and jazz musician. We frequently got together when Michael had a gig in town. As we walked along Chapel Street one night after one of Mike’s performances, Ed launched into an amusing comparison of the musician’s life with that of the writer. His bitter conclusion: “I can’t invite beautiful women to come over and watch me write all evening!”

A question of identity

Veteran blogger Jim Benson posted a comment here teasing me about going public with Writer Way because he knows I’ve been blogging for more than three years elsewhere using a pseudonym. My defense: The whole blogging thing was in its pre-teen years, and an avatar seemed like a good idea at the time.

Once, when I published a post questioning the business practices of a local social networking startup, the startup’s founder shot me a vituperative email that began “Listen, dude, if you worked in tech, and lived in Seattle…”

Being, of course, female, working for Apple at the time, and living less than a mile from his North Seattle office, I enjoyed that email for days. Now I’ll miss the anonymity that prevented people from stereotyping me based on my name or my gender. It resulted in such amusing correspondence! But, yes, Jim, blogging has come of age and I want to play with all the other grownups.

Seattle women bloggers, media, and politics

This, verbatim, from Craig’s List today:

Reply to:
Date: 2006-10-15, 1:14PM PDT

At last weekend’s Politics & The Media with Janeane Garofalo, it came up how few women bloggers there are in Seattle.

Anyway, I’d be willing to donate use of my TypePad Pro account to help a group of women set up their own group blog. (I’m male). You’d own the blog together.

I was thinking that something multi-generational (one woman from 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s) would be cool – but I’m open to whatever the most talented folks propose.

This guy must be kidding about the lack of women bloggers. (Since Janeane Garafolo doesn’t live in Seattle, I’ll let her off the hook.)

Has he ever attended a session of the Seattle Weblogger Meetup (founded and run by blogger Anita Rowland)? Checked out the community reader blogs at the Seattle P-I (most of them written by women)?

As for a man “donating” his TypePad account to “help” women blog, how incredibly patronizing. Blogger accounts are free and my cat could set one up.

Now my disconnect here may be because what this anonymous fellow is terming a lack of women bloggers in Seattle is instead a lack of women blogging about media and politics. Or perhaps just a lack of women blogging about media and politics in blogs devoted exclusively to those topics.

Consider this: The best-known Seattle blog about media and politics (, while well reported and well written, is characterized by reader comments at the level of “f*** you, s***head.” I don’t know many women who would consider this a particularly edifying or productive type of discussion.

I suspect that Seattle women bloggers are coming in under the (narrowly directed) radar because they write about media and politics in the context of real life instead of in a compartmentalized “media and politics” blog.

Let me illustrate with this opening from a lengthy analysis of Al Gore’s recent movie by a female Seattle blogger (her site is Nerd’s Eye View):

There’s an episode of The Simpsons in which Martin, one of the nerdy kids, spends his last ten bucks on a talking Al Gore doll. “You are hearing me talk,” says the doll. It cracks me up every time. Plus, it’s a fairly accurate assessment of the production version of Al Gore. Stiff, not that interesting, but honest, very very honest.

Last night I attended a screening of Al Gore’s new movie, An Inconvenient Truth. It’s a film version of Al Gore’s slide show on global warming. His science is undeniably thorough and accurate. His passion about the issue is palpable, even on screen. This man has done his homework, exhaustively, and when the movie is over you have no doubt that his case is clear and that action is essential.

But I fell asleep in the middle anyway.

Oh, yes, what a pity we timid li’l Seattle gals don’t have a thing to say about the media and politics!

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