The Glamorous Geek's Guide to Surviving the Real World
Winning Money, Success, and Love on a Planet Full of Jocks and Charmers

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Some truthy things to say to nerds.

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Oct 22, 2015   [permalink]

Education, Part III

How little is too little?

Obviously there's also such a thing as not enough education. People like Gates and Zuckerberg are the exception; most college dropouts don't end up as billionaires, and indeed if you're forced to drop out of school and get a job for economic or family reasons, it can be really hard to go back, and the majority of employers will see you as uneducated no matter how much you actually know. There are meritocracies out there that really only care about your ability to get things done, but even these places are likely to underpay you if they think your outside options are limited. That's a simple matter of supply and demand.

Gates and Zuckerberg

Billy and the Zuck. Note: most college dropouts are not as successful as these guys. (Wikimedia)

Therefore, you should definitely get an associate's degree at the very least, and most tech professionals really should have a bachelor's. What you do beyond that depends on your ambitions; the problems and benefits of a PhD are very real, but a master's degree will often split the difference. I personally have a job as Chief Technology Officer at a tech company valued in the tens of millions of dollars, but on paper there is no way I would have qualified for that position if I hadn't co-founded the company and (literally) written the book on the subject. That book got the company funded and taken seriously.

For better or worse, I'm a grad-school dropout. I worked my way through the undergrad years, carrying 17+ credit hours per semester and working 3 jobs to pay the bills. Then I went to work for a major defense contractor, where a bachelor's degree was the ticket to a solidly middle-class existence. The transition was abrupt and left me with a lot of free time, though, and most of my friends had gone on to graduate school (in part, I think, because they hadn't gotten hired right out of undergrad), so after a year I started taking courses on the side. At age 23 I was halfway to a master's degree, right at the point where the work was starting to get difficult, when my personal life fell apart and I just couldn't finish out the semester while still holding a job. So, I dropped out of school and never went back.

For most of my career this really didn't affect me, and seemed in retrospect like the right choice. I've published papers in peer-reviewed journals, held intelligent conversations with Nobel prize winners, and done some fairly serious work with heavy duty quantum mechanicy stuff, and had nothing to prove to myself or anyone else. Yeah, right. Founding a startup meant I had to look credible to potential investors, and many of them -- perhaps even most -- wanted to see at least an M.S. beside my name. Suddenly, that bachelor's degree was an anchor weighing me down. Worse than that: it was weighing down the whole organization, including the early investors who had believed in my skinny bachelor ass.

These days, it's mostly back to not mattering again. With a bunch of patents to my name, and my inventions (and co-inventions) rendered as actual products in the hands of actual real-world customers, I'm sufficiently credentialed that the subject of school rarely comes up anymore. But that's after ten years of ridiculously hard work, and it's fair to say I almost didn't make it across the gap. If I had it to do over again, I would definitely have gotten that master's degree, and you, dear reader, should consider doing the same.

On the other hand, my wife dropped out of school three separate times through no fault of her own, and never did get a degree, and she's been responsible for billions of dollars in payouts and millions of database records and up to a dozen direct-report employees, so maybe it's not such a critical thing after all. Even in today's world, the undereducated still have options that don't involve selling off a kidney or starving to death in the gutter.

More Anon.

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Oct 12, 2015   [permalink]

Education, Part II

The Self-Taught Genius?

I'm not opposed to the knowledge that comes from a good education. Far from it! However, I tend to think knowledge is all around us all the time, in books, journals, in the minds of our nerdy friends, and even on TV shows. People like to diss TV, but on any given day a tremendous amount of cool stuff passes through it, and if you dip in to watch the right things even occasionally you'll be soooooo much wiser about the world than almost anybody was in the 3-channel dark ages, it's not even a fair comparison.

Popular magazines? I've gotten a lot of benefit from reading Science News every week. Its short, punchy articles on all aspects of science are not too intimidating in any given issue, but if you absorb and metabolize them year after year after year, the cumulative effect can be pretty staggering. Your ideal blog or magazine may be different than mine, but the effect is the same; if you read enough, about enough different things, you can become one of those polymath types who seems to know at least a little bit about everything. That's a useful skill all by itself, and if it's coupled with detailed knowledge about a few specific subjects, so much the better, provided you're not constantly throwing your knowledge around like a complete twat.

I assume you've already learned to program your computer and/or your smartphone, but if you haven't, start immediately. The best kind of knowledge is the kind you construct yourself, painstakingly, while trying to reproduce the game of Pong or something. During the 80s, computer programming was a rite of passage even non-nerds experienced, but today it seems to have fallen out of favor even with the mainstream of nerd culture. Don't let it. Even if you have no intention of writing software for a living, you want to be able to hold an intelligent conversation with people who do. Fail, and they'll feed you bullshit just for fun, and even if you know they're doing it you'll have no way to prove it. The best possible defense for a manager on the rise is, "Never mind, Sheldon. I'll write it myself."

Also, on a related subject, don't be afraid to think in metaphors—even "stupid" ones with obvious flaws. In my various careers I've gotten a lot of mileage by treating electricity like water (voltage=pressure, amperage=flow rate), quantum mechanics like thermodynamics (Heisenberg uncertainty=pressure, confinement energy=temperature), and photons like actual physical objects (wavelength=diameter). Analogies can mislead as well as enlighten, but for the record, this is exactly how Einstein (an eccentric who was bad at math and probably had ADHD) cracked both relativity and the photoelectric effect, so how stupid is it really?

Now, Actual Experts may balk at this strategy; your analogies may be so full of shit that they simply can't be taken seriously, and need to be refuted point-for-point or even rejected in their entirety. That's OK, because that refutation is itself part of a creative process that kicks off new analogies and fresh ideas, and may jolt either or both of you onto interesting new paths. Or not; what works for one person may very well not work for others. Just suggestions, bro.

Obviously, too, some of the best, most useful knowledge is acquired on the job, and you should get as much of that as you humanly can. The true alpha geek should know not only the basics of physics, chemistry, and mechanics, but also software engineering and database architecture, technical writing (including grant proposals), the interpretation of circuit diagrams and Material Safety Data Sheets, the translation of mushy business requirements into rigorous schedules and technical specs (a discipline known as systems engineering), and if possible, a smattering of patent, trademark, and copyright law. These things are not taught (or not taught well) in schools, so OJT may be your only opportunity to absorb them. The more you know about this stuff, the less likely you are to find your level of incompetence when promoted.

The flip side, though, is that learning this stuff on the job will put you chronically outside your comfort zone, right out there in public where everyone can see. In fact, if you are in your comfort zone—if you always know exactly what you're doing—then you're both underperforming and failing to grow. So be shameless in your discomfort! The wise man or woman asks a lot of questions, and isn't afraid to share a cockamamie theory when things aren't quite making sense, and isn't ashamed if someone else has more information or a better idea. You don't have to be right, Watson. Just useful.

More anon.

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Oct 12, 2015   [permalink]

Education

How much is too little?

The amount of schooling you need, and in what subjects, is one of the most personal choices a human being can make. Only you can decide what path you want to follow in life, but if you're still reading this blog, I'm going to assume my opinion is useful to you, so here it comes:

PhDs are for losers.

Thumbs up!

PhDs are for losers

Well, not always, and not completely, but follow my reasoning here: in physics or chemistry, you're expected to know everything and to be a particular expert in something, so the PhD is a basic requirement for employment. If you're really really dedicated, you can get a bachelor's degree in four years and a PhD in three more, and be ready for the labor market by the time you're 25. Unfortunately, there are way more degrees given out every year than there are job opportunities, so an acceptable resume needs a couple-three years of indentured postdocitude. Once that's out of the way, when you're 28 and already starting to find a few gray hairs on your head, you can start looking for an actual market-salary job.

And here's the thing about that: while you've been loafing around in school, your competition has been learning the ins and outs of the grown-up world. Unfortunately, a lot of PhDs enter the workforce with a combined sense of superiority and entitlement that is not, for the most part, shared by employers, or by existing employees. I knew a PhD chemist once who freaked out—and I mean freaked out—when he realized he was reporting to someone with a GED. But this was chem-boy's first real job, and GED-man was not only five years older, but had also spent his entire adult life working in—and eventually managing—R&D laboratories. He knew how to order supplies, how to compose schedules in Microsoft Project, how to hire and fire technicians, and how to placate management when things went wrong. Chem-boy knew how to develop new chemical mixtures, but even here his years of training were no guarantee that his hunches were right or his first choices wise.

Sadly, his formal education was a complement to—not a replacement for—GED-man's brute-force, Edisonian model of trying anything and everything that might work. In fact, if employers were forced to choose between practice without theory and theory without practice, the PhDs would be out on the sidewalk so fast they'd emit Cerenkov radiation. So, like it or not, in this context the PhDs really are the help—not exactly interchangeable, but not the people you want in charge.

Now, a PhD with good people skills and 10+ years of practical experience is a different matter. If you have that, and if you also take to the business of business, you could well be on a fast track to senior management. Unfortunately, by the time that track opens up for you, you're already 40, and with age discrimination kicking in by the early 50s, you had better be damn sure your salary and pension are high enough to make up for those two lost decades.

If you're a bright but slow PhD student—and I've known a few of those—the picture is even bleaker. When your first real job doesn't start until your mid-to-late 30s, your only real chance of entering the power elite is to co-found a company and hope it's wildly successful. Failing that, there simply aren't enough years in your career to put enough money in the bank to give you the retirement you would have had with an earlier start. Honestly, you'd've been better off as a plumber.

It gets worse, too, because money isn't the only problem you'll face with a compressed adulthood. These days a "normal" person (if you'll forgive the hypothetical) graduates college at 22, maybe plays around for a year or two but quickly settles in and gets serious about building up a standard of living. This mythical normie gets married in his or her mid-to-late twenties, has a baby or two around age 30, and is done with the toddler years by 35. Peak earning years occur between 35 and 50, while the kids are growing up, and the offspring are finished with college before the parents hit retirement age. There may be a divorce and remarriage in their somewhere (a little less than half the time, yes), but that has surprisingly little effect on the overall arc: our median soul arrives at 55 or 60 with the work of parenthood well concluded.

For the late-blooming PhD, life is rather different. Against a backdrop of ticking biological clocks, a not-so-young couple emerges from the darkness of grad school, blinking and sneezing at the harsh glare of reality. They take an apartment, get married and have a kid before their employment situation has really settled down, and so the honeymoon years, the toddler years, the home-building years, and the career-building years all happen at the same time. The stress of an ordinary life is bad enough, but this is insane, and I've seen it drive people around the bend.

That's exactly why most of our science and technology doctorates are now going to immigrants: because it's exactly like picking fucking vegetables in the sun all day. It's a raw deal that totally sucks that no one in their right mind would take unless the situation in their home country were even worse.

Again, not always. Not everyone, and not completely. Some people don't want families. Some couples have strong outside support and/or cash cushions to fall back on. Some children are particularly easy to raise, and some large, multigenerational homes don't need to be "built", just integrated with. If you're lucky enough to be in one of these situations, you may be partly shielded from the penalties of a late start.

You may also get lucky; in the ever-shifting world of technology, the major you happened to pick 7 years ago may just happen to be the thing some cool company—or even an entire cool industry—happens to need. You might not even have to move!

There are also PhD-friendly employers—most notably universities (duh!) but also state and federal governments, and the contractors that serve them, that really do appreciate and try to recompense the great sacrifices a PhD has made. Beltway consulting companies like Booz Allen Hamilton, for whom the feds are the only customer, tend to be much more credential-driven than their commercial counterparts that make and sell actual things. Unfortunately, according to a friend of mine who works for one of these madhouses, nothing of actual value ever gets produced there, just endless reports about reports about reports. So you'll need a strong stomach and a willingness to put financial gain ahead of actual job satisfaction. But if that's your thing, then let Greater D.C. be your oyster!

Aerospace companies are in the middle of the range, with some areas dominated by academics and others by analysts and technicians. There are some commercial enterprises, though, where a PhD is a real asset and confers real status. Dow Chemical springs immediately to mind, along with 3M and Intel and yes, Google. If you manage a soft landing in one of these places, you have a comfortable couple of decades ahead of you before they boot you for someone younger. These jobs are hard to come by, though, and you may have to kill someone before a slot opens up.

Another good spot is the startup culture of Silicon Valley, which really does like to have PhDs around, not only as founders but also as early key hires. Venture capitalists have a reputation as cutting-edge thinkers charged with ushering in the future, but in reality they can be surprisingly lazy, paint-by-the-numbers herd creatures whose main goal is to command high salaries while not getting sued by their own investors. This means they need to minimize the appearance of risk in the bets they place, which in turn means that some dude with a Stanford doctorate, and local people able to vouch for him, is a lot more fundable than some yutz from Albuquerque with a perpetual motion machine. Even if the machine fucking works!

Which brings me to another point: a PhD from a brand-name school means a lot more than a PhD from Kansas State. If KSU is the only grad school that'll let you in, you need to think very seriously about your next move, or you may sink half a decade into a dog-shit milkshake only to find, hyah, there's no market for dog-shit milkshakes. Especially if your degree is in English or History, Philosophy or Communications, but you're too smart to fall for that scam, right? (Hi, Sean! Hi, Greg!)

Think of it as running a naval blockade; in an especially forgiving historical era, your odds of making it through with your cargo intact may be as high as 75%. Meaning, there's still a 1 in 4 chance of getting sunk, captured, run aground, or forced to dump your goods at sea. In an unforgiving period, your chances of success may drop to 10% or less, and if you're braving those kinds of odds anyway, there are betting tables outside the PhD zone that may let you roll the dice more than once. It's something to think about, and I hope you do think about it. No one should place that big a bet without first imagining all the various futures it can lead to, and which ones are more probable.

More anon.

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Sep 21, 2015   [permalink]

On Being Late

It is your fault, but only sort of

Around the world, in businesses and governments, militaries and nonprofits, people wearily acknowledge that projects nearly always take longer and cost more than you expect. It's worst when you're doing something completely new (i.e., all the best and coolest projects of your career), but even if you're just turning the crank on a process that's been done many times, the real world has an uncanny habit of tossing sabots into the gears. Mathematician Douglas Hofstadter even codified this as Hofstadter's Law: "It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law." Recursive snarkiness, ha ha.

As to the question of why things are late, people have been surprisingly incurious, or at least incapable of satisfying their curiosity. However, the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb provides an important clue. In his 2007 book The Black Swan, Taleb asserts that "random" events actually fall into two categories: Gaussian randomness, where the outcomes fall along a neat, predictable bell curve, and power-law randomness, where there's actually no limit to how big an outcome you can see.

So: in a Gaussian water clock, each drop may have (for example) a 68% chance to land within a timing error of ± one-tenth of a second, a 4.4% chance of being off by more than two-tenths of a second, and only an 0.2% chance of being off by more than three tenths of a second. In a water clock governed by power-law statistics, the water drop may have that same 68% chance of being within 0.1 seconds of perfect, but a 4.4% chance of being off by 2.5 seconds, and an 0.2% chance of being off by 50 seconds. That's a huge difference, and Taleb's point is that if you blithely assume an event is going to be Gaussian when in fact it's power-law, then 68% of the time you'll never know the difference, and 28% of the time you'll say your models are pretty close, and 4% of the time you'll experience unpleasant, inexplicable anomalies, and 0.2% of the time you'll suffer an error of such cataclysmic proportions that no reasonable contingency plan could possibly absorb it. You are, in a word, fucked.

Applying this same logic to project timelines, we can treat completion as an event with an expected time of occurrence, and a certain random variance around that. The ETA is calculated quite simply, by breaking the task into subtasks, estimating how long each subtask will take (including which of them can happen concurrently and which ones have to be sequential), and then adding the times together. This process is especially clear, communicable, and defensible when laid out via Microsoft Project (or one of its many imitators) in the form of a Gantt chart.

On Schedule!

A "Gantt chart" makes it look like you actually know how long your project will take.

Unfortunately, this is just pretty bullshit, because it doesn't offer any insight into the possible variance around your ETA. The standard project management approach is to take the estimated time and double it, but this is (a) arbitrary, and (b) still very frequently not enough time. And here is where we can look to Taleb, because even if you know the standard deviation (and with enough experience, you can get pretty good at estimating it), the difference between a Gaussian and power-law completion date will still crush you. In the example below, both curves show a 50% chance of completion after 1 week of elapsed time.

Theoretical time to complete a '1-week' project

However, the power-law distribution shows a 25% chance of completion after just 3 days, which is clearly wrong if you've calculated your ETA correctly. The cumulative Gaussian curve shows virtually zero chance of this, which seems much more plausible. But the Gaussian curve also shows a 100% chance of completion by week 3, which also seems rather farfetched, whereas the power law shows a much more believable 88% chance. More importantly, the power law allows for the possibility that the project could drag on for four or five or even six weeks. Anyone who's ever worked on an engineering project knows that this really is possible, and occurs more frequently than we care to admit. So, in reality it seems the left side of our uncertainty curve is Gaussian, while the right side follows a power law.

Empirical time to complete a '1-week' project

Looking at this graph, it's fairly easy to pick out a confidence interval for completion of your project. If you're comfortable overrunning the deadline on a quarter of your projects, then doubling your estimate is fine. However, if you want a 90% on-time delivery rate, you should multiply the estimate by 3.3. See? Now you're a superstar project manager!

Even this picture is overly optimistic, though, because what happens if you break up the 1-week project into five 8-hour subprojects? A purely Gaussian or purely power-law curve would scale cleanly when subdivided this way, but because the two halves of our graph don't match, the stats are thrown into disarray, because each task has a 50% chance of being Gaussian and a 50% chance of tipping left into power-law territory. Thus, on average, we could expect one of our five subprojects to take 6.4 hours, one 7.2 hours, one 10.8 hours, one 18.4 hours, and one that takes a whopping 41.2 hours. Our one-week project now has a median completion time of 84 hours, or 2.1 standard work weeks!

But we could also subdivide the project into two subtasks, or ten, or a hundred, and each would distort the statistics in a slightly different way. Clearly, then, the actual median is the limit of this total as the number of subprojects approaches infinity (or the time for each subproject approaches zero). I'm way too lazy to work out the closed-form integral for something like this, but a quick numerical estimate tells me it's somewhere around 1.8 weeks. That's the median median.

Putting all this together, our 80% confidence interval for completion of a "1-week" project is actually 4.14 weeks. So if you report that you're a superstar who delivers on time, right? Oh, if only it were that easy! Because in fact, if you tell the business guys it's going to take four weeks for a task that seems like it should only take one, they'll fire your ass before you've even finished speaking.

Instead, you actually do just double your estimate, because that's standard business practice and you won't usually lose your job over doing the same wrong thing as everyone else. Then you can pad or fudge slightly, by saying "A little over two weeks, boss." And then you work your nerd ass off, packing 55 hours of work into each calendar week. That way, even when you're a little late on the delivery they can't really fault you for it, except to say "Jeez, Michael Bolton from Office Space, do a better job of predicting next time."

At which point you do not say, "You'd fire me if I did, asshole."

More anon.

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Aug 27, 2015   [permalink]

On Being Wrong

How inevitable an error?

Nobody is right all the time—not even you!—and depending on what you do for a living and whether you're a married male, you may actually be wrong more often than you're right. Of course if you wash dishes or mop floors to earn your keep, then as long as you show up for work and attempt to look busy, there's a limit to how wrong you can be. However, shame on you. Get a real job, pussy! Washing dishes is easy and even sort of fun, but there's someone out there with three kids and an IQ of 90 that needs that job way more than you do.

Now, actual technical jobs fall into two broad metaphorical categories, which I'll call "airline pilot" and "fighter pilot." As an airline pilot you have a known route to follow, and while minor variations may be necessary in the face of changing weather and traffic patterns, there's always a voice from the control tower telling you what to do. 99% of the time, the job does not require any real judgment or interpolation or creativity—just perfection. The other 1% of the time, you're in some sort of anomaly condition and have to fall back on trained-in responses. Engine malfunctioning? Shut it down and proceed to the Engine Out protocol. If you're fit to be an airline pilot, there's simply no excuse for being wrong on any of this stuff, and the consequences of an error can be very large indeed, involving death and destruction for crew, passengers and bystanders, grief and heartbreak for hundreds of families, and possible bankruptcy for the parent company. Only about 0.001% of the time do you really need to innovate—like when you fly through a flock of birds that smash the guts of all four engines at once—and most of those times you fail and die and no one ever really quite knows what happened. Very occasionally, airline pilots will land it in the Hudson River or eke out a 30% fatal crash in an Iowa cornfield, and retire as heroes—something they never aspired to be and probably still wish they weren't.

Airline pilot type jobs include journalism, teaching, production engineering, power grid management, the maintenance of legacy code, and most types of surgery, and if you're on one of these career paths it behooves you to train hard, show up sober, and fly by the seat of your shut-up-and-do-it-correctly.

If you're a fighter pilot the world looks rather different, because virtually everything you do is a one-off, and innovation is a flat-out requirement if you expect to survive. Missions are rarely repeated, and if you're a naval fighter pilot then not even takeoff and landing are routine, because the deck is always pitching and rolling and the boat is never twice at the same GPS coordinates. The job is inherently a lot riskier because even when people aren't literally trying to shoot you down, you're still dodging mountains and radar installations in real time, while hunting some tiny target against the vastness of Earth and sky. Taking risks is the whole point of the job!

On the other hand, most failures simply involve missing the designated target, and even catastrophic errors will pretty much just kill you and your gunner and a hundred-million-dollar aircraft. No medals, no lawsuits. Fighter pilots aren't expected to be perfect, and indeed other than a continued heartbeat and some kill icons painted on the side of the aircraft, there's no scale by which perfection could even be measured.

Fighter pilot type jobs include police work, commercial R&D, emergency medicine, oncology, writing software for novel applications, and anything involving the adaptation of new materials or new technology to existing industries such as architecture or vehicle design. There's a lot of trial and error, a lot of blind groping toward half-conceived goals, and yes, a lot of panicky escape maneuvers when you realize you've fucked up and have, like, forty seconds to get yourself out of trouble before the ground comes up and smacks you. There's a lot more glory in these jobs than in the airlines, but also more stress and heartache. Careers tend to be shorter, with messier endings and a much higher chance of coming away scared and humbled. Still, the same is true for professional athletes, and there doesn't seem to be any shortage of takers for those jobs. And as with sports, some of these jobs offer at least a chance of getting wealthy or famous or both, whereas with most airline jobs you'll be lucky to retire with your pension and IRA intact.

Of course, in the real world most jobs aren't pure airline or pure fighter, but somewhere in between. The intensity level may fluctuate over time and space, and you may spend a lot of time waiting around for something to happen before you even know which type of job you're in. Still, the distinction is a useful one, and if you know which one suits you better it's a major help in guiding important life decisions.

My first job out of college was a dream come true, designing the guidance and navigation software for a new generation of commercial rockets. We sent one to Mars, another to the moon, and several to geosynchronous orbit. It was pure fighter pilotry, and indeed, while the work was thrilling and rewarding it was also very demanding, and the team I was working with made a hundred-million-dollar error that eventually killed the project. Not me personally, you understand, but arguably I do share one fortieth of the blame. The history of spaceflight is littered with examples like this, so I'm in good company here, but it still sucked, and it's one of the things I'm least proud of in my life. It does not appear on my résumé. But when you're doing something new and big and exciting, that's the risk you run, and if nobody's willing to take the risk then nothing new will ever happen. C'est la vie.

In the wake of this failure, I found myself dumped into a very similar project, but for military rather than commercial customers. We were launching spy and communication and weather satellites, which is not so different except that they were mostly secret, so either we didn't know what we were launching, or we knew but couldn't tell anyone, which seemed a lot less glamorous.

More importantly, the software for this rocket had already been designed. It was mature, and needed very little maintenance, so each launch was a matter of feeding in the desired trajectory, running simulations to make sure nothing strange would happen, and then pressing the GO button. It was routine, airline pilot work, and over six years of increasingly unhappy effort I finally realized it simply wasn't the right place for me. So I left the relative security of Big Aerospace for a small startup company and never looked back.

Sometimes you need to dwell on both sides of the fence before you know where the greener grass really is. On the other hand, I've seen a lot of good people tear their hair out in fighter pilot environments, because their meticulous perfectionism clashed with the inherent uncertainty and short timelines of product development. A lot these folks would be perfectly happy as college professors or Fortune 500 IT managers, and I hope that's where they've ended up, because in the fast-paced world of technology development, if you know exactly what you're doing, you're underperforming.

More anon.

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Aug 27, 2015   [permalink]

Unemployment

Those aren't gaps in my resume, they're wormholes!

One problem with the technology sector is that it's subject to gigantic boom and bust cycles, frequent assault from disruptive newcomers, routine bankruptcy for once-mighty players, and of course steady leakage of jobs and knowhow to third world countries where your competition doesn't expect shoes, much less free health care. This is not exactly a stable foundation for your greatness to build on. As a result, you're quite likely to experience one or more periods of unemployment between the end of college and the start of your voluntary retirement.

This is a problem, not only because it interrupts your income, depletes your savings, gets you behind on your mortgage and trashes your credit rating, but also (more seriously) because every day that you spend unemployed decreases your perceived desirability as an employee. The effect is exponential for the first twelve months or so, and then levels out into a classic S-curve.

Lookin' good

The longer you're unemployed, the less hireable you are. Don't let this happen.

At the time of this writing, 46% of the unemployed people in the United States are "long-term unemployed", meaning they've been without work of any kind for six months or more. Tough sledding ahead, I'm afraid; many of these people will be forced to accept pay cuts and demotions, retire early, or go back to school and train for new industries. Tech is an industry that eats its young; for every ten graduates that enter, maybe two will make it to retirement in the same basic sector where they started.

This means (a) you've got to stay nimble, (b) you've got to keep abreast of emerging trends and make sure your skills are up to date (hint: nobody needs FORTRAN programmers anymore, and in a few years they won't need JAVA either), and (c) if at all possible you've got to jump ship before they lay you off, not after. But that's a problem, too, because frequent job hopping will look almost as bad on your résumé as unemployment, so you've got to strike a careful balance here—something that doesn't come naturally but is highly necessary.

One possible solution is to always have a backup job waiting in the wings. I.e., a friend at a different company who actually has both the ability and the desire to hire you if you come on the market. Standing offers like this are not common, but they're also not particularly rare—especially if you're the worldly, formidable-yet-friendly sort of person I'm trying to get you to be. It never hurts to ask your friends this question, although if you do and they say no, or of they say yes but later reneg on the deal, you have no right to get upset. Working with friends is problematic, and you could be dragging their careers down in an effort to save your own.

The other possibility, if your employers can tolerate it, is to have a little side business always cooking. If you're a freelance writer or musician or actor, you may be between gigs but you're never really "unemployed", and if you're adept at picking up piecework on short notice then you can fill in the gaps on your résumé pretty easily. Employers may not be delighted to see "Beer Wench, Sheboygan Renaissance Festival, June-August 2013", with a month of spare time on either side, but it beats the shit out of a five-month blank space, and "I'd go crazy if I weren't doing something" is always an acceptable excuse.

Other good side businesses are things like day trading, or setting up a virtual retail business on Ebay or Amazon. Some people can make a lot of money this way—you might not need that day job after all!—but even if you make fuck-all, the attempt is great cover for a period of unemployment. You say: "I left company X and started a bookstore, but the hours are terrible and I can't quite afford to hire anyone. So I'm looking for something more stable." See? You were never unemployed, and you never will be!

Double-standard time again: if you're a woman with kids, you can always say "I took two years off to raise my family", and nobody can say boo about it, legally or morally or otherwise. We all have mothers, and nobody really likes being raised by minimum wage day care workers, or leaving their children with same. Heck, even if you don't have kids, you can say you just wanted to be a housewife for a while, and this may not put you on the corporate fast track, but it will at least get you past HR.

Tough luck if you're a single woman or cohabitating girlfriend, though; there's no such word as "housegirlfriend", or if there is it sounds more than a little pornographic. You'll have to settle for one of the other strategies, or else just be unemployed. Of course, as a single woman you're the sort of person everyone wants to hire anyway—especially if you're the worldly, formidable-yet-friendly person I'm trying to get you to be. See? It always comes back to that.

More anon.

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Aug 27, 2015   [permalink]

Public Speaking

Even when you're not joking, you can still be a horse's ass!

In the working world, you'll frequently be called on to speak in public. I don't mean standing behind a podium and delivering a lecture (although that may happen as well), but simpler things like speaking up in meetings, answering customer questions, and explaining to the boss' boss what the hell went wrong with that project you were supposed to complete last month.

Geek Speak

All tech jobs will require you to communicate clearly with Luddites and Cave People. (Courtesy of Art Line)

So, here are some easy speaking lessons for you, in order of importance.

Lesson 1: Fess to your sins. Don't lie, evade, make excuses, or attempt to lessen the importance of whatever's happened. If the first words out of your mouth are "This was my responsibility, and I screwed it up," you immediately put your audience in a more sympathetic frame of mind, so when you do get around to explaining how things went off the rails, it sounds like a sober forensic analysis rather than a stream of lame excuses. I can't emphasize this enough; even if you've committed a firing offense, you're a lot less likely to get fired if you're honest about it. Conversely if you're caught in a lie, you'll not only lose your job but also any chance of a good reference. And you need a good reference!

Even where you haven't committed offenses or made overt mistakes, you should never be afraid to admit you don't know something. No matter how inexcusable bone-headed your ignorance may seem, it's better to get it out there and address it than to pretend it isn't there. Paradoxically, if you fess to ignorance people will respect you more and even see you as more knowledgeable. I know, right?

Lesson 2: Don't ramble. Your explanation is not a theoretical proof, where you first need to lay out all the evidence and then gently lead your audience toward a conclusion. This may be normal (or normal-ish) in academia, but in the business world speaking this way just makes you sound like a weasel. More importantly, if people could come to a conclusion themselves, based only on a trail of raw data laid out before them, they wouldn't need you. They're asking for your distilled opinion because you are the expert on this particular issue. Ergo, when someone asks for an explanation, you need to treat it like a press release: the first sentence contains the conclusion. Second sentence provides time, location, or other critical context. The next few sentences provide the detail to back up your answer. If there's time, and people are still listening, the last few sentences provide the background on how you came to this conclusion. That's all they need. If you want to have an airy discussion about the nuances of it all, say: "there's more to it than that, but we can talk about the details later, offline, if necessary." Business guys love that shit.

Lesson 3: Don't mumble. Speak in a clear voice, loud enough to be heard by everyone in the conversation. Adjust your volume for background noise. This is so basic it's hard to believe anyone actually needs this advice, and yet the business world is full of techies who talk like they have food in their mouths and are afraid it'll fall out.

Lesson 4: Don't eeeeenuhnceeate. You know that slow, nasal, precise and vaguely archaic way that some of us speak? Comic Book Guy isn't a caricature at all; you and I both know people who talk exactly like him. Don't.

Lesson 5: Before and after you speak, listen. Hell, take listening breaks in the middle. Sometimes people who ask your opinion also expect you to ask them theirs, and may be offended if you don't. Also, if you spew information like a firehose without stopping to check how much the person actually wants to hear, you're not really communicating at all. Talking to people is a lot like skiing: you've got to read the terrain and adjust your course, and sometimes even come to a hard stop and pull out a map when you discover an obstacle. A short speech delivered by an active listener is roughly one billion times more effective than a long speech delivered by a robot.

Lesson 6: Be confident. Some people—particularly academics but also cops, judges and the occasional government inspector—seem wired to interpret confidence as (a) aggression, (b) deception, or (c) a delusional belief that we can actually control outcomes in a world of inherent uncertainty. My advice: to hell with these people. The business world has a really low tolerance for ambiguity, and if you're not comfortable saying whether Plan A is going to work or not, you need to stay the hell out of business. To hedge your bets (a good and nerdly thing to do), it's perfectly acceptable to say something like, "Plan A has a better chance of working than anything else we've looked at. I estimate the chance of success at 70%."

If you're nervous when you say this, well, so be it. We all get nervous sometimes, and that's not what I mean by "confidence." The point is, you're taking a stand. If you're genuinely unsure, or really don't believe Plan A is going to work, then you can say, "Guys, I think we need more time to look at this. Give me two days to run some experiments/models/trials/equations/whatever, and see if we can boost our confidence, or possibly come up with something better. Failing that, I guess Plan A may be our only option." Do not say, "I don't like your plan, and I won't be held responsible for its outcome, but I also don't have a replacement." And no, studying the problem indefinitely is not a plan, for anything but failure.

To put it another way, if you're an A-level performer you should be comfortable speaking frankly with other A-level performers. If you are, it shows. If you're not comfortable doing this, it may mean you're a B-level or even a C-level performer. That's not the end of the world, because the world needs spear carriers as well as spear designers and metallurgists, but it is something you should know about yourself, so you can be realistic about your prospects.

Lesson 7: Keep your ego in check. Yes, people want your opinion or projection or whatever. They do not, however, want to be lectured, told what to do, or criticized for asking the question. Being the expert does not make you the boss, or entitle you to talk down to people. It's like how your doctor gets to tell you that smoking and fast food are unhealthy and will take years off your life, but does not get to order you to stop enjoying them. Not her job, not her place, capisce? Just provide the information the bizfolk need, and then step back.

Lesson 8: Don't be a hostile witness. If you find people asking the same question two or three different ways, trying to drag the information out of you, it means you're underexplaining, or undercommitting to your explanation. The second time you answer, try filling twice the amount of time. The third time, say four times as much. Under no circumstances are you entitled to withhold information from your employers.

Lesson 9: You don't get to decide when the conversation is over. Someone is paying your nerdy ass, and they will decide when they've heard enough. You don't get to keep talking past that point, or clam up prior to it. With partners, peers, friends and lovers—people who don't pay your bills but do have some claim on your time—there is slightly more leeway, but only slightly, so don't abuse it. Really.


These 8 rules may seem a little simplistic, but if you actually follow them you'll be better off than 90% of the nerds out there, and at least half of the non-nerds. You still won't be cool (sorry about that), but you'll be way less annoying than your default setting. If you break one or two of the rules occasionally, or even consistently, that's probably OK as long as you're providing good value overall. The mumbler may never make Vice President, and the rambler may never be asked to attend public seminars and mixers, and the egotistical jerk may not have any coworkers he can count as friends outside the office, but I'm guessing nobody's getting fired over it.

But if you routinely violate more than two of these rules, I can virtually guarantee trouble. You know that nervous, evasive egomaniac who never answers a straight question and yet never shuts up? He's toast in the next round of layoffs, no question. Again, this seems so basic I feel silly even saying it, but there are an appalling number of people out there who don't seem to grasp basic reality. Not just nerds, either, although nerds are perhaps more likely to get the short end of it.

More anon.

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Aug 27, 2015   [permalink]

Decorating Your Workspace

Sexist calendars say "fire me"

Whether you're a grad student, phone monkey, security guard or Grand Vizeer of Techno-Awesomeness, you're going to have some amount of workspace set aside just for you. And whether it's a truckload or a shopping bag, you're going to have a certain amount of personal stuff you don't want to haul to work and back with you every day. You know: calendars, coffee mugs, pictures of your family, a change of clothes in case you spill something, and of course that TARDIS-shaped mint dispenser you picked up at Comic-Con.

But listen up, Dilbert, because how you express yourself here is just as important as what you say and wear, and even more important than what you drive. The Eye of Sauron is ever upon you, and the enemies of nerdkind are vigilant for reasons to dismiss you as a hopeless cause. On the other hand, if you blend in too well, then even your fellow geeks may not recognize you for one of their own, and you could once again be missing out on the chance to connect with folks who could be close friends and powerful allies. So, you want to follow the same basic rule here as you do with your clothes: class it up a little more than you think you need to, but leave a small number signaling-theory cues lying around.

The TARDIS is actually a great example, because to the mythical "normal" person, it doesn't look like anything more than a doll-house version of an old phone booth. Quirky, yes, but tasteful. Unless they look really closely they won't recognize it as a mid-20th-century London police box, much less a time machine, and if they do happen to ask why you have it, you can just say "It's from a TV show, Dr. Who." And that will be that.

Swap in a life-sized cutout of Master Chief or an office chair modeled on the Iron Throne and things get a little harder to explain, right? And remember, too, unless you own the company it isn't really "your" space at all, any more than a seat on a park bench is yours, so any eyesores or political hot-potatoes you hang out there are affecting a lot more than just your own image. This is particularly true in spaces that customers and other visitors might see, which is most of them, so if the boss tells you to take something down, it's not so much a personal indictment as a concern for messaging at the organizational level.

So unless you want the organization to mount a massive immune response against you, please, dress your space accordingly.

More anon.

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Aug 27, 2015   [permalink]

Personal Grooming

You catch more flies by smelling bad

What you wear under your clothes is at least as important as the clothes themselves, so make it a point to bathe and shave daily, take care of your teeth (bad breath will kill your cred faster than leprosy and Tourette's combined), use deodorant, sit up straight, and generally keep yourself tidy. A lazy Sunday is all well and fine, but if you plan to slink from your Fortress of Solitude and face the real world, you never know who you're going to run into. Looking and smelling like a homeless person is not going to help you, ever.

I shouldn't have to say any of this; for most people it's so basic it doesn't get discussed at all, past about the fourth grade. But I see nerds all the time who fail this test, who stink and slouch and look like they slept in a hedge, are unpleasant to stand next to and embarrassing to be seen with, and nobody ever seems to tell them. They get that they're unpopular, but they don't know why. So, no offense, but even the painfully obvious is going to get discussed here, because some of you out there actually need to hear it. Bathe, Oscar!

On a related note, you also need to get your hair cut on a regular basis. Seriously, put a recurring event in your Outlook calendar so you don't forget. Your hairstyle is an important part of your overall look, and you want to maintain it at least as well as your anal-retentive neighbor maintains his lawn. If you let it go too long, then you'll not only look unkempt, but when you finally do get it cut the sudden change in length and style will be a lot more noticeable, drawing attention to the fact. The only exception I can think of is if you're putting in a ton of overtime at work, in which case "I don't have time for a haircut!" is an acceptable—even cred-enhancing—thing to say.

For men, short hair is easier to care for but needs more frequent maintenance. Long hair can make men look kind of freaky, but some women find it artistic and sexy, and if it fits with your overall personality then yeah, go for it. But wash and condition it every day, do not tie it back in a pony tail, topknot, bun, or any kind of shit like that, and don't lean over and drag it in other people's food. I've seen this happen, and it's way gross.

For women, I'll advise against short hair unless you're going to do something really interesting with it. Long hair is going to be more attractive with less effort, and I assume that has some rational appeal for you. As for barrettes, scrunchies, headbands, etc., these things are tricky to get right, so unless you have help I would steer clear. Just use a curling iron or something to give your head some character.

What about hair color? There are lots of options these days, not just for women, and yes, blondes really do have more fun, but brunettes are perceived as more intelligent and more mature, and redheads as more passionate. Really! Daring colors like pink and blue might be fine if you work at Piercing Pagoda or Orange County Choppers, but in most office and lab environments you should probably hold these to a highlight or two along the sides.

As for graying or thinning hair, you're never too young to start worrying about it. Most women cover up their gray without thinking twice, but men have a harder choice to make. When you get to that certain age, gray hair might lend an air of authority, particularly if you're in a senior tech position or angling to move there, but for junior dudes losing their hair or its melanin prematurely, I tend to think the gray (or the male pattern baldness) makes you look like you've been left behind. I started going gray in my mid-20s, and several of my friends started going bald, so I know what I'm talking about here; a hair-challenged engineer is either an overpriced has-been whose edge is slowly blunting, a coward who never grabbed for the brass ring, or else a clod who tried but couldn't reach it. I'm not saying any of these things are true, but if they look true you're screwed anyway, so why risk it? Rogaine and Just For Men are effective and cheap, and no one has to know. And hey, the business guys are doing it too, so even if they find out, they're not likely to care.

Or you could go the other way and bleach out your gray. Weirdly, it's only the salt-and-pepper look (or the thinning-but-combed-over look) that makes you seem old; for some reason, a full head of hair that's uniformly white or platinum gives a much younger, more vigorous impression. So does shaving the whole pate, which is just about the only hair option that's allowable for men but not women. Go figure.

Facial hair? Sure. Beards and moustaches can be trimmed into countless styles that not only express your personality, but also make it clear that yes, you do actually have a personality. You don't want to be too off-the-wall here (that Ming the Merciless or reverse-Hitler will get you beaten up), but the main thing is to look like you've made an effort. Even three-day stubble can be cleaned up around the edges to make a rugged-yet-classy impression.

Lookin' good

CORRECT: My friend Chris' facial hair says, "I am a man of action who actually owns some sort of beard trimming device."

Lookin' not so good

INCORRECT: My friend Paul's facial hair says, "Get that camera out of my face. In fact, don't look at me. At all. Ever."

If you're a woman, shave or wax your legs and armpits, please. The only thing less appealing than a hairy hippie chick who knows better is a hairy nerdy chick who doesn't. Smooth nerdy chicks are kinda hot, though. How smooth? Well, what you do with your bikini zone depends on who's going to see it and why, but the prevailing philosophy these days seems to be that less is more. Look up "landing strip" for guidance here, or take a peek at the girls in Playboy to see what I'm talking about. You should probably try to look (ahem!) like an adult, but the one absolute rule here is that nothing should peek past the edges of an actual bikini. Really. Seriously.

On a related subject, you may be surprised what a difference perfume and cologne can make in your life. You don't want to be that receptionist who sits all day in a Bhopal cloud of toxic sandalwood vapor, but a splash of after shave, a dab of cologne and a strategic spritz of body spray can add that hard-to-define finishing touch that people really respond to. We're still animals, you know.

Now, you didn't hear this from me, but you might even consider doctoring your scent with synthetic pheromones from the Athena Institute. This cocktail was invented by actual scientists from actual MIT, and if used correctly it's clinically, double-blindedly proven to get you 40% more sex than you'd otherwise receive. Of course, 1.4 times zero is still zero, so if you got no skills this stuff won't help, but presumably you do carry some level of charm and appeal and have some chance of scoring with the opposite sex (or the same sex, if that's your thing). If so, why not stack the deck at least slightly in your favor?

And the benefits may not just be sexual. If you believe the Athena scientists (who are fellow nerds, after all), pheromones are odorless to the conscious parts of our brains but strongly active in the limbic system, sending machine-level signals about how strong, aggressive, confident, dangerous, and successful we are. It's a cheap trick (well, a hundred-dollars-a-bottle trick), but it might just attract/annoy/unsettle the business guys and gals who (like it or not) control your destiny. OK, most of the time they're not getting close enough to smell your neck, but when you find yourself crammed into a taxi or an airplane seat or an insufficiently air-conditioned conference room, would you rather smell like Comic Book Guy or like some weirdly intriguing man of mystery?

If you do use pheromones, though, just don't tell anyone you're hacking the most intimate corners of their brains, or they may compensate by being extra-super-duper unimpressed.

More anon.

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Aug 27, 2015   [permalink]

Clothes

A fashion statement using actual fashion

I once watched a daytime talk show where a bunch of angry, pierced, leather-clad punk kids with green hair were complaining about how badly the world reacted to them.

"People treat you like the clothes you wear," one young woman complained.

Well yeah. Hate to break it to you, sweetcheeks, but aside from holding out the weather and covering the reproductive sockets, that's what clothes are for. Oprah (or Rikki Lake, or whoever was hosting) clucked sympathetically at these kids when she should have smacked them upside their chrome-studded skulls. Clothes make the man—even cave people knew that!

This is also reflected in how police treat suspects; no one doubts that if you dress like a thug you're more likely to be treated like one, whereas if you dress like a golfer or a movie star, you'll at least get arrested politely. And guess what? When it comes to fashion, we're all cops.

Now, if you're a woman, half a dozen episodes of TLC's What Not to Wear (2003-2013) can tell you everything you need to know about clothes and makeup. You may think you look just fine the way you are, and maybe that's true. Maybe you do. You may even think people should get over appearances and appreciate you for who you are inside, and you may be right about that as well, but let's at least not frighten them away in the mean time, hyah? A tiny amount of color around the eyes, of coverup on the blemishes, of thought and care in the wardrobe choices will make a huge difference. I've watched this transformation in dozens of nerd women, and never once met one who was sorry she'd done it.

If you're a man, the task is even easier, because you can just ask your booth-babe communications major of a girlfriend for advice. Hahahahaha, just kidding; we both know your girlfriend wore a Cthulhu pendant and shock-pink hip boots to your brother's wedding and is no more qualified to give fashion advice than, well, me. Seriously, though, you might try looking up an older TV show called Queer Eye For the Straight Guy (2003-2007) or, more painfully, picking up some issues of Maxim, GQ, or People for some guidance on different looks that may work for you. Or hire a personal shopper / image consultant? This will probably pay for itself within a year, if not sooner, in both improved job prospects and reduced expenditure on ugly clothes. Failing that, here are a few for-dummies guidelines:

First, it never hurts to dress a little nicer than the people around you. You can slob it up occasionally—especially if you're trying to make a particular statement (e.g., "I just completed a 5K, bitches!")—but you're not cool enough to get away with it as a habit. I'm not kidding about that, boyo. You're really not.

Second, on a typical day you should wear one (or at most, two) "down" elements and the rest "up". Blue jeans with a dress shirt and shoes. Dress slacks and shoes with a solid-color t-shirt. Or dress like a hobo, but throw a nice Armani jacket over the top. Or wear a swimsuit and flip-flops and that koa wood necklace you bought in Hawaii, with a tasteful Tag Heuer wristwatch.

Lookin' good

See? Not too bad. The surfer necklace and scruffy beard are "down" elements. The rest is a combination of Armani and bespoke.

Armani? Tag Heuer? Yes. And Coach, and Louis Vuitton, and even Calvin Klein. This is a refrain you'll be hearing a lot from me: while swanky or well-known brand names can't make you cool, they sure as hell won't flag you as uncool. In fact, luxury brands are usually also high-quality products that will last a long time, and if you find a style that fits your frame, they give a favorable impression that says you care about yourself, and at least allow for the possibility that you might be cool. Custom or "bespoke" items can do this as well, for clear scientific reasons.

"Signaling theory" is one of several newish fields that straddle the borders of psychology, sociology, economics, and evolutionary biology, and basically posits that the things we wear on our bodies are exactly analogous to the poisonous red of a tree frog or the iridescent "eyes" of a peacock's tail. I.e., their purpose is to signal our genetic fitness to potential mating partners, hunting partners, golf buddies, and predators. They also signal our tribal affiliation, so that awesome periodic table T-shirt of yours (you know, the one where the radioactive elements glow in the dark) is unconsciously meant to reassure your fellow nerds, from a distance, that you are not going to stuff them in a gym locker, and might even fancy a game of 3D chess.

Unfortunately, it also signals to the jocks, on some dim amygdalic plane, that they should stuff you in a locker and that you might ask them to play some stupid-ass game they don't see the point of. Who needs that? On the other hand, taking this concept too far can land you hard on the other rail. That hockey jersey you have in the closet? Fugeddaboudit. Even if you're a die-hard fan of the team, even if you actually play hockey yourself, you're still a nerd, and a sheep in wolf's clothing will not fool the real wolves. Just make `em hungry.

No, what you want to do is abandon the jock-nerd axis entirely and signal in the orthogonal direction of success. Now, success doesn't necessarily mean money, and money doesn't necessarily mean fancy clothes. I'm betting the last guy you saw in a tuxedo was a men's room attendant, and the last millionaire you saw was passing incognito in a t-shirt and khakis. But pay attention, because that shirt may have been 20% silk and cost a hundred and eighty bucks at Tommy Bahama. The watch and sunglasses and shoes will give him away, too, if you know what to look for, and guess what? He knows what to look for. Why signal "sloppy assperg" when you could broadcast "savvy something-or-other" instead? And hell, if you're also wearing a tasteful Cthulhu pendant he won't know what the fuck that is, or care, unless he does, in which case you probably just made a new friend.

Cool watch

A cool watch can make you look like Brad Pitt.

Eyewear? That's tricky, because nerds are supposed to have glasses—the thicker and heavier-rimmed the better. It's fun to defy the stereotypes, but let's face it: you've spent way too many hours with your nose in a book or staring at computer screens to get by on your original equipment. Contacts and laser surgery are always an option, but if you're anything like me, you don't want nobody touching your eyeballs nohow. So you probably do wear glasses, and they probably do look pretty dorky, but so what? They're not exclusively a nerd appliance, and they do at least give off a vibe of competence, so just let the optometrist's assistant help you pick the right frames, and call it good.

I like amber photochromic lenses myself—a little triumph of function over coolth—but just as an aside, my extremely nerdy father owns a pair of actual rose-colored glasses. He doesn't wear them very often, but I've encouraged him to, because they're actually rather striking, and make him look like a movie producer or eccentric billionaire. He's a retired software engineer who keeps his hand in with various projects, and I suppose he's past the age where he feels a need to look striking, or really to project any "look" at all, but I'm not past the age when I want my dad to look cool if my friends are around.

But I digress.

Interestingly, what we "wear" includes vehicles. Thanks to a million-plus years of human evolution, the body maps in our cerebral cortex are actually elastic enough to incorporate temporary elements such as hats, tools, robotic forklift suits and yes, cars. Neurologically speaking, our wheels really are an extension of our bodies, and as important to our projected image as the clothes we wear. More on this later.

Anyway, personally I do wear nerd t-shirts when I'm at a gathering of motorcycle enthusiasts. First of all, t-shirts are standard garb there, and dressing any fancier than that just makes you look like a narc. Plus which, I've already got on the boots and jacket and helmet and gloves, and I rode in on a friggin' motorcycle, so that signal is about as sent as it's going to get. Why waste valuable real estate on a redundant Harley Davidson shirt when a well-placed Jedi Republic logo can ping for fellow techies in the crowd? Conversely, if I'm at science fiction convention I will wear the Harley shirt, or maybe a Boston Marathon running jersey, because my very presence already tells everyone I'm of the tribe. Here, what I want to signal is that I'm a fit, well-rounded person with cool outside interests.

See, even among your fellow nerds, the clothes actually matter.

More thoughts anon.

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