“I read your blog …”

Why do those words make me feel creepy? My emotional attachment to blogging is hard to explain. Caoecethes Scribendi — the itch to write — is my primary motivation. Thirty years of professional writing, one bad unpublished novel, a nonfiction book still in print, magazines, newspapers — I figure I need to expend 500 words a day or go insane. Still, when someone remarks — “I read your blog” — for the first time in a long writing career I feel weird about it. There is definitely some exhibitionism involved in throwing words onto the Net, but I never approach blogging the way I approach other writing — with an ideal reader in mind or a high degree of perfectionism. Some people dig the maritime history stuff in the Chatfield Project, others like it when I turn goofy and take pictures of holes in my socks, others leap onto the pedantic discussions of metrics and community theory.

I dunno, it’s all a dog’s breakfast and that’s why I like it. No theme. No mission. Just me and the “Write Post” window on wordpress bloviating on whatever, whenever. It’s the fact that strangers are reading it that gets creepy. The fact that there’s no way to delete a bad statement, etc. Looking through the server logs is especially weird. Who at Raytheon is reading this? At Pfizer? I know my circle of buddies — the one’s who comment — but still, parsing through the logs reveals all sorts of mysteries.

Learning Mandarin is hard …

For the past three months I’ve been spending a half-hour a day as an autodidact trying to learn Mandarin. It has always been a point of shame for me not to know another language (with the exception of the very deceased Latin), so I have poured myself in a seemingly doomed attempt to learn the language of my colleagues.

My step-sister has lived in Beijing for over twenty years and speaks Chinese as well as the Queen speaks English. Hearing the tones come pouring out of her very western visage is so incongrous that it makes me want to laugh. I taught myself some German while working Zurich, but the Swiss speak a weird dialect called Swyzerdeutsch and that project ended at the level of what I call “Railroad Station” where I could order things, say “excuse me” and ask people if they spoke English.

Two weeks ago a Chinese colleague gave a presentation in English. He kept apologizing for his poor command of the language. Later, as we were standing next to each other at the men’s room sink, he apologized for his lack of fluency. I looked him in the eyes and said, sincerely, “Your English is a hell of a lot better than my Chinese.” I need to finish this life with at least one language under my belt, and Chinese is the current goal.

I am using the Pimsleur series of CDs for Mandarin and making some progress. Retaining the lessons isn’t hard, I am sure my pronounciation sucks, but the killer for me is listening and deciphering what is spoke to me. I think I need to focus on the phrase, “Slow down.”

I read recently, with great amusement in the New Yorker, the story of a hedge fund manager who memorized this single phrase so he could fool his colleagues into thinking he was fluent in Chinese. When he addressed a Chinese speaker he would say, “This is the only thing I know how to say in Chinese. Please nod your head and laugh and pretend I know the language.”

Less than two weeks until my first Asia trip. Tamiflu and sleeping pills are packed, visa ordered, and language lessons proceed.

Dashboard design

Two years ago I worked with a Gartner VP and Research Fellow, Ken McGee, on a book he wrote for Harvard Business School Press: Head’s Up, which I have blogged about in the past, but which I feel is essential reading for any analyst or manager concerned with the concept of dashboards for the presentation and reporting of quantifiable performance measures.

I won’t delve into the theory of dashboard design, but McGee offers some salient points for anyone attempting to reduce the information flood generated by an organization into the essential key points that a senior executive needs, as soon as possible, to anticipate surprises or inflection points and react. The purpose of a dashboard, as McGee emphasizes, is not to predict the future, but to predict the present, giving insights to actions occurring in as close to real time as possible. The sooner management is aware of an opportunity or threat, the sooner they can react, and the wider the window of reaction time, the better the chance of seizing the opportunity or thwarting the problem.
One blog, Dashboard Spy, is a wonderful collection of screenshots of working dashboards and offers some great design tips. I strongly recommend it. It too emphasizes McGee’s point that less is more, and that there is not canonical approach to dashboard design that can be templated from one organization to another. The issue is not having enough information, it’s finding the few essential indicators and presenting them in a format compelling enough to drive action. Let me repeat the last point: drive action. Analysis for the sake of analysis without a channel for action or correction is academic information only. The creator and collector of the dashboard and the receipient must constantly be tuning the dashboard to insure it remains a valid tool. Let it rot, unopened in an inbox, and the dashboard is useless.