Business and People

People new to business, young entrepreneurs or former employees striking out on their own, usually begin their journeys with a good deal of idealism and a determination to be “better” than the rest; to be better people than the other evil business people, to offer better products or services because they are more interested in “doing it right”, to feel like they are doing something useful and fulfilling with their lives, and a few even set out to “change the world”.

These people are rarely motivated primarily by a desire for lots of money. Unless you have lots of money to begin with, starting a business, maintaining it, and growing it, is a lot of hard work. If you are in it solely for the money, it will not take long before you become fed up.

However, at the end of the day, money is currently an integral part of any business. Even the most idealistic entrepreneurs must face the realities of living in a society that values the hording of credits over the intrinsic value of what they do or produce. This is where happy path of the entrepreneur begins to enter the thicker and deeper woods. This is where they will start to confront the monsters that lurk and stalk, waiting to pounce, or the dryads that sing a pleasant yet empty song that brings eventual ruin. And also they will meet the most frightening beast of all: themselves.

It happens to every business person eventually, just like everyone else. You reach a fork in the road. You look down each path as far as you can. You decide what is important to you. You weigh this against the end goals. Then you take your first step down that new path. Of course you can almost always turn back and take the other path, but it is never easy, and by that time the other path has likely changed or is completely overgrown.

Now, the thing about choosing paths in a forest is that eventually it becomes easy to loose track of where you once were. A few bad choices, a few too many compromises, and suddenly you might find yourself, at best disheartened with the journey, or at worst reverted to an animal state of “kill or be killed” variety, where war and destruction rains out onto the rest of the world.

Many of us learn from our early years about conflict, team playing, domination and submission, and the necessity of either victory or defeat. This is particularly true of all the high school sports people who enter business school. Even “win-win” scenarios are usually self-interested tactics in a guise of “enlightened” self-interest. The reality is, there is usually very little enlightened in self-interest, even when there is more than one of you being self-interested together.

I should have known I would have problems with the business world early on. My first job was working in the Boys and Toys department at Mervyn’s. I got fired. They found out that I was sending mothers looking for neck ties for their little boys to another store in the mall to check out their ties first before buying any with us. The other store had much better ties, and several of the mothers even came back to thank me. It was obvious to me that by being honest, it generated goodwill, and that goodwill translated into good sales for me, and for Mervyn’s. However, the store manager, who somehow got wind of my “betrayal”, saw things differently. He saw lost tie sales, and hence lost money. He did not consider the extra purchases many of these women made just because they found Mervyn’s to be a “good” store. I was hauled into the store manager’s office by a beefy security guard, honestly, named Mr. Bruno, and standing in front of the manager’s desk, he asked for my Mervyn’s employee credit card, which he proceeded to ceremoniously cut up into small pieces with scissors. I was reminded of Papal excommunications and smiled, which apparently infuriated him, and I was escorted from the premises. So much for honesty, eh? You would think I would learn my lesson.

But actually, my first job was before that, though I don’t really consider it a job. I worked for a couple who owned a small, strange little exotic fish store. We loved these fish. And we loved the people who came in, loving these fish. I say it wasn’t really a job, because it was downright fun and enjoyable. And I was proud of our little fishy world. And they handed me a $20 bill every night I was there in Junior High, after school.

Since having my own businesses, I have been confronted with many complex and important decisions. All business people will, at one point or another, need to weigh the intrinsic value of money gathering against the intrinsic value of their own conscience and the best interests of others. This simple measure is the source of and endless madhouse packed full of reasoning, rationalizations, traditions, egos, desires, justifications, and… the extraordinarily rare and immutable gemstone of true service to others.

Normally, money gets in the way of our better angels. When you can sell an expensive product to someone, even though another product exists that is better and cheaper, why not do it? When your the database of all your customer’s credit card information is compromised, why notify them if you don’t have to, and look bad? If you know someone will not fight you, why not get all you can from them for nothing? If you know you are in a position of power, why not make use of it to further your own self-interest, regardless of any rationalizations?

For the sports-minded, the answer is, well, it’s just business. It’s the law of the jungle (or the forest). In other words, don’t think… do. And do what will win. Hence, starving and suffering people, polluted planet, wrecked economies, etc., etc. Or, in the similar terms of war, collateral damage.

The thing is, individual business people cannot accomplish on their own. They need help. How do employees just let it happen, and even help it? Well, many are like-minded in the sports-like terms of business. Just do it. Others may have a deeper awareness, but choose to ignore their awareness, and just do their jobs. These people, by staying purposefully ignorant of bad things, usually by saying that they have no definitive proof, almost never seek that proof. Instead, they remain complicitous, trying to absolve their conscience by hiding behind a fake veil. Whereas the “just do it” people have no need to think of any rationalizations, the veil people will rationalize. Then there are there whistle-blowers (or pejoratively, tattle-tales), the radicals, or the secret-agent working-within people who try to, of not effect change, then to at least mitigate damages. Our state of affairs in this ethical wasteland is not solely the doing of the business people themselves.

But what can be done if we no longer can justify business as usual?

The first this is realizing that some things should not be money-making businesses at all. For example, it even made big news recently that two judges in Pennsylvania have plead guilty to taking bribes from the private business owners of juvenile prisons, in exchange for those judges sending as many kids to their prisons as possible. This they did, with great zeal, even when unwarranted. It could be said that we ought not to be able to profit from jailing people. It could also be said that we ought not to be able to profit from people being sick or injured. In essence, we should not be able to profit from the misfortunes, the oppression, the suffering, or the deception of others. As long as we can, those situations will always exist and could even be optimized.

But what of our business mentioned earlier, that sells their expensive and inferior product to a customer, knowing full well that their customer would be better off not buying their product at all? Is it unethical merely to keep silent, telling your customer nothing? Would I have been right selling a mom an expensive and ugly tie for her boy? The question boils down to, is keeping silent — is keeping someone purposefully ignorant of facts related to their decision-making an act of deception? Technically, you are not lying. You are simply withholding information, in secrecy. However, you do benefit, at least monetarily in the short-term, from the sale. As such, you have an objective if you withhold the information. And that objective is to benefit monetarily. You achieve that objective by willfully insuring that the environment of ignorance in which the customer exists is maintained. And not only that, you extol the virtues of your own product within that environment of ignorance. As such, you have consciously manipulated the customer into your intended objective, despite the truth that shows your objective is in your own best interest, and not the customer’s. Is it not the very definition of deception; manipulating another with things that are not entirely true? The first level of rationalization a business person would reach for such an action is, “we create a quality product, and the customer will be just as good off with ours, considering their needs and intelligence.” This kind of thinking does not make the business person bad. But it is certainly the beginning of a very slippery slope of greater rationalizations and self-deception.

The better choices for this business owner are pretty clear. First, make a better product if they can. Or, inform the customer completely about the alternate products or solutions, and let them decide. I know that I would feel a great deal of respect for any business that was willing to point me to another, just to be honest with me. I would bring them as much business as I could for doing such a think. Or, if the business cannot make a better product, they can still sell their own, yet keep the customers informed, and work out an arrangement with the better product producer for referral fees. In this way, the business owner can retain their integrity by fully informing their customers, yet still manage to benefit monetarily, though perhaps not as much, and at the same time generate a tremendous amount of goodwill between themselves and their customer, and their business partner. In all likelihood, their business partner would gain a good deal of trust as well, and refer their own customers back when appropriate.

Unfortunately, for businesses that benefit while destroying the planet or harming people in any number of ways, there are no such amicable solutions. They must change or pass away as only memory into some of the darker pages of our history.

It does not always seem important, the seemingly minor decisions we make on how to proceed. But each decision always makes similar decisions easier the next time. At that beginning of the path, at the fork in the road, which will we travel down? And how true to our path will we remain?

So much depends upon our individual character. Someone who is comfortable with white lies, easily moves to gray, and often on to black. These are usually the more gregarious people. The ethical basis of a business is as important as any business plan. From the outset, the standard of openness and honesty must be set high, maintained, and perhaps even considered sacred. Such things do not go unnoticed by customers.

Are you someone who enjoys being idolized or looked up to? If so, the decisions you make will likely not be in the best interests of others, nor even good business decisions. You will do what makes you look best, and power maneuvering will be more important than any endeavor. These are usually the more silent types, who allow other to always show the hands they are holding in the deck of cards, laid out for gain.

Are you more the warrior type who plows over everyone and everything to achieve your victory? Are you the seductress who winds their way stealthily into the heart of their objective? Are you the completely normal buddy guy who suddenly feels inexplicably used or threatened, and knifes in the back? Are you the innocent, pious one who is sometimes naughty, but always is perfectly right and justified in any action? These are perhaps the most ruthless of all, like a venus fly trap that strangles.

Nobody sees themselves solely as one. Yet somehow most business owners’ personalities move in these directions. It is the result of surviving in the kill or be killed wilds, the compromises made along the way, and the justifications they have convinced themselves of. Very few business people, particularly the successful ones, manage to keep their “good” personality in tact. It erodes over a long series of small chips into stone, that leaves a monstrous statue in the end. It is from playing the game, as it now exists. And that game needs to change.

Personally, I look for honesty in another, above all else. If they can keep their honesty in tact, I have little doubt that the good in them will persevere. I also look for people who can help keep me honest as well. It is very easy to loose your way in the forest. It is a very good thing traveling with someone who can help keep you on the path. And, the ego in check.

I suspect that for the less ego-full people, having a partner is a very good thing. You can watch out for each other, when one of you is not alert. You can combine your strengths into something more, and help smooth over any weaknesses. You can assure honesty with your customers, through the honesty you have with each other. And perhaps even the trust that must follow.

When you are starting out in business it is so easy to be exploited. And as those scars callous over, become ruthless yourself. I think this is normally the way of things, even for the best-intentioned. How nice it would be to know we can trust. How nice it would to know that someone is watching out for you.

Perhaps what we need in business is not actually a radical change. Perhaps it is as simple as remembering that it feels good to care. And not just about money.

Get Your Debian On

DebianAfter we’ve lived a while, we can look back and possibly notice various milestones that represent time markers along our progress. For me, one of the most significant markers are the release dates of Debian GNU/Linux. They don’t come often, and that, like most things, is both good and bad.

I’ve written a modest amount about GNU, FreeĀ  and Open Source software, and Linux in the past. In essence, there is an long, ongoing and growing movement to create software and freely give it to the world. Debian is large collective of individuals around the world who gather up Free Software from all its many homes and bundle it together for everyone, so that they might more easily install it on their computers and keep it up-to-date.

Back in 1983 Richard Stallman, being fed up with software vendors restricting what he could do with MIT’s computers, created the GNU Project whose purpose was to create software that could be freely seen and modified, so that computer hardware and software might reach a greater potential.

Four years later in 1987, Larry Wall released the first version of the Perl programming language, and another four years after that in 1991, Linus Torvalds released the first version of the Linux kernel.

Now, having a Linux kernel by itself won’t do much for your computer. To make use of your computer, you need a whole lot of other things that allow it to interact with both itself and you, more sensibly. The GNU project fills this role, and what we call the Linux operating system is really a combination of the Linux kernel and the GNU systems operating together. This is why many people insist that Linux should more truly be called GNU/Linux.

All the component software pieces are not always easy to gather and get working well together, particularly in the early days. You can easily get all the program code, but you must compile this code, and make sure that other code exists on your system too, and compiles with the right versions, if you want things to operate. It can be a nightmare. This is where the various GNU/Linux distributions step in. Debian was one of the first, released in 1993.

Back then, getting GNU/Linux to run well on your computer hardware was no task for the meek, even with the help of distributions. But Debian quickly distinguished itself as the distribution of choice for anyone wanting well thought-out and engineered implementations. Debian also distinguished itself by holding true to the GNU project’s vision of Free software, going to great lengths to establish policies related to the inclusion of software in its distribution and the licensing requirements that software must meet to warrant inclusion. They continue operating with the same commitment today.

While other GNU/Linux distributions may release new versions of the various software packages far more often than Debian, it has been my experience that none can meet Debian’s solidity, stability and security. Debian releases new versions when the system is right and good, and not before. Debian developers are, as a rule, proud to be Debian developers and their reputation is very important to maintain. This is a quality shared by most free software creators and advocates.

In the various capacities many of you know me, one of them is creating computer systems for organizations. Debian is always what I choose when a client needs a server, and it is also what I choose when they need workstations that are meant for work that does not always require the latest bells and whistles. I choose Debian because it represents the highest quality in every respect. And I choose Debian precisely because they do not have many major releases each year, which means their systems will remain stable and without any costs.

I urge everyone to look at Free Software when considering new computer systems for work or for home. I urge everyone to consider moving to Free Software when they have a need to upgrade. The benefits are enormous, while the problems are usually minimal. And you can’t beat the price.

It surprises me now how many people are not only open to using Free Software, but also actually using it. I recently had the fortune of meeting the owner of a local computer shop that was devoted almost entirely to Windows, except for a few netbook sales with shipped with Linux pre-installed. Now, this shop runs all their internal computers except for two on Linux and has plans to do some great and wonderful things with Linux for their clients. It was not me that manipulated him somehow into adopting it — I am about as far from a salesman as you can get. Instead, it was his own intelligence, openness and imagination. And, as much as that, his courage and confidence to move beyond status quo.

As you know, there are many parallels between computers, networks, software, and hardware — what they represent abstractly — and our current society. In many ways they reflect each other, both culturally and academically. Right now, issues of fundamental freedom lie at the core of both. What choices do we actually have? What choices do we have the courage and fortitude to make a reality? What is the right thing to do, even if it runs against the status quo?

The are so many people around the world who have devoted so much of their lives and efforts to make these choices possible for you now. Choices in all things. Choices that will bring more of the same, or something utterly new. Are easy choices the best? Are they bad? Very little is actually neutral.

I suppose this is as close as I get to a sales pitch. The freedom is yours. And mine. At least for now.

And now, it’s back to my little mad scientist’s lab to test various upgrade scenarios for my client’s machines, since Debian’s newest face has walked out onto the scene once again. I love this time; purging out the old ways into something new. A little risk and excitement, and probably a failure or two. But, the sweetness follows.

PS. If any of you want to try out Linux, try Ubuntu instead of Debian. It’s made from Debian — Debian’s branch in testing. They will hold your hand and you won’t have to know anything, and that makes most people happy. You can even try out without installing it, by downloading their bootable CD, and booting your computer to it. It’s much slower, but it will give you an idea or two, perhaps. Heck, maybe you’ll even decide to install it and use it! Feel free to ask me anything, too.

Conventional Sunlight

I thought naming each plant
in the garden would be enough
their species grouped clumps
arranged proper treatments
through some accepted recipe.

But I noticed roots, grasp
down in common earth
to different grains, sand,
rock and wood, dead husks,
the rich excrement of worms,
and the wet life that flows

It was by accident, I vanished
where I could see myself
counting particles of dirt
that aligned forming rows
where roots grew deep lifting
determined to reach the core
that forever pulls down.

How startling it is, to be seen
realizing this is happening
by the dog who licks his balls
or cats mystically turned inward.

I thought of you in my surprise
being fascinating while absent
ideal rows of sand, imagination
forming a perfect sunflower
whose round petaled face, seeded
can only stare up to fixed points

Until I was destroyed by looking
through myself to mottled earth
where no true things are fixed
except by a will that drained
intangibly over five years

Just like Law I saw our fixed point
as habits grind on mechanics
my passion, spread wide as night
cut to a heart dyed red from paper
as if purchased from a story.

And as you came, with clocks and lines
just like a beetle rolls down mounds
I realized sunflowers only see the sun.
for me to marvel at your fine hair
that you might say words already known
is impossible, for I am not up there
in that enlargement of yourself

I am down in the garden wandering
discovering wonders that destroy me
so my debris scattered across the garden
might absorb me in toward home.

And as you came, I saw the gilding
catch light that frames a flat print
in books scribed and handed down
from fathers to sons and daughters
that I squeeze inside by wrote

And the garden grows by
almost an inch.

Can We do Good?

I’ve often written about religion, both supporting many of its inherent qualities, and criticizing its more superficial adoption and the wider ramifications of such carelessness. A quote comes to mind, the essence of which is, you will always have people doing good acts and evil acts, but it takes religion to make a good person do evil acts. It’s not just religion, though. It is any belief that has not been fully examined.

You might say that Wall Street people, the banking people and our Washington leaders have a religion. Perhaps it’s a little like that golden calf the Jewish people made by collecting up all the people’s gold, melting into an image of idolatry, and worshiped in place of God. But what happens if we do not give up our gold?

Government is not evil, necessarily. It has a potential to unite us in common causes, just like religion. Just like the pursuit of idols. The important thing to remember is that all are human creations, whose purpose was, at least at one time, to help us unite our collective selves together.

Ideologies and beliefs are powerful. They are often even stronger than tradition and habit. It is the easy path, thinking in habitual ways. These ways are safe, they require little effort, and you can find many people to back you up. However, these ways are never the way of the hero. The habitual is not the way of the martyr. Change requires a sacrifice of one thing for another.

It is this line of thinking from which the often touted term “jihad” emerges. But what is holy to us? A tattered and dilapidated notion of true freedom? Some intangible fluff represented by “the pursuit of happiness”? Some radically unbalanced notion of Justice? It takes belief to make a good person do evil.

Right now, the United States has more people in prison than anyone else in the world. We are utterly without peer for taking away people’s freedom. We also invade more countries and fight more wars than any other country on Earth. We bribe and coerce more governments than anyone else, to insure that America’s “best interests” are realized. What are these interests? Well, in South America it was making certain our oil companies and other corporate interests were firmly rooted, and that nobody there had free health care or easy access to education. This, in exchange for a promise of prosperity under dictatorships and coups we staged. This is why Iran dislikes and distrusts us, too. And England. We are not a good country.

Yes paradoxically, we are good. Almost all of us, individually, are good people. So how is it that our leaders, both locally and nationally, somehow turn us into this giant black-hearted oppression machine? We don’t want people be killed so that Exxon can get more oil. We don’t want millions of people to slowly starve to death because they won’t agree to grow just a few select crops and import the rest from us, and other key partners. We don’t think people should be left to die when they don’t have money. We don’t want people to be tortured.

It is obvious that our government does not represent our wishes. Instead, our government represents ideologies that are devoid of a human conscience. However, our government is large. Many social programs within our government do represent our wishes. Unfortunately, the prevailing ideologies believe that we have limitless money to spend on the industries devoted to killling people, yet no money to spend upon ourselves, for the benefit of even our most basic humanity.

I can scarcely imagine what society we might create if we devoted our resources toward our own betterment instead of siphoning out all our resources to feed the machinery that only can kill. I don’t even mind the idea of a very large government, as long as it served the true best interests of the United States, which is the interests of all its people.

Unfortunately, it is ingrained into us from early on that our best course, as an individual, is to seek all that we want and desire for ourselves. There is little thought given to seeking what would be best for all people, not just ourselves. This mentality lingers even still. What business owner does not create and dangle carrots of hope before his employees, yet always holds absolute control within themselves? What intents and arrangements are formed between business people that do not, inevitably, lead to the fulfillment and triumph of one self-interested strategy over another? Is it any wonder that we normal people, when placed in a position of power, become corrupt by the inherent idolatry that has permeated the very formation of our character, and as such, is often invisible, even to ourselves?

When you are a religious person who tries seeing the world from outside the limiting scope of your belief, you encounter one of the greatest challenges that anyone might face. That challenge is, truly looking at yourself. This is the challenge we face. Any change that comes without meeting this challenge will be only the most superficial and meaningless change.

And in the spirit of government being capable of good, I have to mention Heidi. She lives deep in the bowels of the Center for Disease Control in California with all her biology ickyness — I mean goodness. We have a very long history. Heidi is an extraordinarily intelligent person, and I don’t say that lightly. She’s probably smarter than me, though I’ll never admit it. Strangely, I can never remember us ever really arguing about anything, though we have some fairly pronounced differences. She is exceptionally gracious. I could say that I am, at least, more honest than her, but I’d be dishonest saying it. I love Heidi — she is one of a kind.

The CDC has started requiring a couple days off each month, I am imagining, as a result of budget constraints. With this small bit of free time, Heidi has started offering health consultancy. I have no idea why, considering she is also a professor at UC SF and UC Berkeley. Her research specialties are sexually transmitted diseases and women’s health issues, including the insidious HPV, and also the collection of medical data for analysis. I mention this because some of you are policy makers who can most certainly benefit by listening to someone of Heidi’s character and expertise, and you, Johnny my boy, Mr. Big Wig at Planned Parenthood, if you guys need some serious research expertise.

Anyway, you can contact Heidi and learn more about the all-around sexy creature herself on her website. But don’t get the wrong idea from my silly words, this woman is hard-core. Mind like a vice grip. Now you’ve been warned, too.

We need to spend all that we possibly can on education for people. We need to focus our thoughts and energies into bettering our lives, and realizing that a better life does not, in any way, mean the accumulation of money credits. A better life is simply, just about each other.

Lines

How do we justify the intellect as reason when reason lives just on the front tip? While the emotional mind below occupies our greatest mass. Or the mind itself, assuring what we are, through the domineering symbols of prescience.

What is not yet, becomes for us what must be, while what is, weighs down like a cinched bag of invisible objects we must forge through.

The front tip asks, devoid of wonder, how these inefficiencies might be reshaped to grease the line we must pull ourselves along, in that quest to reach the prescient state, where the bigger animal mind, invisible, might allow rest.

And forgets, because it never knew, it reasoned like a wire grid with perfectly square gaps that no true objects fit.

It cut them in attempts to squeeze past and reach perfect two dimensionality where all drawn lines meet in the symmetry that cannot discern beginning from end. The front tip small, using tools that do not rise, scratches forward, back and to either side. While below cuts drip down leaving the plane of sight. While warm whispers rise up, past, spreading into aether.

And in this, the front-tipped grid busy in designs, sleeps. And in doing so constructs a soothing curve, formed of inifinite lines.