Monday, May 25, 2009

The Front Page Test

My employer makes us take a series of on-line training classes every year. The classes cover topics like the company's diversity policy, and protecting intellectual property. One of the classes is about business communication. It includes tips on what constitutes "proper" business communication, and what is not proper, but of course it's impossible to cover every possible need to communicate, so one of the broad guidelines that the course includes is the Front Page Test. The Front Page Test is, very simply, this: Would you feel comfortable if what you're writing appeared on the front page of the newspaper? Because, you know, it's only a subpoena away from doing just that.

The Front Page Test always made a lot of sense to me. Let's say I'm writing an email message to a colleague, and I type, It doesn't matter if this feature in our product works or not, since we're only adding it because the customer's CEO is a retarded bonehead. Hmmm. On the front page of the newspaper? Okay, delete that.

Then a couple weeks ago I was listening to an interview on All Things Considered with one of the psychologists (or psychiatrists -- I didn't get which, but definitely an MD) who developed the torture techniques used by the US on terrorist suspects. As you know, doctors are supposed to heal people, not pioneer ways to do them harm. I think they may even take some sort of oath to that effect. When the interviewer asked this particular doctor about that , the doctor who helped refine torture techniques said something to the effect of, "My patient is the United States, the people of the United States. That's who I'm helping. I don't care about the physical or mental well-being of the person being interrogated. He means nothing to me. I don't care about him at all."

Of course there's the obvious arrogance of this statement, beginning with the assumption that anyone who is tortured using the techniques this doctor developed has been implicitly anointed as deserving of torture, without any consideration of his well-being, even though there is no impartial review of evidence, much less a fair trial*. But beyond the arrogance, there's also the question that, having, as a doctor, departed from the code of ethics that defines what is and is not right for doctors -- heal, not harm -- then how does such a rogue doctor decide what is unethical and what is not? If you are promoting harm, how do you know how much harm is too much?

The interviewer asked the doctor this question, something like this: Given that you are studying, as a doctor, the best ways to cause people the greatest harm, then how do you know when to draw the line? How do you decide what is right and what is wrong?

The doctor answered that he and his colleagues used the "Front Page Test": We asked ourselves, would we be comfortable seeing what did on the front page of a major newspaper?

Ah! I thought. The Front Page Test! I remember that from my company training. It seemed reasonable.

Well, continued the reporter, now your work is on the front page of every newspaper, so how do you feel?

And the doctor replied that...

...he felt completely comfortable. Fully vindicated. Not ashamed in the least.

In that instant I realized that the Front Page Test is worthless. Completely worthless. Because it relies entirely on the judgment of the applier, and there will always be some, like this doctor, who will rationalize however they must to make themselves feel vindicated. The test is actually worse than worthless, because while perhaps most people can apply the Test correctly, to the rationalizers who can't, it reverses and a becomes a shield for unethical or even evil activity. It's an easy defense of immorality.

Of course, torture isn't a part my my day-to-day life, so I thought about how this lesson might apply to my own company. I thought about the email example above: It doesn't matter if this feature in our product works or not, since we're only adding it because the customer's CEO is a retarded bonehead. I asked myself, "Self," I said, "is there anyone at our company that you know who would not only approve that message using the Front Page Test, but, if it actually did appear on the front page of the newspaper, would be happy to see it there?"

It didn't take me two seconds to think of the first employee: A first-line engineer who would not only send something like that, but if it appeared on the front page, would boast about it -- I can see him saying, "It's true, and someone needs to tell that customer's CEO the way it is, and I'm the only one who had the guts to do it!" He'd be proud.

Just like the torturing doctor is proud.

The Front Page Test, is only as good as any single human's nature. Unfortunately, as the torturing doctor has shown us, that's not enough.

* Perhaps the doctor is convinced that his torture techniques give their wielders a superhuman window into the human soul that allows them to separate the evil from the innocent.

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Monday, May 18, 2009


On Saturday Judi and I went to the Cocoa Beach Art and Craft show, and we took her new little beagle, Stormi, with us. She was a showstopper. I lost count of how many children came up and asked if they could pet the puppy. One woman was so taken that she told her son to "Forget about the dachshund and the jack russell, we're getting one of these," and then said to her husband, pointedly, "If you ever loved me, you'll get me one of these."

While Judi was browsing in one booth, the proprietor at the next booth called Stormi over. "Can I pick her up?" she asked. I noticed she was wearing white slacks.

"Her feet are dirty," I said. "It'll get all over your clothes."

"I don't care," she said, scooping Stormi into her lap. "I just have to hold her."

Stormi took all the celebrity in stride.

We had lunch at Murdock's, which is a nice place in Cocoa Village that has outdoor seating for people with dogs (that's Judi, and Stormi is in her stroller):

Murdocks outdoor seating

By the way, we had to explain to everyone about blue-ticked beagles.

Here are some more pictures of the little showstopper:




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Saturday, May 02, 2009

Kiss the Pig: Outcome

About a month-and-a-half ago, in this post, I announced that I was taking part in a contest to see who among fifteen contestants -- fourteen managers and me -- could raise the most money for the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life and, in doing so, earn the right to kiss a pig. Specifically, a pig named Wanda Jean.

In that post I lamented that all of my competitors, being managers, had subordinates who would rally around to donate to see their boss kiss a pig, while I had no employees to hate me so much. I lamented... but, dear reader, in my heart of hearts, I didn't think it would be such a big deal. I mean, some employees would empty their pockets of spare change to see their managers kiss a pig, but surely I coud match that!

I had no idea what I was getting into.

The employees of these managers didn't simply empty their pockets. They ran bake sales, book sales, popcorn sales. They held silent auctions and rubber-ducky drawings. One awesome employee raised hundred of dollars selling her hand-made bracelets (you go, Bobbie! And kudos to Manager Dave --everyone knows how great you were). And more. They went all out.

I despaired. How could I, a lowly worker with no employees to despise me, compete against this kind of passion and organization?

I thought and thought, but ideas come to me slowly, dear readers. And, honestly, I didn't want to follow the model of the managers who were competing against me, who, almost to a man-and-woman, didn't lift a finger to raise money for themselves. Most just went about their daily manager-business and let their employees do all the heavy lifting. (Most, but not all -- Nabeel, you rock!) I wanted to feel as though I deserved the money I raised.

I confess I did allow Ronnie to raise money for me by selling Easter baskets. But I did get a lot of donations just because I was me (thank you Mike and Paul!). And some of my coworkers dumped their daily change into by Kiss-a-Piggy-bank (thank you Tammy!).

And then I began to have ideas of my own. Or rather, we did. First, the Princess offered to help by selling dog treats to remind everyone that pets need a cure, too:

Everyone needs a cure poster

To be honest, I was a little nervous that people who had lost family members to cancer would be offended that I was putting canine cancer on a par, but in the end many people thanked me for calling attention to cancer in animals, and telling me how they had lost a beloved pet.

Then Judi kicked in to my cause by contributing her timeshare week in Daytona for a raffle. Unfortunately we rolled this out with only a couple of weeks to go in the contest, but it did very well just the same.

The cutoff for the contest was Tuesday, April 21st. The announcement of the winner was to be on the 22nd, Earth Day. But... there was one final twist:

On Wednesday the 22nd, all fifteen contestants -- the fourteen managers and me -- would sit together with Wanda Jean, while all the employees in the plant would gather around, and the totals of dollars raised would be announced. And then...

...there would be one last appeal for donations, and at that time any last-minute contributions to anyone's campaign would be added to their totals from Tuesday. Then the final winner would be announced.

I arrived that Wednesday morning anxious to see where I stood in the tally. I was in fifth place. Honestly, I was happy. It had been a huge struggle against the managers and their massed employees, and to be ahead of ten of the fourteen managers was something, I thought, to be proud of. In the very beginning I had wanted to win, but facing the odds that I faced after that, fifth felt pretty good. Fifth place meant I had raised almost $700 -- more than half of that from the raffle of Judi's timeshare week.

By the way, first place that Wednesday morning belonged to a manager named Bernard, who had made it known far and wide that he loathed the idea of kissing a pig. This, of course, had made him a donation magnet. He had more than $1,200.

So then the appointed time arrived, and hundreds of us gathered by the pond in the middle of our complex:

Watching crowd

Wanda Jean was there:

Wanda Jean

The fifteen of us sat facing the crowd. Bernard was so desperate that he was holding his checkbook in hand, ready to write a big one if he needed to. Our totals to that point were called out. I was, as we know, in fifth place, and Bernard in first, $500 ahead of me. The appeal was made about last-minute contributions. Envelopes were passed around. Three volunteers sat at a table opening the envelopes and retotaling the standings. The results were passed up to the announcer.

The results were announced from lowest to highest, in true Miss America tradition. The managers who couldn't even raise $300 were disposed of quickly -- I mean, what's wrong with you wimps? We worked our way up to eighth place... seventh... sixth.... As we got to fifth, I expected to hear my name, but...

...I didn't. Another contestant was in fifth now.

So someone had made a contribution for me. It needn't have to be big, because $20 would have put me ahead of of number four, which is where I expected to be, but...

...number four was someone else.

Wow! I had had one or more big last-minute contributions. There were only three of us left now: Me, Bernard, and Andy. I was expecting to hear my name next -- it would have taken a $500 contribution for me to surpass Bernard -- but insanely I still held hope in my heart. And then they announced the third-place winner:


This was the manager who was terrified to kiss the pig (as you will remember), and hearing the announcement that he had lost the contest sent him into a paryoxsm. He jumped out of his seat and clapped and danced around and around.

All this action (captured on video), gave me a chance to reflect: There were only two of us now. Me, and Andy. Neither of us had been in the lead before. Obviously, we had both had major last-minute contributions. Which one of us would it be? This was so not how I had been expecting things to turn out just a half-hour before. I wasn't even sure I was still breathing.

After Bernard calmed down, they announced:

"The second place funds raised, with $1,700, is...

...Greg Smith!"

Oh... and Wow!

Oh... I didn't win. Instantly, all the attention focused on Andy, and I was like first runner-up at Miss America: Ignored.

But Wow! I came in second! By less than $100! Someone donated, at the last moment, $1,000 to my cause -- I went from almost-$700 to almost-$1,700 just like that. From fifth to second, and really close to first.


Although I didn't win, I'm really pleased to have done so well. It was way better than I expected as the fund-raising was going on. Who was the benefactor who wrote that last $1,000 check? I don't know. Ronnie insists that whoever she is, she wants to remain anonymous.

Thank you to everyone who helped me out along the way: Anonymous Benefactor, my home-girls Judi and Princess Sunni, Ronnie, Tammy, Mike, Paul, and everyone else. It was a great ride, for a great cause:

Potential pig kisser

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